Meth threat grows in Maryland

Police see warning in rising number of labs, seek new laws


The first methamphetamine lab discovered by Anne Arundel County police was found last summer in a garage behind a two-story house in a leafy, middle-class Severna Park neighborhood. Soon after, another one was found, in a Lothian trailer park. Weeks later, there was another: in a shed near a ring where horseback riding was taught in Millersville.

Labs for making the addictive drug - which has ravaged some Midwestern and Western communities but has been relatively rare in Maryland - have also been discovered in Caroline, Carroll, Cecil and Harford counties. The nine labs uncovered in the state in 2005 represent the most found by authorities in a single year. There were three in 2004.

And two more were found in recent weeks in Wheaton and Garrett County.

"It is a significant jump," said Capt. Vernon J. Conaway, commander of the state police drug division.

Conaway said he feared the numbers of users and labs would grow: "It's never been a question of if; it's always been a question of when and to what degree."

Although the number of people treated for meth addiction in Maryland is low by national standards - 343 sought treatment last year, less than 1 percent of all admissions to drug treatment programs in the state - authorities are worried that the drug might be gaining a foothold. When it has surfaced in other states, its use has spread rapidly, leading to problems such as erratic behavior by addicts.

"We're hoping we don't see the same dramatic increase our neighbors have," Conaway said.

In Pennsylvania and Virginia, the number of meth labs discovered by authorities increased significantly between 2001 and 2005, according to federal figures. And West Virginia lab seizures jumped from 17 in 2001 to 212 last year.

These spikes partly reflect greater attention from police, but drug policy experts who've watched meth travel from state to state say Maryland lawmakers should beware - and quickly fix laws that make the state attractive to meth manufacturers.

For example, there are no state laws limiting access to the ingredients to make meth - a loophole that police say three Indiana young people tried to exploit last month. They purchased more than 100 boxes of pseudoephedrine-based cold and allergy medications in Anne Arundel, police say, with the intent of reselling them at a $14,000 profit to meth cooks in their home state. Prosecutors found the trio had not broken any Maryland laws, though such stockpiling is prohibited in other states and under a federal law that took effect yesterday.

Experts also say that criminal penalties in Maryland are easier on meth cooks than on those who carry the drug into the state and that there isn't a clear way to track meth labs.

"I think that labs that you are seeing are significant. It shows up first with a few labs here and there, and then more and more and more," said Richard Rawson, associate director of UCLA's Integrated Substance Abuse Programs. "As far as I can tell, there is no invisible barrier on the Maryland border that will keep meth out."

Powerful stimulant

Meth is a stimulant that can be smoked, injected, snorted or eaten. Users enjoy a euphoric feeling and often stay awake for days on end. Then they crash and sleep for days. As doses get higher, users become paranoid, aggressive and in some cases violent. Meth use can lead to brain damage, seizures, strokes and death.

Although meth use in the U.S. dates to the 1930s and the drug was outlawed in 1970, meth use soared in Western states in the 1990s, according to a University of Maryland report last year. Users tend to be low- and middle-income, mostly white, and from rural and suburban areas, according to a federal study. Meth has surfaced in urban gay communities.

Nationally, much of the drug is imported from "superlabs" in Mexico. But, what sets meth apart from drugs common to this area (heroin, cocaine) is that it can be cooked from readily available ingredients. The most important is pseudoephedrine, found in over-the-counter cold and allergy medications. Paint thinner, ether and matchbox strike plates can also be used in making meth.

Cooks work from different recipes - the most dangerous one calls for strips from lithium batteries. Those strips can combust when they get wet or damp. Some retail chains - including Target and Wal-Mart - voluntarily limited the amount of pseudoephedrine customers can purchase. Wal-Mart also limits lithium battery sales per customer.

In states where the drug is more prevalent, social services systems have buckled.

"When parents are on meth, that is their number-one priority - food for the children is second," said Marvin Van Haaften, the drug policy director for Iowa. In one Iowa county, Van Haaften said, 80 percent of all foster care placement was due to parents having meth lab convictions.

"Men feel like they're bulletproof and 10 feet tall," he said. "The kids are running across busy highways and begging for food from grocery stores while mom is asleep for three days."

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