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Pacific Northwest Rocked by Methamphetamines

July 28, 2002|MATTHEW DALY | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

WASHINGTON — Five Pacific Northwest residents graduated this month, but they didn't wear caps and gowns.

The five--four "meth moms" and a dad--are all recovering methamphetamine addicts, and their graduation was held in a Tacoma, Wash., courtroom, where a judge pronounced their completion of a yearlong treatment program.

They hope to go on and lead productive lives now that they've finished the program--one of many funded by the federal government to help meth users kick a habit that counselors say is harder to shake than heroin.

"These people are not felons," said Terree Schmidt-Whelan, executive director of the Pierce County Alliance, which runs the treatment program. "They're in here to try to help them get their kids back and work toward getting a job."

Graduation by itself does not guarantee the addicts custody of their children--taken from them because they were deemed incapable of providing adequate care. But it greatly increases chances for the program's 84 participants, Schmidt-Whelan said.

The $422,000 program is part of the Washington State Methamphetamine Initiative, a consortium of social service, law enforcement and community organizations that has so far received $4 million in federal money to address a problem that has reached epidemic proportions.

California, Washington and Oregon are ranked among the five worst states in the country in terms of methamphetamine use and production, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

More than 1,800 meth labs were seized in California last year, including 235 high-quantity "superlabs." Seizures in the Golden State were second only to Missouri, and the number of superlabs seized in California far exceeded any other state.

The numbers are almost as grim for Washington and Oregon. Nearly 1,500 meth labs were seized in Washington last year--third-greatest in the nation--and 584 labs were seized in Oregon, the fifth-greatest in the country.

The drug problem is so severe that last year, two dozen lawmakers, including Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), formed the bipartisan Congressional Caucus to Fight and Control Methamphetamine. The group now includes 88 of the 435 House members.

For as little as $10, a meth user can get a more euphoric high than cocaine and one that lasts a long time--from one to three days, said Baird, a clinical psychologist who treated meth addicts before being elected to Congress in 1998.

While the drug is imported into the region from Mexico and other countries, it is also widely manufactured, or "cooked," in the Pacific Northwest in vans, motels and, increasingly, in forests. Ingredients are extracted from over-the-counter items such as the cold medicine pseudoephedrine, and recipes are widely available on the Internet.

To combat the problem, officials have devised a three-pronged approach that includes law enforcement, treatment and prevention. Funding for the Washington state meth initiative, for instance, was doubled, from $2 million in 2000 to $4 million for the current fiscal year.

In Oregon, Democratic Rep. Darlene Hooley recently helped win approval of a $580,000 federal grant to fight meth in Marion County. She helped arrange a helicopter tour of Oregon this spring by DEA chief Asa Hutchinson and White House drug czar John Walters.

The flight over a busted meth lab near Gervais showed how difficult it is for police to stop meth production, Hooley said.

"When you look at it from the air, it looks like it's just another house. That's what makes it so scary," she said.

Oregon's high-intensity drug-trafficking program, or HIDTA--which focuses on methamphetamine, heroin and other drugs--received $2.5 million in federal money last year, but Hooley and other lawmakers say more resources are needed.

"People who use methamphetamine become paranoid, delusional and sometimes violent," Hooley said.

Charles Karl, executive director of the Oregon program, requested a $1.5-million increase for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 to allow the state to expand the three-county drug-trafficking area.

The Oregon program only got an increase of $250,000, which Karl said is too small to fund expansion.

"It's frustrating," he said.

In Washington, officials have requested about $630,000 to expand the seven-county program area.

No decision has been made, but Baird said there's "a high probability" it will happen.

The meth caucus was instrumental in increasing overall funding for the program by $20 million, so it makes sense to use that money where caucus members believe it is needed, Baird said.

Dave Rodriguez, director of the Northwest HIDTA program, based in Seattle, said any expansion must be approved by the White House drug office.

Even without expansion, the existing program, which stretches from the northern border to Olympia and Yakima, Wash., targets more than half the state, Rodriguez said.

But Baird said more must be done.

"We spend a billion dollars fighting cocaine in Colombia," he said. "But here we have a drug being produced in our own backyard, and we're not spending nearly enough as we should."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Meth's Top 10

*--* Meth's Top 10 The top 10 states for meth lab seizures last year: 1. Missouri 2,207 2. California 1,847 3. Washington 1,477 4. Kansas 819 5. Oregon 584 6. Oklahoma 580 7. Iowa 562 8. Texas 550 9. Indiana 499 10. Tennessee 461 SOURCE: Drug Enforcement Administration

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