ASHLAND, ORE. — In Keizer, Ore., the other day, a toddler in diapers and a T-shirt was found walking along a busy road. When police investigated, they found that the 16-month-old boy had been left alone by his parents, who had been sleeping and were subsequently arrested for possession of a controlled substance - methamphetamine. A few weeks earlier and a few miles away in the state capital of Salem, police investigated whether girls at the Waldo Middle School - barely in their teens - had been using meth, possibly exchanging sex for the drug.
Around the country, law-enforcement officials say methamphetamine use has become an epidemic. Federal officials estimate there are 1.5 million regular meth users in the United States today. As of 2003, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 12.3 million Americans had tried methamphetamine at least once - up nearly 40 percent over 2000 and 156 percent over 1996.
But the impact ranges beyond meth users to crime victims, since addicts typically steal to support their addiction. Most distressing, experts say, may be the thousands of children who are neglected or abused by meth users. Social service agencies around the country report increases in out-of-home placements of children because of meth, and a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures finds that 10 percent of users were introduced to meth by their parents or other family members. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, children were present at 20 percent of all meth lab busts last year.
The impact on children may be connected to the fact that women are more likely to use meth than other illegal drugs. For one thing, the drug is associated with weight loss. One federal survey of people arrested for all crimes found that 11.3 percent of women had used meth within the prior month compared with 4.7 percent of men.
At a workshop in Portland, Ore., last week, White House deputy drug czar Scott Burns called meth "the most destructive, dangerous, terrible drug that's come along in a long time."
Those on the front lines of the war on drugs agree. A recent survey of 500 law-enforcement agencies by the National Association of Counties finds that 87 percent have seen increases in meth-related arrests in the past three years. Most county sheriffs now say meth is their main drug problem, connected to increases in robberies, burglaries, domestic violence, assaults, identity thefts, and child neglect.
Counterfeiting - made easier these days with computers, scanners, and laser printers - has become an important sideline for many meth addicts. And many abandoned meth labs have become the local equivalent of environmental Superfund sites, so toxic are the chemicals used to make the drug. Every pound of meth produced results in five to seven pounds of poisonous residue, often left in empty buildings, trailer parks, and rural sites to pollute the ground, water, and air.
"The growth of the use and addiction to methamphetamines has occurred so fast and to such a degree that many local governments are scrambling to catch up," reports the association of counties.
Known as "the poor man's cocaine," meth is a highly addictive and powerful stimulant that goes by a variety of street names: Speed. Crystal. Ice. Glass. Crank. Tweak. Zip.
It's easy to make using common items found in hardware stores and pharmacies - rubbing alcohol, drain cleaner, matchbooks, and over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines. More than 100 recipes for meth are posted online.
Smoked, snorted, swallowed, or injected, meth brings a sense of euphoria and invulnerability. But among the adverse effects of methamphetamine use, medical experts say, are irritability, insomnia, anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia, and a tendency to violence.
As a public health and crime problem, meth started out in the Western and Southwestern US, but steadily moved north and east. Last year there were more meth lab incidents in Illinois than there were in California. In the first six months of 2004, meth treatment admissions in Atlanta were up more than 10 percent and nearly 20 percent in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Among current ways of tackling the problem, states are restricting the sale of cold medicines, from which pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in meth, is obtained. Under political pressure, US pharmaceutical companies have begun reformulating their cold remedies to avoid using pseudoephedrine.
The federal government has launched a plan to fight such synthetic drugs, which includes tracking the production and shipment of cold medicines overseas - especially in Mexico, where meth "superlabs" (those that can produce at least 10 pounds of the drug in a 24-hour period) run by cartels have been a major source of the drug coming into the United States. The Oregonian newspaper in Portland reported last week that imports to Mexico of cold medicine with pseudoephedrine had shot up from 66 tons to 224 tons in the past five years.
Bush administration officials acknowledge the problem. Still, many in Congress, where a bipartisan "meth caucus" has grown to 100 members from 35 states, and in state houses and legislatures around the country say the White House has been slow to attack meth as a major drug problem.
US Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Jim Talent (R) of Missouri are sponsoring legislation that would move cold medicines with pseudoephedrine behind the counter and require identification and a signature to purchase the drug. It also sets monthly limits per person, and it provides funding to study means of treatment.
"Our legislation would enact the toughest antimeth law in the country so we can finally get ahead of the meth cooks and keep this terrible drug out of our neighborhoods and schools," says Senator Talent.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the "most effective treatments for methamphetamine addiction are cognitive behavioral interventions ... designed to help modify the patient's thinking, expectancies, and behaviors and to increase skills in coping with various life stressors." Recovery support groups and antidepressant medications have proven helpful, the institute finds, but there is no drug that specifically treats methamphetamine addiction.
So far, there are few programs around the country specifically designed to treat meth addiction. For example, only 16 percent of counties surveyed have a meth rehabilitation center, which means that for most charged, jail is the only option.
• According to the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 12.3 million Americans ages 12 and older reported trying meth at least once.
• Meth users are generally: high school and college students, white- and blue-collar workers, unemployed workers in their 20s and 30s.
• The problem, originally concentrated in the West, has spread throughout almost every major metropolitan area in the US with the exception of the Northeast.
• Meth use comes at a high cost to communities: an increase in crimes ranging from theft to assault, an increase of children displaced to foster care, highly toxic meth lab sites that are dangerous and difficult to clean up.
source: National Association of Counties, Office of National Drug Control Policy