Methamphetamine cases have flooded Ventura County police departments and courts in the past year, and some authorities say it is poised to become the county's most-used drug.
"Our agents are saying right now that if this trend continues, methamphetamine could pass cocaine as the drug of choice in Ventura County," said Ralph Lochridge, spokesman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Sheriff's deputies seized 10 times more methamphetamine during the first six months of this year--$5.1 million worth--than they did in the previous five years combined.
At the district attorney's office, where methamphetamine charges were once rare, prosecutors filed 142 of them in 1992 and, as of Friday, had already charged suspects with 141 such counts this year.
At that rate, the number of charges filed will increase by 19% over last year.
Most authorities agree that the county's methamphetamine explosion has two main causes:
First, manufacturers like the drug because it is easy to make and extremely profitable. Second, users like methamphetamine because it is affordable and delivers long-lasting effects.
But authorities warn that the drug--a powerful stimulant also known as\o7 crank, speed, tweak \f7 and \o7 go fast\f7 --has its dangers.
For example, some chemicals used in the manufacturing process are combustible and have caused explosions in places where it is processed.
The chemicals are often toxic and endanger the environment when they are stored illegally, which is nearly always the case, authorities say.
A third problem is that methamphetamine users are known to be violent.
"The drug itself creates paranoia," the DEA's Lochridge explained. "Most of the methamphetamine users seem to be heavily armed. And they seem to have this bunker mentality, and they will hunker in and shoot up speed for days on end with a sort of survivalist mentality.
"Lots of guns and lots of paranoia," he said.
In years past, narcotics investigators say, only a handful of methamphetamine labs operated in Ventura County. Most were small and operated by known culprits, especially the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.
That has changed.
Many drug-dealing bikers have been imprisoned in recent years, leaving a void in Ventura County's crank community that has been filled primarily by a wave of Mexican nationals, authorities said.
The new crank dealers are more sophisticated and ambitious, cooking up larger batches of the product than local investigators have ever seen, said Sgt. Arnold A. Aviles, head of the sheriff's 16-member narcotics unit.
"In the mid- to late '80s, we'd have one lab a year that we'd investigate," Aviles said. "Now, we are finding them fairly often."
In the first quarter of this year, for example, investigators raided four major methamphetamine labs in Ventura County.
One bust occurred at a lab in a remote canyon outside Camarillo.
Described as the largest methamphetamine lab ever raided in county history, the setup had an elaborate underground generator that supplied electricity to the drug-making operation.
Aviles and other agents on the raid seized six flasks with more than 90 pounds of nearly finished methamphetamine and numerous gallons of chemicals used to complete the manufacturing process.
Most of the drugs, which had an estimated street value of $4 million, were believed to be destined for Los Angeles, although authorities say some would have remained in Ventura County.
"I suspect the reason you are seeing a dramatic increase is, methamphetamine is a made-in-America drug," said Sgt. Bill Bogner, supervisor of the Ventura police narcotics unit. "You can make it in your back yard or in your garage, and you don't have to worry about smuggling it across the border."
Still, officials say most of the ingredients used to concoct the drug are brought into the United States from Mexico.
The reason: The U.S. government has prohibited the over-the-counter sale of red phosphorus and many other methamphetamine-creating chemicals.
Those who do manage to assemble the needed ingredients typically are small groups of people who invest about $4,000 in chemicals and equipment. After six hours of mixing a batch of methamphetamine, they can potentially earn $50,000 to $100,000, Lochridge said.
As the DEA's Lochridge said, there has been "a proliferation of ma-and-pa type laboratories" in the county.
Most of the manufacturers try to locate their factories in the countryside. Some even bribe or threaten ranchers to get access to their property.
"Because of the chemical odors that are put off by most of the labs, areas concentrated with residences are not the best places to have them," Bogner said. "That's why they are found out in the country a lot."
Authorities say methamphetamine labs thrive because the demand for the drug has taken off.
The drug, which comes in rock or powder forms, offers an intense high that can leave the user seriously impaired and even incoherent, narcotics officers say.