The Next Crack Cocaine?

By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Jimmy Garza was freaking out. As officers handcuffed him inside his posh Fairfax County home on charges relating to a crystal meth addiction, the America Online administrator realized he was about to lose his $60,000-a-year job, his two cars and his freedom.

The arresting officers seemed baffled by his drug of choice. "You know, we don't have a meth problem in this area," Garza remembers one of the officers telling him that night in 2004.

"Are you kidding?" Garza, now 40, snapped back. "Wake up and look around you."

The number of methamphetamine labs and addicts in the Washington area has jumped in recent years, but law enforcement and public health officials say the region is still woefully unprepared to deal with a problem that remains under the radar.

Meth, a dangerously addictive synthetic drug that stimulates the nervous system, has infiltrated suburbs in Virginia and, to a lesser degree, Maryland; Anne Arundel County found three labs in six months last year. In the District, the drug has been used mainly by gay white men but has recently spread into the black and Latino communities and to straight teenagers as young as 15, health officials said.

For years, officials thought the Washington region might be immune to methamphetamine, which has ravaged West Coast and midwest communities for more than a decade. Some wondered if meth was just a localized problem.

But the number of seized meth labs in Maryland, Virginia and the District has increased from close to zero in 2000 to more than 80 last year. In Washington, health officials say 75 percent of patients in some clinics have abused the drug, a big increase from a few years ago.

"The jurisdictions in this area just have not picked up on the exigency regarding crystal meth," said Sgt. Brett A. Parson, commanding officer of the D.C. police gay and lesbian liaison unit.

Sounding the alarm that the meth crisis could become the next crack epidemic, some law enforcement and public health officials are pushing for a stronger response. The Drug Enforcement Adminis tration trained more Maryland officers to dismantle meth labs last month than it did in all of 2005; a District-funded public service announcement was released last week to be aired in local clubs and on television stations.

Still, some experts said those nascent efforts are not enough to combat the spread of meth.

They call for training rank-and-file police officers to detect meth labs, the passage of legislation that would restrict the sale of ingredients used to produce the drug and prevention education in schools to teach children about its dangers.

"We really need to stop sitting around and just hoping that meth won't become the next crack cocaine," said Kevin Shipman, a manager with the District's Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration. "We need to have a strong regional response before it's too late."

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