Oregon tries new tack in fight against meth

More states consider limiting access to cold medicines that are used to create methamphetamines.

Speed. Crystal. Ice. Glass. Crank. Tweak. Zip. It goes by many names, but methamphetamine - also known as "the poor man's cocaine" - is one of the most devastating drugs in the country today.

It's easy to make using legal chemicals found in hardware stores and pharmacies - rubbing alcohol, drain cleaner, matchbooks, and over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines. Recipes proliferate online.

Much of the problem starts in Mexico. But local meth labs are springing up around the United States by the thousands. The number broken up by federal authorities rose from 327 in 1995 to 13,092 in 2001. More than 500 have been found here in Oregon this year.

"Super labs" run by Mexican drug organizations can be found in the US - particularly in the West where they've spread from remote parts of California's Central Valley north to Oregon, Washington State, and Canada. And the problem continues to grow in Midwestern states.

Nowhere is the challenge more severe than in Oregon, which has the highest rate of residents in treatment programs in the country. Last week the state took the dramatic step of restricting the sale of nonprescription cold medicines that can be used to make meth, a move now being considered by many other states.

"Meth labs exist in Oregon homes, hotels, motels, apartments and even in automobiles," says Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D). "They are just as likely to be found in rural communities as they are in big cities, leading some experts to call this the first rural drug epidemic."

Meth is a highly addictive and powerful stimulant that can be smoked, snorted, ingested, or injected. The drug brings a sense of euphoria and a sense of invulnerability. But its aftereffects include nervousness, schizophrenia-like symptoms, and a propensity for violence.

To support their habit, many users commit serious crimes, including burglary and identity theft - the fastest growing white-collar crime in the US. The synthetic drug's waste byproducts are flammable and highly poisonous.

"Due to the extremely toxic nature of methamphetamine and its manufacturing process, we know that neighborhoods and the environment can be adversely affected for significant periods of time," Scott Burns, deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told a congressional panel earlier this year.

Another aspect of the problem relates to the fact that, unlike imported hard drugs such as heroine or cocaine, large quantities of meth are produced domestically by many thousands of people and used by an estimated 1.5 million people a year.

"For users and dealers, cooking methamphetamine has developed into a social activity," says Mr. Burns, "where methamphetamine users can share information on methods of cooking and using methamphetamine, who in the 'meth world' may be working undercover, and what sort of criminal enterprises, such as identity theft, may be feasible to enable the illegal acquisition of the ingredients."

Meth also is much more likely than other illegal drugs to be abused by women. Police Chief Walt Myers of Salem, Ore., estimates that meth is involved in at least 90 percent of all property crimes, half of all domestic-violence cases, and one-third of all child-abuse incidents in his jurisdiction. In Oregon, meth is the single-greatest factor in children being removed from their homes and placed in foster care.

"In Salem, a baby is born every week addicted to methamphetamine," Chief Myers wrote recently in the Statesman Journal newspaper. In at least one case, a baby died of an overdose from the milk of a mother loaded with meth.

Following Oklahoma's lead, Oregon has restricted the sale of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, the key precursor chemical used to make meth. In Oklahoma, the number of meth labs dropped sharply since the restriction became law earlier this year. Consequently, the state has saved millions of dollars in police and court costs.

Under the Oklahoma law, the tablet form of pseudoephedrine must be sold from behind the counter. Customers may not buy more than nine grams of the drug per month; they must provide photo identification and sign their name.

Meth also has become an issue in the presidential race, with the Bush campaign touting the administration's record on fighting drugs and the Kerry camp saying they would fund more officers in rural areas to crack down on meth labs.

Meanwhile, members of Congress - led by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon - are pushing for federal restrictions on the importation of meth-making drugs. During a two-month period last year, 22 million pseudoephedrine tablets were seized en route to Mexico from Hong Kong.

A recent five-part series in the Oregonian newspaper in Portland concluded that federal action to curb the trafficking in meth ingredients could put a serious crimp in production by Mexican cartels. While the problem is nationwide, the focus is on the state where most of that activity takes place.

"California is known as the 'source country' for meth, producing roughly 80 percent of the nation's supply," says Senator Feinstein. "It is time that we begin to dry up the supply."

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