Sinister Drug Infiltrates Rural US

In some areas, 'crack of '90s' is second only to alcohol in usage

Set in a narrow valley in California's North Coast region, Potter Valley seems like an ideal place to raise a family. Cows and horses graze near pear orchards and grape vineyards. Children ride freely on their bikes.

Beneath this bucolic idyll, however, lies quite a different reality. Potter Valley, a small town of 3,000 people, is caught in the grip of a new drug epidemic that is as deadly and dangerous as any seen before. The drug is methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant that law-enforcement officials have labeled the "crack cocaine of the '90s."

In regions like northern California, methamphetamine ranks second only to alcohol in usage. The drug is now spreading from the West, where it was concentrated, to places such as Iowa and Missouri. The abusers of this drug are typically blue-collar workers - truck drivers, waitresses, carpet layers - and are overwhelmingly white. Methamphetamine presents a deadly combination: It is cheap, easy to make, and creates a ferocious addiction that often triggers violence. From bitter experience, California officials have found close links between addiction and child abuse, including sexual abuse. At high levels of addiction, meth users become paranoid and liable to strike out in bizarre acts of brutality, even against family members.

"Crack cocaine simply bowled us over in the 1980s," retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug czar, told the Monitor. "We don't want that to happen again. Methamphetamine - the poor man's cocaine - may be an even worse insult to our family structure and our community life."

In recent months federal and state authorities have launched a new effort to combat the growing epidemic. They are moving to try to cut off the supply of chemicals used to make the drug while putting pressure on the drug cartels producing and distributing it. At the same time, federal research money is being directed toward studying the drug and supporting innovative treatment programs.

But these initial steps occur against a backdrop of neglect of the problem at a national level. People involved in both law enforcement and in treatment complain of meager resources to battle the plague. To date, few scientific studies have explored how the drug works and no specific therapy exists for its addicts. The public remains largely ignorant of its existence and of its effects.

Wake-up call

It took the tragic death last year of Raina Bo Shirley, a vivacious teen, to awaken the residents of Potter Valley to this evil in their midst. The region is a center of marijuana cultivation, and like many of the teens here, Raina was a casual pot smoker. But she was also, by the account of a close friend, a risk-taker who "wanted to have fun."

That desire led Raina to methamphetamine, a drug that had a significant adult following and was easily available in the town. According to court testimony, on a March afternoon, Raina and a friend went to a popular party spot along the Eel River with Arnoldo Jorge Manzo, who the Mendocino County sherriff's department identified in court as a drug dealer, and his cousin. The court record states that the girls were given methamphetamine, sexually assaulted, and left in a disoriented state. Raina disappeared and was discovered two weeks later, drowned in the river. There is a warrant for Mr. Manzo's arrest, and he is currently being sought by state and federal officials.

During those traumatic weeks of search parties and community meetings, Potter Valley folk learned how widely meth use had spread in their community. Mendocino County narcotics officers told them that the tree-covered hills around them harbored clandestine laboratories where the white powder was being "cooked" in large quantities by drug gangs for distribution throughout the state.

"This is a quiet town where everybody knows everybody - it was always a great place to live," says Connie Shepard, who grew up here and returned to raise a family. "I had no idea that our kids were putting that kind of junk in their system."

Carol Hill, on the other hand, was not surprised. "Families who didn't have kids in school were shocked," she says. But Ms. Hill had already "lost" her husband to meth (and jail) and is struggling to keep a teenage boy off drugs, using everything from heart-to-heart talks to random drug testing.

In the aftermath of Raina's tragedy, these women became leaders of programs organized under the Police Athletic League to keep teens busy with anything from theater to karate. Raina's grandfather, Ed Nickerman, is raising money to buy a house for a teen center. In a community that offers little entertainment, they hope this will reduce the lure of weekend parties "over the hill."

"This won't solve all of the problem, but it will solve a lot of the problem," says Mr. Nickerman, who also serves on the county school board.

