Methamphetamine has officially overtaken cocaine as Ventura County's biggest problem drug--and law authorities say they are trying to deal sternly with the increased use before it gets even more out of hand.
Last year, local police, prosecutors and probation officials handled a record number of drug cases, largely because of the methamphetamine explosion.
At the same time, cocaine consumption showed signs of tapering off slightly.
Methamphetamine--also called speed, crank and ice--is an old drug that died out in the late 1960s, then resurfaced in recent years as a cheap alternative to cocaine.
"It made a comeback--and the comeback is huge," county probation chief Doug Hansen said.
The numbers back him up.
In the past three years, prosecutors have tripled the number of felony charges filed against those accused of possessing the powerful stimulant.
"It's putting pressure on the organization," said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Ronald C. Janes, whose office has made possession of the drug an automatic felony even though the law allows it to be filed as a misdemeanor. "It has had a toll."
In the past four years, methamphetamine seizures by the sheriff's narcotics unit have increased threefold as well.
"We are spending a preponderance of our time on those type of cases," complained Lt. Craig Husband. "In all the years I've worked narcotics, I can't remember a drug becoming that entrenched that quickly."
At the county Corrections Services Agency, the rate of juveniles on probation has increased 40% in the past two years--a fact authorities also blame on methamphetamine.
"We thought we were making progress with youngsters, but it's looking like drug use is now cranking up again," Hansen said.
Before this resurgence, police associated methamphetamine primarily with bikers.
Then Mexican nationals began setting up production labs in rural areas of California, officials said, kicking off the most recent drug trend.
On the bright side, cocaine use has appeared to dip--however slightly--since the methamphetamine explosion took hold, authorities said.
The most dramatic sign of decreased trafficking in cocaine can be found in the activity of the sheriff's narcotics unit. There, investigators seized cocaine during only 35 busts in 1994, compared to 165 in 1991.
Prosecutors also have filed fewer cocaine charges: 352 in 1994 compared to 375 in 1992. On the flip side, methamphetamine filings increased from 186 in 1992 to 608 last year.
Officials are now focusing almost exclusively on the county's increased appetite for methamphetamine. One of the reasons for their concern, they say, is that people high on the drug tend to be violent, thereby committing other crimes.
Prosecutors, for instance, are not letting people caught for possession of small quantities of methamphetamine off easily.
"This is a very serious problem," said prosecutor Janes, adding that meth use leads to domestic violence as well as other crimes.
Janes said the policy of seeking felony charges means that more time is tied up holding preliminary hearings, which are not conducted in misdemeanor cases. But he said the effort is worth it to have more control over how the case is resolved.
But that is not the way Assistant Public Defender Duane Dammeyer sees it. Only the most serious cases involving substantial amounts of methamphetamine should be tried as felonies, he argued.
Dammeyer said that one out of every three felony cases being handled by his office involves methamphetamine. He said a lot of them could be handled just as easily as misdemeanors.
Criminal cases are not the only court matters where methamphetamine use is an issue.
Superior Court Presiding Judge Melinda A. Johnson said that many of the county's cases of child abuse and neglect involve parents who are hooked on methamphetamine.
Experts say people high on methamphetamine get into trouble with the law because the drug makes them violent, irrational and paranoid.
"When you get into hard-core use, you will use it for three or four days to stay awake," said USC professor Greg Thompson, director of the Los Angeles Regional Drug and Poison Information Center. "And the longer they use it, the more paranoid they get."
Street officers say they frequently see those reactions from users.
"They believe that people are watching them," said Husband. "They are up all night. Their life is turned upside down. They don't eat. They lock themselves up in rooms for days at a time."
Many users like to use it for long stretches of time. A small dose of methamphetamine produces a high that lasts up to 14 hours, experts said.
For those users, methamphetamine can generate feelings of euphoria, arousal, stimulation and energy, experts said.
But it can also lead to increased blood and heart rates, causing hypertension and high blood pressure.
The drug can be fatal, causing strokes, heart attacks and liver diseases, experts said.
Methamphetamine's strong effect is enough to turn off those used to some other drugs.