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Hardware store owners in Drayton Valley noticed it first.

In the late 1990s, a large number of light bulbs were being stolen. Within months, it became obvious why: The booming oil town, southwest of Edmonton, was the epicentre for a crystal methamphetamine crisis that would soon spread across Alberta. Addicts were using light bulbs as pipes to smoke the highly addictive, cheap and potent street drug that could be cooked up using recipes scalped from the Internet.

The Prairies began bracing for a crystal-meth epidemic similar to one that devastated the U.S. Midwest. The problem was forced to the top of the political agenda, and by 2005, then-Saskatchewan premier Lorne Calvert even called it a "common curse" for western provinces.

But two years later, the epidemic has not materialized and crystal meth has largely disappeared in many Prairie communities, such as Drayton Valley. Surprisingly, organized crime may get partial credit.

Alberta RCMP Sergeant Dave Elliott said it boils down to simple economics: The powerful artificial stimulant isn't cost-effective for many drug dealers.

"The dealers aren't stupid. They are businessmen," he said. "They switched over because they made more off crack."

He explained that one hit of crystal meth could cost between $10 and $15, with the high lasting up to 24 hours. However, crack cocaine costs more than twice that amount, with the high lasting only about three hours.

Sgt. Elliott, who is stationed in Bonnyville, Alta., a small oil town north of Edmonton, said crack cocaine and cocaine are now rampant, although alcohol and marijuana remain more popular across the province.

He said users have switched over, or even back, to crack and cocaine because the boom means many can afford more expensive drugs. An aggressive public-education campaign was also helpful in getting the message out that crystal meth is extremely dangerous, he added.

"You only have to look at someone who is using it to know it's a weird drug."

Crystal meth, which is more likely to cause psychosis than any other street drug, is made by mixing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine with about a dozen other substances, including iodine, camp fuel and acetone.

Mary Anne Jablonski, an Alberta Tory MLA who sat on a provincial crystal-meth task force committee, is pleased the public and lawmakers recognized early on that the drug "could be a horrible, horrible plague" because of the severe physical and psychological damage it inflicts on users.

Alberta, like Saskatchewan and Manitoba, were all quick to restrict pharmacy sales of cold remedies that contain pseudoephedrine and ephedrine.

"[Crystal meth]is still brutal," Ms. Jablonski said. "But it's not as big as we thought it would become."

She praises Alberta communities such as Drayton Valley for confronting the drug head-on by supporting crystal-meth education and awareness programs and parent support groups.

Drayton Valley Mayor Diana McQueen said her town had no other choice because crystal meth was devastating families and leading to an increase in crimes such as theft.

"At first we got a fair amount of flak from other communities. They were wondering why we would admit to this," she said. "But we just knew we had a problem. If we hid it, people would know and it would just get worse."

Staff Sergeant Ian Sanderson, a drug-awareness co-ordinator with the RCMP in Alberta, said he's "cautiously optimistic" crystal meth is no longer a growing menace.

He said Alberta never witnessed an explosion of small homegrown meth labs unlike many U.S. states such as California, which is a key indicator to him the drug's popularity is waning.

While meth-related seizures and trafficking arrests have declined provincewide, Staff Sgt. Sanderson said it's too early to declare victory.

"It may just be that we've driven it so far underground through public awareness and our enforcement activities that we aren't onto it yet," he explained.

In Manitoba, the height of the crystal-meth craze was at the end of 2004, but its use has declined since then and held steady over the last two years, according to Sergeant Mike Ramsay, head of the RCMP's synthetic-drug operations in Winnipeg. It's still seen on the streets of Winnipeg, and in the towns of Morden, Winkler and Altona in southern Manitoba, although not in the quantities police once expected.

From 2005 to 2006, Manitoba RCMP seizures of crystal meth dropped 30 per cent, from 178 to 126, while the number of ecstasy seizures increased nearly 300 per cent.

Sgt. Ramsay says the media's efforts to educate the public about the dangers of crystal meth have made young people reluctant to try it.

At the moment, cocaine is much more prevalent around the province, and a glut of supply has kept prices low, Sgt. Ramsay said. "There seems to be plenty of it around, and that's keeping it competitive among the dealers out there."

Ian Rabb is a recovering cocaine and crystal-meth addict who has been sober for six years. The Winnipeg resident knows many other addicts from 12-step programs in the city, and says crystal meth has never supplanted cocaine as the main drug of choice on the streets.

"Winnipeg is a very coke- and crack-driven community, and I don't know why that is. I've always wondered. A lot of people try meth and they say, 'I don't like it; it's not the high I wanted,' " Mr. Rabb said. "It didn't explode here the way it did in North Dakota.

"A lot of people are still very scared of meth in Manitoba, particularly high-school students who might be prone to try it."

Mr. Rabb said it's important to remember that those who fall victim to crystal meth are typically driven to it by other problems in their lives. It's a mistake to think the drug is to blame, he said.

"People that try drugs are not having a good time in life - they're looking for an outlet, and they've usually tried other drugs before they try meth."

By the numbers

Clandestine methamphetamine laboratories raided in Canada by year.

1998: 4

1999: 14

2000: 24

2001: 13

2002: 25

2003: 37

2004: 40

2005: 29