But both organizers and the kids agree that while the programs are welcome, there is little evidence yet that they've made a dent in the problem.

"The kids who are involved in things like that are not the kids using drugs," says high-schooler Amy Austin.

Residents have posted signs declaring "No Drugs in Potter," and have erected an elaborate billboard by the road entering the valley declaring "Distribution and Use of Drugs Prohibited."

County narcotics-control officers believe the glare of publicity has forced the labs out of the valley - for now. But the problem has not disappeared. Although high school kids say only a few of their peers use meth, they also acknowledge it is easy to find.

"We know the people who do it," says basketball team member Tisha Phillips. "People who don't want to bother with it stay away from them." And there is active hostility to the antidrug effort. Last month, someone removed many of the signs and sawed down the billboard, which was subsequently reinstalled. "Some people feel it's a joke," Ms. Hill says.

The problems of communities like Potter Valley are new but meth abuse is not. "We're in the third postwar methamphetamine epidemic in this country," says Michael Gorman, a scientist with the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington and a leading expert on the drug.

Everyman's drug

Amphetamines were developed early in this century and available by prescription in the 1930s for treatment of depression and other diseases. During World War II, soldiers on all sides used the drug. In the 1950s, amphetamine tablets were popularly known as "pep pills," used by athletes, truck drivers, and housewives.

A federal crackdown in the early 1960s on prescription abuses prompted the illicit production of methamphetamine, particularly in a liquid, injectable form. By the late 1960s, a second wave of abuse began in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, where it was known as "speed." This outbreak was also controlled, but meth remained entrenched in the subculture of outlaw motorcycle gangs. The bikers used available chemicals, which they cooked in crude rural labs where the pungent odor associated with production could be concealed.

The third wave began in California in the 1980s, when meth spread in rural areas as a cheap alternative to cocaine. Federal authorities tried to control the chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamines. But traffickers switched to a different method based on chemicals used in products such as decongestants and diet pills, easily converted into an even more potent form known as D-methamphetamine.

Federal attempts to control the bulk trade in precursor chemicals in the late 1980s had an unfortunate consequence: They prompted the growing involvement of Mexican gangs who were distributors for the Colombian cocaine cartels. The gangs legally imported the chemicals from countries such as China and Switzerland, then smuggled them over the border into the US, creating a highly lucrative business. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, an investment of $500 in chemicals yields about one pound of meth, selling for $12,000 in California and as much as $18,500 elsewhere in the US.

"The Mexicans brought a level of sophistication to the manufacture and distribution of this drug that the bikers did not have," says Randy Weaver, a researcher at the Department of Justice's National Drug Intelligence Center.

Rurual meth shops

Meth labs are easily set up in motel rooms, trailers, or the backs of pickup trucks. The traffickers "cook" the chemicals for a few days, then move on, leaving behind toxic waste that can poison the soil and cost tens of thousands of dollars to clean up. The chemicals frequently explode, occasionally killing the "cooks" and innocent people. The majority of labs remain small operations, using "recipes" obtainable over the Internet and elsewhere to cook over-the-counter cold capsules and the like to derive ounces of meth. But federal and California narcotics officers report seeing larger labs in the last few years, which they say are usually run by Mexican nationals.

"We used to find ounces, now we are finding pounds," says an undercover narcotics officer in Mendocino County. "They're producing more and they're selling it cheaper," he says.

Meth use has moved beyond the traditional subcultures of users, such as bikers, gay men, and blue-collar, white males to college students, professionals, minorities, and especially women. It has also been encouraged by the use of less-potent legal stimulants associated with all-night "rave" dance parties popular in recent years.

The spread of meth use is reflected in a variety of statistics, including a massive increase in lab seizures. Perhaps the most horrifying evidence comes from hospitals in California, Arizona, and other states. More than 1,800 deaths were caused by meth abuse from 1992 to 1994. California emergency rooms saw a 49 percent increase in meth-related admissions in 1994 over 1995. Nationwide, admissions rose from less than 6,000 in 1991 to about 18,000 in 1994, according to the DEA.

