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Meth Use on Rise in West as Cocaine Rates Fall

Health: As President Clinton releases funds to fight war on drugs, Justice Department report concedes no single strategy can work. Problems vary greatly by region and age.


WASHINGTON — The use of methamphetamines is rising dramatically in the Western United States, the Justice Department reported Saturday in an extensive new study that also shows America's crack cocaine epidemic appears to have peaked.

In response to the report, President Clinton, in what amounts to a new phase in the ongoing war on drugs, released $32 million in federal grants Saturday to help local officials devise strategies tailored for their communities.

"To stop the revolving door of crime and narcotics, we must make offenders stop abusing drugs," Clinton said in his weekly radio address from the Oval Office.

The new funds address the drug report's most sobering conclusion: that no single national strategy will work because the drugs of choice vary tremendously by region and age--with older users preferring cocaine and younger ones favoring marijuana.

"There is no single national drug problem," said Jeremy Travis, director of the National Institute of Justice, the Justice Department's research division. "We have lots of different local drug problems."

In the West, and particularly in San Diego, the report found that the use of methamphetamines continues to retain "a very solid hold," with nearly 40% of adults arrested in California's second-largest city testing positive.

Methamphetamine use soared in the early 1990s, with rates among adults who were arrested reaching as high as 44% in San Diego, 25% in Phoenix and 20% in San Jose, the study said.

By the mid-1990s, however, methamphetamine use fell significantly, with San Diego's rate dropping to 30%, Phoenix to 12% and San Jose to 15%. Law enforcement officials attributed the drop to crackdowns that focused largely on supply rather than demand.

But use of methamphetamines, which also go by the street names speed, crystal meth and ice, began climbing again, and the new study's urinalysis data indicated that such drug use "has returned close to" the record levels of the early 1990s.

The first of a planned annual "Report on Adult and Juvenile Arrestees" was based on urinalysis testing and interviews of more than 30,000 men, women, boys and girls arrested last year in 23 metropolitan areas.

The report comes at a time of increasing focus on the drug war as politicians jockey for partisan advantage before the November elections.

On Thursday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) joined Clinton in Atlanta to announce an unprecedented $2-billion nationwide media campaign to discourage children from using drugs.

The study reinforced the "strong nexus" between crime and drug use, with 50% to 75% of arrested people testing positive for drugs.

The decline of cocaine use was especially striking because many cities in the Northeast and the West had reached epidemic levels in the late 1980s, with 80% or more of those arrested believed to have been users.

But in Los Angeles, for example, 37% of men and 48% of women who were arrested last year tested positive for cocaine.

The study further found that cocaine use nationally was "two to 10 times" more likely among males 36 or older than males ages 15 to 20, a trend that could bring lower crime rates because "older cocaine users are aging out or dying out . . . ," said Jack Riley, director of the institute's Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring Program.

In Detroit and Washington, only 5% of the younger age group used cocaine, while nearly 50% of the older group tested positive.

Researchers call this discrepancy "the big brother syndrome," in which younger children shun a drug after seeing its devastating effects on older users.

A similar generational difference, although to a lesser degree, also was found for opiates, including heroin, with older suspects "several times more likely" than younger ones to test positive, the report said.

But the reverse seems to apply to marijuana, which was disproportionately concentrated among youths, the study found. In Los Angeles, juveniles had a 9% higher marijuana use rate than older suspects; in San Diego it was 5%.

Methamphetamine use prompted special concern among officials.

Noting that San Diego has been "extraordinarily hard hit," Riley said at a White House briefing that methamphetamine now surpasses cocaine and marijuana use among people arrested in the border city.

Other Western cities with high methamphetamine use among arrestees are San Jose (18%), Phoenix (16%) and Omaha (10%). By comparison, usage in Los Angeles was 8.9% for men and 4.7% for women.

The study also found that methamphetamine use is spreading to rural communities.

"It's easy to manufacture," Travis explained, adding that there is "good law enforcement evidence that much of the production of methamphetamine is connected to activities south of the border . . . "

Three California cities were among the 23 metropolitan areas included in the study: Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose. The institute plans to add other cities, including Sacramento and Las Vegas, for future study.

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