WHEN it comes to drugs, three words please dealers and trouble law enforcement agents: cheap, potent, and plentiful. Each year a drug called methamphetamine, or speed, fits these distinctions more and more - with increasingly pernicious results.
Once the signature drug of California biker gangs, ''speed,'' or ''meth'' has been adopted by larger and more sophisticated drug dealing networks, and is beginning to spread eastward.
Because its raw materials are plentiful and can be manufactured in small laboratories, meth could become the biggest scourge of American drug enforcement since the cocaine epidemic.
In testimony yesterday before a House crime subcommittee, Thomas Constantine, director of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), opened a satchel-full of numbers that show the drug is beginning to take a toll on communities nationwide.
In the four US cities where the problem is most prevalent - Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco - deaths from methamphetamine overdoses are up significantly. In Phoenix alone, they rose from 20 in 1992 to 122 in 1994, a 510 percent increase.
In addition, more people than ever before are seeking treatment for meth abuse. In San Diego, for example, there were more admissions at drug treatment centers for meth abuse than for alcohol. In the San Francisco area, admissions rose to 3,000 from 600 in 1988.
Another problem associated with the drug is rising violence. In Phoenix, police attribute the use of methamphetamines for a 40 percent jump in homicides in 1994. Likewise, in Contra Costa County, near San Francisco, police have found meth abuse a factor in 89 percent of domestic abuse cases.
The statistics show that methamphetamine is purer and more plentiful than ever before. According to DEA numbers, methamphetamine seizures nationwide were up 88 percent in 1994 over the previous year, and the average strength, or purity, of the drug has also doubled over a two-year period.
Perhaps more worrisome, what has largely been a West Coast phenomenon, popular with 18- to 25-year-olds, is showing signs of transnational creep. According to Constantine, ''scores'' of meth labs have been raided in Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Texas, and even as far east as Missouri, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida. Police in many cities report street gangs are adding meth to their narcotic menu.
Moreover, dealers and traffickers with years of experience in harder drugs like heroin and cocaine are piggybacking meth through well-established supply lines. These ''polydrug'' organizations, based in Mexico, are a source of concern to the DEA, Constantine says, as a ''possible heir apparent to the Cali Mafia,'' the largest and most violent international drug traders. Last June, DEA special agent Richard Fass was gunned down by traffickers during an undercover buy.
Although meth has never been considered one of the hardest drugs on the market, law enforcement officials say it poses an unusual threat for two reasons.
FIRST, the Mexican meth producers are completely self-sufficient. Cocaine pushers, Constantine notes, have had to rely on Peruvian peasants to grow and harvest cocoa leaves, on Colombian lab operators to turn the leaves into cocoa paste and then into cocaine. Meth producers can do it all themselves. ''This is an ominous development,'' he says.
Plentiful chemicals are the main reason meth can be produced so easily in-house here and abroad. By 1992, Constantine says, traffickers had found ways to circumvent American laws designed to limit the commercial sale of the two legal chemicals necessary for making meth.
Producers in Mexico were able to order, through the mail, pills from the US that contained the drugs necessary for manufacturing the substance. Constantine says that some of the suppliers, most on the East Coast, ''were well aware of the purposes for which these pills were purchased.''
They also found foreign sources for the drugs, including major legitimate producers in India, China, and the Czech Republic, and used middlemen in Switzerland to buy and ship the drugs to Mexico.
What has been a West Coast phenomenon, popular with 18 to 25 year olds, shows signs of transnational creep.