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Meth in Maryland

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,Maryland.

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,Maryland.

"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. The state had two labs identified by authorities in 1994, eight the next year, 320 by 1998 and 1,500 labs in 2004.

"Meth just so quietly sneaks in," Van Haaften said. He was quick to point out that alcohol, not meth, is the most abused drug in his state. "But because [meth] just destroys lives it's brought fear into the hearts of Iowans," he said. About 15 percent of people in treatment programs in Iowa are being treated for meth.

Local drug experts point to Maryland's considerably lower numbers of identified meth labs as evidence that the state has so far escaped the drug.

"We haven't been as susceptible to the epidemics of stimulants that the West has been, historically," said Tony Tommasello, an associate professor with the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. "I can't explain it."

Erin Artigiani, a deputy director at the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland, College Park, said other drugs might be crowding out meth here. "Baltimore,Maryland has such a history of heroin and cocaine, it would be hard to get a foothold," she said. "A lot of the way the drug moves is though word of mouth. So far in Maryland I think we've been able to keep the word of mouth from spreading."

In Anne Arundel County,Maryland however, two of the three labs found last year were connected by word of mouth, police said. Two men who ran the first lab in Severna Park taught another man in Millersville how to make the drug before they were locked up. The Severna Park pair pleaded guilty this week to federal charges of conspiring to distribute meth.

Police stress that they haven't seen an increase in meth on the streets. "We're hitting the labs before they get going," said Ryan A. Frashure, an Anne Arundel County narcotics detective.

Weak Md. laws
But authorities are concerned about what they view as Maryland's weak laws.

The three young people from Indiana - two are college students - chose Maryland for their shopping spree after visiting an anti-drug group's Web site that provides information about which states have laws against buying ingredients for meth.

"They were entrepreneurs," said county Police Chief P. Thomas Shanahan, at a news conference where police displayed the boxes of medications and a detailed itinerary that included directions from one store to the next.

In the region, only Maryland and Washington don't have their own laws limiting the amount of pseudoephedrine-based medications that can be bought at any one time. However, the new Combat Meth Act makes such shopping sprees a federal crime.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said he and other prosecutors still want a state law: "That is a federal law, so how is that going to work in helping states like us?"

Such legislation was killed this year. Del. Pauline H. Menes, a Prince George's County Democrat who serves on the Judiciary Committee and chairs a drug and alcohol abuse panel, said: "We didn't want to move too fast and create too many programs feeling that we were too far ahead of the curve. ... We're not going to close our eyes to it; the question is how far should we go to get this under control. We felt there was no need to rush into it."

A federal law that goes into effect in September will require storeowners to keep some pseudoephedrine-based cold medications behind the counter. The federal law also requires consumers to sign a log and show an identification card before purchasing those medications. A similar state regulation is being considered.

Authorities point to inconsistencies in state law: Those caught bringing the drug into the state face up to 20 years in prison. But those who cook meth in the state face a maximum of five years, even though such labs are potentially explosive.

Officers who find meth labs must suit up in hazmat gear and test the air in suspected labs before they can be dismantled. None of the recently discovered labs in Maryland has exploded, but in Tennessee, there were 46 explosions or fires in meth labs in 2003, according to a federal study. And the creation of the drug yields toxic waste.

This year, the Maryland General Assembly killed legislation that would have increased penalties for cooking the drug. "There is no outcry for this," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat. "I've been introducing meth legislation for the last three years, and we've been having a hard time getting the attention of the committee."

State lawmakers are expected to approve a watered-down version of the penalties bill, but it would merely require meth cooks to foot the bill for cleaning up seized meth labs.

"It's a first step," Gladden said. Also frustrating for law enforcement officers: there is no formal mechanism for tracking meth labs discovered by police. Conaway, of the state police, uses an Excel spreadsheet and relies on phone calls from colleagues to keep a tally of busted meth labs. If state police aren't involved, Conaway scans news reports.

"You don't know the nature of the problem if you don't have accurate data about the problem," he said.

Tommasello, of the University of Maryland, noted that a recent federal study showed that meth use in the country is leveling out.

But, he said, "We have to be aware that there is a problem looming right around us and we could easily become caught up in an epidemic."

Meth labs seized in Maryland.
Methamphetamine, or meth, is an addictive stimulant that has ravaged some Western and Midwestern communities. The number of seized meth labs is rising in Maryland, though the figures are far lower than in neighboring states:

"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."