Alaska News

The silent fallout of the opioid epidemic? Meth.

The drug is cheaper, more powerful and more available than ever in Alaska, authorities say. Alaskans have been overdosing on it at dramatically increasing rates over the past decade. It pops up regularly in court cases, tied to mayhem ranging from car theft to murder.

The drug is not heroin. It's meth.

Alaska's opioid crisis has attracted the attention of lawmakers and officials who have devoted money and focus to the problem.

But don't discount a quieter, twin plague, law enforcement and public health authorities say: Methamphetamine is resurgent in Alaska. And heroin and meth seem inextricably linked.

When troopers seize drugs in investigations, "it's very rare for us to see heroin without methamphetamine being present," said Michael Duxbury, the head of the Alaska Department of Public Safety's Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit.

The amount by weight of methamphetamine coming into Alaska in 2016 was greater than heroin, according to the statewide drug report released by Alaska State Troopers last year. And the rate of meth-related overdose deaths shot up four-fold from 2008-10 to 2014-16, according to a public health bulletin in November.

Like heroin, meth has become more potent, cheaper and more accessible, said Jay Butler, the state's chief medical officer.


"It kind of mirrors the heroin epidemic," he said. "Purer product, greater potency, lower price — it's a deadly combination."

For addicts, the drugs pair: Heroin is a downer and methamphetamine is an upper. Some dealers refer to them as "slow and fast," said Anchorage District Attorney Richard Allen.

It's not unusual for addicts feeding their heroin addictions to turn to meth to get them off the couch and into the world — and sometimes to steal or commit other crimes to support their habit.

"People call being on heroin being 'on the nod,' because you're nodding off. If you want to be fully functional when you're using heroin, how do you do that?" Duxbury said. "You take a stimulant."

From 'Beavis and Butthead labs' to 'ice'

Twenty years ago, meth was a highly publicized and widespread scourge in Alaska and nationwide.

It was mostly produced at home in small quantities by amateurs, said Allen, who was a prosecutor in the Mat-Su in the early 2000s, when the homemade meth phenomenon was at its peak.

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In 2004, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials identified 58 meth labs in Alaska, according to news reports from the time. The people making meth were mostly producing small, impure quantities using materials that could be purchased at a Walmart.

"I called them 'Beavis and Butthead labs,' " a reference to the 1990s MTV cartoon featuring two dim teenagers, said Allen, the Anchorage district attorney.

There are very few meth labs left in the state, law enforcement sources say.

A few things led to a big shift, Allen said. The Legislature passed laws that made it much harder to buy the over-the-counter precursors to making meth, like cold medicine. Medicine manufacturers also changed formulations. The state  made producing meth — any amount of meth — a high-level felony, punishable by a long jail sentence, Allen said.

In Alaska and elsewhere, the business changed. Larger, more sophisticated operations dealing in bigger volumes of drugs took control.

By mail, by air

Today, almost all meth in Alaska is manufactured in large professional labs in Mexico using ingredients from India or China, drug enforcement officials say.

Much of the drug then is smuggled into states like California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Nevada before being brought into Alaska via mail or by "body packing," a law enforcement term for smuggling drugs in body cavities.

In one recent case in Southeast Alaska, a 35-year-old Seattle man, Zerisenay Gebregiorgis, was convicted on federal charges for conspiring to smuggle heroin and methamphetamine into the Southeast Alaska communities of Ketchikan and Sitka. According to federal court documents, Gebregiorgis had women he referred to as "suitcases" carrying the drugs in their body cavities on commercial flights from Seattle.


Law enforcement officials say heroin is more often "body packed" than meth because the dosage needed to get high is smaller. A smaller volume is worth more money.

Meth and heroin are both often sent through the mail, said Duxbury.

Drug-sniffing dogs have helped authorities make some major finds recently: In October, Cheng Saechao, a 28-year-old Anchorage man, was arrested for sending $1.4 million worth of heroin and meth to Anchorage via packages sent from California. The meth had been sewn into stuffed animals, according to court documents.

In January, authorities arrested an Anchorage couple who had allegedly mailed more than 13 pounds of meth and heroin to a motel near the Anchorage airport where they were living. The total value of the drugs topped $1.2 million on the street.

But even that represents a fraction of the meth passing through Anchorage every week, said Carson.

Today's meth is much different from the drug circulating on Anchorage streets 20 years ago.

In the past, methamphetamine on the street was 60 to 70 percent pure. It looked beige or even orange, almost like lumpy drywall, said Allen, the prosecutor. Now the purity of meth tested by police is closer to 90 percent, said Jack Carson, a lieutenant with the Anchorage Police Department's crime suppression division. It is clear and crystalline.

Heroin is much more likely to kill — about 100 Alaskans died last year of opioid overdoses of all kinds — but more people are dying from meth, too.


"The number of overdoses that have involved meth have increased fairly dramatically," said Butler, the public health chief.

About a quarter of the people who died from a meth-related overdose had heroin in their system at the time of death, according to the report.

Dangerous trajectory

Sometimes, heroin is the gateway drug to meth. Terria Walters says she was trying to get off opioids when she started doing meth in the Valley in the mid-2000s.

In 2005, she was arrested for cooking meth in a Big Lake lab inside a converted bus. At the time, police said her 13-year-old son told them his mom "cooked the best meth in the Valley," according to news reports from the time. He went into foster care. She went to prison and came out clean and sober. She has been in recovery for more than 13 years.

Her 23-year-old son Christopher Seaman was murdered in 2015, in what police said was a drug-related slaying. Ever since, she's been an impassioned advocate for addiction treatment, founding a nonprofit called Fallen Up Ministries that helps people into recovery from drugs. People contact her daily looking for help, she said in a recent interview.

Many of the people who reach out to her for help are hooked on both heroin and meth, she says. It's not so much which drug people are on that matters, she says: Either or both can wreck your life.

"It's the entire disease of addiction," she said. "They have to change their whole life."

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.