Methamphetamine is on its way out of Colorado after a decade of ravaging the state, leaving law enforcement worrying whether the money and drive exist to tackle the next scourge.
The number of meth-lab busts in the state dropped from a high of 450 in 2002 to just 46 in 2007, according to the National Clandestine Laboratory Database.
Last year the North Metro Task Force busted two small, mobile meth labs, compared with about 100 a year from 2002 to 2005.
Home-cooked meth is virtually gone. Colorado meth treatment centers saw a 10 percent decline between 2007 and 2008.
Only a few years ago, the deluge of meth in Colorado seemed unstoppable. The highly addictive drug — which demolishes the body, rots teeth and creates unbridled paranoia — was being brewed in hundreds of homes. The threat of suburban explosions from toxic drug cookeries grew daily.
"We have turned the tide on methamphetamine in the United States," said Jeff Sweetin, the agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Administration's Denver office. "I think when you look at methamphetamine, what you have is a model. When communities say 'No more' and when law enforcement and retail and all these other things come together, we can have a huge impact."
Colorado's 19 drug task forces cracked down on dealers as retail and federal restrictions on the sale of the drug's base ingredient — ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, commonly found in cold medicines — crushed the supply of locally brewed meth. A recent ban on imported ephedrine imposed by the Mexican government and increased border security have crippled the cartel-controlled Mexican "megalabs."
That lack of supply also has created a cost deterrent for users: An ounce of meth in early 2006 cost about $900. Early last year, an ounce was more than $2,000.
Jim Schrant, head of western Colorado's DEA office, said the rising cost of meth is "the most pure, empirical data we can use to judge success" in the war against meth.
But even as meth is disappearing, the hole it's leaving is being filled by cocaine, heroin and narcotic pharmaceuticals. Last week, federal agents seized 17 pounds of heroin and 5 kilograms of cocaine, marking the biggest haul of narcotics in Mesa County's history.
"Whac-A-Mole is exactly how it is," said Sgt. Jim Gerhardt, a longtime investigator with the 17-year-old North Metro Task Force. "Respond to a trend, stomp it out, and something else pops up. People are just switching to other types of drugs."