02 March 2012

Faces of Meth: Archaeology Edition

USA Today reports that methamphetamine users now make up a substantial proportion of archaeological looters in the United States:

Alone among survey respondents, U.S. archaeologists described methamphetamine addicts as often responsible for looting, in 18 states. A 2005 Bureau of Land Management report has noted "many" suspects arrested for thefts from federal archaeological sites also ran meth "labs". And Archaeology Magazine in 2009 noted more reports of meth lab operators stealing Anasazi relics. In the survey, Proulx collected comments such as "Meth nuts are the relic collectors," from one Arkansas researcher, as well as similar ones in California, Oregon and Southeastern states.
"The survey started to get these comments from U.S. archaeologists, just popping out of the responses," Proulx said. She suggests that since meth labs are often found in isolated areas, just like archaeological sites, geographical coincidence may explain the complaints. Meth addicts are known for repetitive behavior and may find digging at sites soothing, she adds in the study.

Digging is "soothing" to the tweaker. I like that. USA Today is reporting research by Blythe Proulx in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice (November 2011), which found that North American archaeologists reported high incidences of drug-related looting and crime at archaeological sites (the whole issue, which focuses on antiquities crimes, is worth a look - if you have access).

The research confirms other reporting, like this piece in Boing Boing from as far back as 2005.  Archaeology Magazine reported a similar story in 2009. Drugs, gun-running, and antiquities looting go together in the American west, but not all the crimes are equally punished:

The involvement with drugs is a mixed bag for officers who specialize in cultural resource crime. On one hand, meth makes the looters careless and more likely to make mistakes (though paranoia may temper that). But once a suspect is caught, looting offenses take a back seat to drugs charges--violators of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act face two years in prison, but only if the value of the artifacts exceeds $500, while drugs and firearms carry much steeper penalties. Bowman and others also wonder how well-equipped narcotics officers are to notice, assess, or know what to do with antiquities they find. Some, especially federal agents in the Southwest, know to call in specialists. That is not always the case. 
Drug cases can make it easier to recover artifacts--suspects relinquish them more easily when they have drug cases hanging over them--- --but also encourage prosecutors to plead out or simply drop looting cases. The result is that there is little additional risk for a tweaker or drug dealer to diversify into the antiquities trade. Furthermore, the looting-meth connection is difficult to quantify--looting alone is nearly impossible to assess accurately--complicating policy-making. And many still see looting as a victimless crime.

For some of the gory 'faces of meth' photos made famous by the Multnomah County Sherriff's Department, click here or here. Today's tweakers, tomorrow's looters!

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