Meth deaths skyrocket as new drug cartel fueled threat hits Chicago area streets

An ABC7 I-Team Investigation

ByChuck Goudie and Ross Weidner via WLS logo
Friday, February 1, 2019
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The I-Team investigates why meth addiction and meth-related deaths are surging and the underground danger found in places you'd never suspect.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- When law enforcement started battling methamphetamine abuse more than a decade ago, Illinois was home to rural cooks combining chemicals at home to manufacture a fix. Now, the I-Team has uncovered a New Meth Crisis. Despite programs designed to choke methamphetamine supply lines, it's surging again and destroying lives.

"For me it's the experience that no one talks about," said Hannah Ii-Epstein.

She fled her native Hawaii and the meth addiction that had taken over her life, hoping to leave it all behind by coming to Chicago.

"I do have a very troubling relationship with meth itself, and so having been an ex-addict or a recovering addict now I'm able to take an outside look at what it was to be in that world," Ii-Epstein said.

Ii-Epstein kicked her meth habit and wrote a play about her experiences to try to shed light on an underground world.

Methamphetamine's dark history in Illinois is complicated. In the mid-2000s, lawmakers stiffened penalties for meth production and the Illinois State Police Meth Response Team started taking down hundreds of labs around the state.

"I don't think there is anywhere in the state of Illinois that is immune to having meth labs," said Special Agent Troy Davis.

Over time, Davis said that Illinois State Police's Meth Response Team saw a shift from large rural labs to small operations. The new smaller-style cooking method is called one-pot or shake-and-bake. It's designed to make a small amount for addicts trying to elude authorities but creates the same hazardous vapors and fire risk during production.


"We've cleaned up labs in beautiful homes, so I always remind people you can't stereotype, you can't assume your neighborhood is without," said Davis.

Illinois Public Health officials released the location of every former clandestine meth lab discovered by ISP to the I-Team after a Freedom of Information Act request. This I-Team map data shows a snapshot of how prevalent the problem is in Illinois:


If you are using our News App and are having trouble viewing the interactive map, click here

Rick Young's new home in Deerfield is on the state's meth lab list from a 2012 bust. He said the house had been renovated before they bought it.

"It's a very quiet area, very nice area," said Young.

"I'm not at all concerned," he continued, "We wouldn't have bought the house at all if we were."

The New Crisis: Cartels take hold of Illinois meth market

Experts said a problem that used to be based at home is now taking to the streets.

"It's only gotten worse, and it's gotten worse because we've got multiple types of manufacture going on at the same time," said Tim Mulcahy, Vice President of Economics at the non-partisan and objective research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.

Mulcahy is part a group of researchers that spent four years investigating the methamphetamine market in the United States.

As meth-related criminal penalties stiffened, sales of the key meth ingredient pseudoephedrine were tracked and blocked. But, data shows addicts are still seeking a fix, with increasingly more deadly results.

Meth overdose deaths in the U.S. have more than tripled since 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They're now up to more than 10,000 a year, spiking 42 percent in the latest annual report. In Cook County, meth-related deaths jumped from nine in 2016 to 41 in 2017. Cook County officials tell the I-Team that, so far, 40 deaths have been linked to meth in 2018 and the number is expected to rise as toxicology results are processed throughout the spring.

"The reality is it's like whack-a-mole," said Mulcahy. "You can take away the pseudoephedrine and make it harder for the local cooks to do their thing but that's just a market opportunity for the cartels to come in and push their product."

DEA Chicago Special Agent in Charge Brian McKnight says his agents have seen a local shift from the homemade dirty street product to extremely pure meth imported by cartels from Mexico.

"There's an uptick in not only just meth seizures but also in people that are addicted and overdosing," said McKnight. He told the I-Team that as much as 95 percent of meth found in the Chicago region is linked to Mexican cartels and industrial-style drug labs hidden south of the border.

"They're massive labs with 50 gallon drums of all different chemicals mixing it up," said McKnight.

He said the cartels have shifted from just pushing one type of drug in Chicago to what he calls a "polydrug" strategy; flooding the streets with potent and pure foreign meth alongside the opioid distribution points. He say the cartels are looking for new ways to profit and expanding their meth production.

"There's so much of it so they're like pushing it out on consignment," McKnight told the I-Team. "The cartels are greedy and they want to make money," he continued.

Experts said they've seen meth addiction act as a companion to opioid addiction, causing some addicts to now end up hooked on both. If you're battling meth addiction, click here for help.


The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says look for these potential signs and symptoms that friend is using meth:

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