A Preemptive Strike Is Launched Against Meth

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 29, 2006

Before C.D. Hylton High School senior Alberto Camacho attended an informational meeting on meth last week, he could tell you little about it -- not where to buy it, not the way it takes hold of the mind.

"I just know pretty much the basics, that it's a drug and that it's here," the 17-year-old said.

As far as this area goes, methamphetamine has stayed pretty much on the periphery -- trickling, not flooding, in. Camacho, who is on Prince William County's youth advisory council, said many teenagers like him do not know much about the drug, which is why he attended the meeting. "Just to get the word out," he said.

In an attempt to quell a problem before it starts, a national organization has chosen Northern Virginia as one of four locations across the United States to launch "Meth 360," an anti-methamphetamine campaign. Partnership for a Drug-Free America said it selected two mature markets where the drug had dwelled for years: Washington and Oklahoma. Then it looked for two emerging markets where the drug was catching on. It chose upstate New York and Northern Virginia.

The Northern Virginia effort, concentrated in Prince William and Fairfax counties, is in essence a pilot program, partnership officials said.

"It's sort of a test case for us, to see if we can get out in front of this," Hallie Deaktor of the New York City-based nonprofit organization said. Oklahoma and Washington participants are "jealous of the people in Virginia and upstate New York because they have an opportunity they didn't have," she added. "Back in the 1990s, nobody knew what this was going to do."

The local campaign consists of television commercials and community meetings. The meetings, among groups as small as 15 people and as large as 50, are planned throughout the region. Last week, the Prince William County Office on Youth sponsored one at the James J. McCoart Administration Building.

"We're trying to be more proactive and educate community members on what the risks could be if meth gets hold of our community," Heather Martinsen-Hill, youth program specialist, said. "We all have a part in combating and preventing the spread of meth here."

Lt. Jay Lanham, who heads the Prince William County's narcotics and gang task force, said that so far only two meth labs have been found in Northern Virginia and both were in Prince William. One was found at a motel in Manassas more than two years ago and the other at a rental home in Nokesville about the same time.

While it is not yet considered a problem locally, Lanham said, police were aware that meth had taken hold of other parts of the country and state, particularly the Shenandoah Valley, when officials were approached about the Meth 360 program.

"Seeing that progression across the country, it definitely made us notice," Lanham said. "They were getting larger and larger and getting closer and closer and we were thinking, 'Wow it's coming our way.' "

Meth is particularly harmful to a community because of the secondhand effects, officials said. The drug is prepared in homemade labs that are toxic and flammable because of the chemicals involved. Once addiction takes hold among residents, police departments, hospitals and social services can find themselves overwhelmed, they said.

"Meth spawns a level of community upheaval that is unlike anything else," Deaktor said.

Unlike other drug users, those on meth stay up for days and can become absorbed in methodical, repetitive tasks, creating a high correlation between meth abuse and identity theft crimes, she added.

"They have no problem going through a garbage can and finding someone's discarded, signed [paperwork], and then repeating the signature over and over again," said Sandra Wills Hannon, a spokeswoman for the partnership.

She warned of the drug's "domino effect."

"It can spread through a community almost like wildfire," Hannon said.

Prince William and Fairfax counties were chosen for the program, Partnership officials said, because both police departments noticed the destruction in other communities and offered to help.

"When I first started to talking to the police out there, they said, 'Look, we're terrified of this,' " Deaktor said.

In 2004, there were 75 meth labs seized throughout Virginia, up from 21 the year before, according to data collected by the partnership. And in 2002, there were 332 meth-related arrests, up from 194 the year before, they said.

In Prince William, police reported 45 meth-related arrests between January 2003 and December 2005.

While meth was once limited to more rural areas because of its homemade element, the drug is now more widely available because it is being imported into the country in a ready-to-use form, officials said.

"Atlanta has become the East Coast trafficking hub," Deaktor said, adding that hundreds of pounds of crystal meth have been seized there this year. "All indication is it's headed this way," she said.

The partnership plans to expand the program to 10 more states by the middle of next year and hope to take it nationwide.

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