If different colors stood for different illicit drugs, a narcotics map of the Washington region would look like a kaleidoscope: everything everywhere, in every direction. There are trends -- heroin in Baltimore, crack in the District, "club drugs" such as Ecstasy in Northern Virginia, but drug enforcement officials describe the area as a hodgepodge.
With one exception.
Virginia's Shenandoah Valley is isolated in its affair with methamphetamine, a powerfully addictive drug made with ingredients that sound less-than-intoxicating, such as battery acid, cold medicine and drain cleaner.
In the past five years, meth has become the No. 1 drug seized along the north-south corridor between Winchester and Harrisonburg, a belt that parallels Skyline Drive as well as Interstate 81. What stumps local authorities is that the deadly wave of meth, which began rolling east from Mexico and California in the 1990s, seems to have stopped -- or paused -- in central Virginia.
Ninety-five percent of methamphetamine seized this year in Virginia was found in the northern Shenandoah Valley, between Frederick County and Rockingham County. The majority of methamphetamine seized from West Virginia to Maryland was also found along that same, 70-mile belt, local and federal drug officials say.
Authorities have shut some small meth labs. In such labs, the drug ephedrine -- found in diet pills and cold medicine -- is mixed with such chemicals as lye and battery acid and cooked in a process that produces potentially fatal fumes.
The vast majority of the drug found in the region however, was brought in by car or mail and sold at truck stops, mini-malls or motels.
"I don't know why the market's so big here," said Jason Wagner, co-owner of the Little Grill restaurant on Harrisonburg's north side, as he pondered the popularity of meth one afternoon last week. "Meth is such a weird culture -- all paranoid and staying up all night. It's not something that brings you peace."
Wagner said he has used it and has friends and relatives who have dealt it. The 24-year-old, who grew up outside the city, has memories of "sniffing weird little, yellow rocks" and flipping a truck one night on a rural road while on his way with a friend to buy some more. "We just left the truck and kept going to get the drugs," he says, shaking his head in disbelief at the memory.
Those who study drug use know people use various drugs for many reasons, depending on what's available, what it costs, what's familiar, what's fashionable, what feels good. Federal drug analysts who have researched the region's meth patterns say at least part of the reason the drug has stayed in the Shenandoah Valley is related to class and culture.
"It's called the poor man's cocaine. Meth had a bad rap because bikers used it, and truckers used it to keep awake," said Laura DiCesare, spokeswoman for the Drug Enforcement Administration's Washington office.
Although the meth problem hasn't migrated farther east toward the Washington area, many law enforcement officials said plummeting prices in the Shenandoah Valley signal a growing supply that will undoubtedly spread into the District and Baltimore. Local legislators and state officials are calling the issue urgent.
The amount of methamphetamine seized in the Shenandoah Valley -- from Frederick to Rockingham counties -- has climbed by more than 2,000 grams between 2000 and last year. Through last month, authorities in that region seized nearly 6,000 grams, or 94 percent of the drug found in Virginia.
They cite the beginning of gang activity in the valley -- in a few cases connected to drugs -- and the addictiveness of meth, which costs about the same as crack but keeps users high and awake for days at a time.
"I'm sure folks in the Midwest didn't think it would spread, either. It's naive to suggest it's a regional problem," said state Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), noting that state and local police have found dozens of meth labs, while other states have hundreds.
Obenshain submitted a bill this past session that would have increased meth penalties and put them on par with crack and cocaine -- had it passed. While some lawmakers said the bill was too costly in a year of belt-tightening, Obenshain said opponents from other areas told him they simply didn't consider meth their problem. "I just hope we wake up before we're trying to shut down 500 meth labs."
Meanwhile, the politics of meth get to the heart of politics in the Shenandoah Valley, where a growing immigrant population is the engine behind several major industries, including poultry processing and produce-picking.
Law enforcement officials say the vast majority of meth users are white -- mostly rural, adult and working-class. Most of the sellers, they say, are Latino, primarily Mexicans. Although methamphetamine isn't completely new to the area, the business was once dominated by motorcycle gangs and truckers. Then it exploded in the Shenandoah Valley within the past decade, as the Latino population rose by more than 400 percent.
"Everything seemed to come together at the right time," said Rockingham County Sgt. J.B. Wittig, who said the area's appetite for methamphetamine was whetted by a specific trucker who made runs between the West Coast and the Shenandoah Valley in the mid-1990s and then became a dealer.
Now, a growing group of Latino advocates says that Latinos are being unfairly blamed and that they can't defend themselves because of a post-9/11 climate that is tougher on immigrants. New state laws limiting immigrant driver's licenses and allowing local police to hold suspected illegal immigrants without a warrant has made it harder to get to work and has widened the gulf between the Latino population and police. People who have information about drug dealing don't want to cooperate with police because the possible losses aren't worth it, advocates say.
"When you have law enforcement labeling members of that community, and there isn't trust between the two groups in general -- trust has to be built," said Esteban Nieto, who came to Harrisonburg 41/2 years ago from Mexico and is on a state task force aimed at preventing crime in minority communities.
Nieto works in human resources at a Cargill poultry processing plant in Dayton, outside Harrisonburg, where 65 percent to 70 percent of the workers are "foreign born," he said. Although that mostly means Mexican-born, Harrisonburg is home to major state- and church-sponsored refugee resettlement programs, and there are pockets of Kurds, Cubans and Croatians, among others, in the area. Some people feel that the region's reliance upon immigrant workers -- legal residents as well as illegal -- doesn't help open up the drug discussion.
Rick Castaneda, a liaison between immigrant families and the Harrisonburg school system, said local industries could be powerful advocates for their workers by lobbying against measures that make life harder for immigrants. But because they don't want anything interfering with the flow of labor, they don't touch those issues.
"Our local industries depend on immigrant labor, and so they close their eyes to this. If someone is having trouble, they'll look away," said Castaneda, who also chairs the local Hispanic Services Council.
Some people said that there has not been more outcry from the community because users in rural areas are not as visible and that thus far, the meth business hasn't resulted in any real violence. But the fact that the price of meth has plunged from $32,000 per pound in 1997 to $4,000 today means either that there are many more users or that the Shenandoah Valley has become a regional distribution hub -- or both, officials say.
Users and people who work with addicts say another reason the meth boom seems to have gone off so quietly is because that's the culture of the drug world -- secretive.
Nancy Haden runs a treatment program at the Northwest Community Services Board in Front Royal, about 30 miles west of Manassas. A selling point for users, Haden said, is that meth can be taken multiple ways; people shave some off the crystal form and smoke it in a pipe, heat it into liquid and shoot it intravenously, mix it with other powders and smoke it. It also can be taken in a pill. Some people wrap it in food, like bread, and eat it, she said.
Haden says the "old drug" has come roaring back. She disagrees with officials who say there aren't many people making their own. "I'd be surprised if we don't have hundreds of meth labs," she said. The relapse rate with meth is particularly high, she said.
"It's very rural and very underground," Haden said. "It's kind of like, you don't hear about people making hard liquor anymore, but they still do."