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."
When meth, which, nationally, has been a largely rural epidemic, swept east across the nation, it hit the Shenandoah Valley hard, becoming one of the most-seized drugs in that part of the region. Labs have more recently popped up in semi-rural areas of Southern Maryland and Anne Arundel, where addicts are called "methnecks."
The labs require only simple equipment, such as bottles and tubing, which is easy to hide in almost any kind of building. The ingredients for the drug include medications containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, red phosphorous and hydrochloric acid.
The epicenter of meth use in the region is the District's gay community, where the drug showed up about five years ago and has been spreading quickly ever since, health officials said. Known as Tina in most gay circles, the drug has become the primary drug of choice, topping even alcohol among patients admitted to the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which primarily serves gay clients in the District.
"It's everywhere," Parson said. "I would defy you to find anybody in the metropolitan area who is white and gay and doesn't know one person who is using meth."
The drug is particularly troubling to medical workers in the gay community because meth is associated with risky sexual behavior. Some gay meth addicts use the Internet to find partners to use the drug and have sex -- known as party 'n' play -- encounters that sometimes turn into multiple-day sex parties.
Shipman said meth addicts are three times as likely to contract HIV as non-users because they tend to have unprotected sex and multiple partners.
Health experts say the addiction is particularly hard to treat. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says there is currently no "safe and tested" medication to treat meth addiction. Programs rely on counseling and behavioral modification.
Experts said one of the biggest problems in bringing attention to the meth problem in the area is the lack of reliable statistics on the number of users. Richard Rawson, a professor at UCLA who has been studying the drug for two decades, said public health indicators that should indicate the meth problem -- such as emergency room visits and patients in treatment -- lag five to seven years behind the emergence of the drug.
"In some places, the public health people are saying, 'Well, we're not seeing it; it's not that big a problem here,' " he said. "But that's not what the data means."
The best predictors of an emerging meth epidemic, Rawson said, are the presence of meth use in the gay community and the discovery of even small numbers of meth labs.
At the DEA's meth lab training facility in Quantico, officials have identified the growing problem in the Washington area and are admitting increasing numbers of local police officers. In a recent class for 41 state and local officers held last month, seven were from the Washington area, including Annapolis and Montgomery, Prince George's, Calvert and Fauquier counties.
"We know the growth in Maryland and Virginia is exponential," said John Michael Donnelly, chief of the training unit.
But some of the officers are concerned that most rank-and-file officers won't get this training, which is expensive and in high demand. In Prince George's alone, 10 officers are on the long waiting list.
"We've got to get more guys that are actually on the street certified in this," said a Calvert narcotics detective at the training in Quantico, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he works undercover. "I think a lot of guys are probably seeing meth but don't know what it is."
Sgt. Shawn A. Urbas, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel police, said it would be easy for officers to miss a disassembled meth lab -- which might be just a box of tubing and some beakers -- if they had never seen one before. He said that's why the department is focusing on training.
Health officials are also pushing for legislation that would restrict the sale of cold medications that contain pseudoephedrine, one of the ingredients used to manufacture meth. Virginia, like many states across the country, limits such sales, but Maryland and the District do not. Some drugstores are voluntarily restricting sales.
Some former addicts, though, said the best way to stop meth is to educate the public about its dangers. Garza said he was adamantly against drugs -- "I was totally Nancy Reagan about it" -- until a friend offered him meth and he began using it at gay clubs.
Soon he was hooked on the drug -- which causes users to stay up for days at a time -- and at one point partied for seven straight days without sleeping. "I had no idea that that first little bit would alter my life forever," he said.
But it did. After his arrest, Garza lost his job, was evicted from his home and declared bankruptcy. He was able to get treatment, though, and now works as a limo driver. His primary mission is to tell his story so that people realize the dangers of meth.
"Even though it's so obviously here, it's still very hidden. It's very hush-hush," Garza said. "But we're trying very hard to bust the secrecy off of it."