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New Book Dissecting Methamphetamine Markets in the United States Reveals Industry of Extremes from International Cartels to Mom-and-Pop Shops

Press Release

​Bethesda, MD—The methamphetamine industry in the United States is a complex transnational business, but also a thriving mom-and-pop operation say the authors of a newly published book that reveals the nature and extent of methamphetamine markets in the U.S.  Details of how meth markets develop and operate are provided through the voices of the makers and users of the highly addictive drug as well as those who work to control its use and limit its impact.

“The Methamphetamine Industry: Transnational Cartels and Local Entrepreneurs ,” (Rutgers University Press) was written by Henry Brownstein, Timothy Mulcahy, and Johannes Huessy, all researchers with the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.  The book is the result of a four year study that included a survey of police agencies in every state, in-depth interviews with drug treatment and prevention workers, family service providers, meth users and dealers, and others whose lives intersect with the methamphetamine industry. 

The study leading to the new book was a joint initiative of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Justice and carried out by NORC.

“At one extreme, meth is produced in small batches for use and sale to just a few people.  At the other it is a major business operated by international cartels,” said Mulcahy.  “The single factor that ties every meth operation together is the highly personal nature of the relationships and transactions in methamphetamine markets.”  Mulcahy said that unlike a drug like cocaine that can be bought from a stranger on a street corner, “the answer to the question of where meth could be purchased was always the same:  to buy meth, you have to know someone.”

The researchers found, for example, that even the largest international operations depended on locally-known and trusted users, much like franchisees, who sold to other local users.

In addition to an industry shaped by personal relationships, the picture of the methamphetamine market in the United States is that of one shaped by regulations that are in place to control it. 

While the international operations have access to large quantities of the ingredients needed to produce meth, restrictions in the United States on the amount of chemicals, primarily those found in many cold medicines that can be purchased by an individual, have resulted in a windfall for international cartels who seized this market opportunity by flooding the U.S. market with high purity crystal meth, and displacing small mom-and-pop meth operations in areas not previously penetrated by international traffickers. Nevertheless, local mom-and-pop operations still thrive in areas across the US, and even dominate in areas across the Midwest, where, ironically, international operators have had less success penetrating markets.

Mulcahy and his colleagues found what amounted to methamphetamine social clubs run by family members, friends, or acquaintances who might gather at the home of the meth cook to make and use small qualities of the drug.  Each would bring to the party their share of the cold medicine needed to produce the meth.

A chilling aspect of the methamphetamine markets is the relationship of the business to families and children.  In the small operations, meth is frequently cooked with children exposed to the toxic chemicals and fumes and rampant domestic violence.  The researchers spoke to parents and grandparents who had introduced their children to the drug in what amounted to a strange form of family bonding. “You have to understand,” one respondent explained, “meth is a family drug.”

“The Methamphetamine market is very large, highly personal in nature, and deeply damaging to those who use it,” said Brownstein.  He said the research will be of particular value to law enforcement agencies, human service organizations, policy makers, and those who study drug markets and drug use patterns in the United States as they develop strategies for dealing with methamphetamine and its impact.   

“The Methamphetamine market is very large, highly personal in nature, and deeply damaging to those who use it.”

Henry Brownstein


“The Methamphetamine market is very large, highly personal in nature, and deeply damaging to those who use it.”

About NORC at the University of Chicago

NORC at the University of Chicago conducts research and analysis that decision-makers trust. As a nonpartisan research organization and a pioneer in measuring and understanding the world, we have studied almost every aspect of the human experience and every major news event for more than eight decades. Today, we partner with government, corporate, and nonprofit clients around the world to provide the objectivity and expertise necessary to inform the critical decisions facing society.

Contact: For more information, please contact Eric Young at NORC at or (703) 217-6814 (cell).