A few years ago, Dr. Gorman was treating drug addicts in San Francisco when he noticed his case load shifting to meth. "I started scratching my head," he recounts. "There was no literature about how to deal with these people clinically." He noticed a particularly disturbing link between meth use, often by injection, and the spread of HIV infection.

John Brown, the police chief of Willits, Calif., has seen meth in town for 10 years or so. But in recent years, he says, people are using more of it, in more potent forms, and mixing it with other drugs, particularly alcohol. "In 90 percent of the cases of child abuse in our community, meth or alcohol, often together, are involved," says Chief Brown. The statistic is echoed in many California locales where this drug is prevalent.

Brown and other police began to encounter extreme acts of violence among high-intensity users known as "tweakers." In that state they are highly agitated and paranoid, ready to "go off any time, and when they do, they're extremely violent and extremely strong," he says.

In Willits in 1993, Trevor Harden, a meth addict who had been up all night using the drug, murdered four members of his family and then took his own life.

Such incidents have served to galvanize a response. California Sen. Diane Feinstein (D), at the prompting of both state and federal law-enforcement agencies, sponsored recently passed legislation to tighten controls over precursor chemicals and increase the criminal sentences for possession and distribution of the chemicals and the equipment used to make methamphetamines.

Last month the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy sponsored a Western regional conference of law-enforcement officials, scientists, and treatment specialists to try to develop new strategies for dealing with meth. "This is the single biggest drug challenge we have today in California," Attorney General Daniel Lungren told the meeting, appealing for more federal resources.

Law-enforcement officials are focusing on the four Mexican cartels known to be involved in trafficking. "Mexico has to take some steps to control its own border," Senator Feinstein says.

But even federal drug enforcement officials acknowledge that methamphetamine is largely a home-grown problem. Indeed, the DEA has identified California as a "source country" for the drug.

"The biggest shortcoming is drug prevention strategies focused on methamphetamines," General McCaffrey says. "If you don't have a strategy to educate the threatened subpopulations about what's going to happen to you, then why would you think adding 35 more DEA agents is going to solve the problem?"

Equally lacking is scientific research and funding for treatment of addicts. "We need medical forms of intervention, and we need some therapeutic forms of intervention specifically targeted on methamphetamines," McCaffrey says.

The problem is particularly acute in rural counties, where meth use is concentrated and resources are scarce. In the Mendocino County seat of Ukiah, for example, at least 100 people are on the waiting list for admission to the main drug-treatment program, most of them women. "We have a waiting lists of people who want treatment but we have a prison bed for each of them," says Ned Walsh, administrator of the county alcohol and drug treatment program.

The recent attention to the problem has cheered researchers like Gorman, who has traveled to Washington many times trying to raise awareness. But he and others on the front lines of this battle worry that the focus of resources on cocaine and other drugs has created a bureaucratic resistance to recognizing the severity of the meth epidemic.

"There are state and federal resources available if people will get it together to move those resources," Gorman says. "What is it going to take?"

What Is Methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine is a synthetic stimulant of the amphetamine family. Common street names include crank, speed, meth, crystal meth, and crystal tea. In its conventional powdered form, it is snorted, ingested, or injected. Methamphetamine can also be processed to produce an even more potent, smokable form known as "glass" or "ice."

Like cocaine, methamphetamine stimulates the central nervous system. Unlike a cocaine high, which lasts only minutes, the effects of meth may last from eight to 24 hours. Methamphetamine is extremely addictive, producing a severe craving and withdrawal symptoms when use is stopped.

Users often experience increased alertness and a sense of well-being, but also paranoia, hallucinations, loss of appetite, insomnia, and violent behavior. Long-term effects may include brain damage, psychological problems, weight loss, and neglect of family.

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