Pubdate: Wed, 06 Feb 2002
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company
Section: National
Author: Timothy Egan


GRANITE FALLS, Wash., Feb. 2 -- Just about every day, Sheriff Rick Bart is 
called about a crime that makes absolutely no sense, even within the 
universe of lawlessness.

There was the teenage boy who burned down his grandmother's house, the two 
men who climbed over a razor-wire fence into a rail yard to steal a tanker 
car of ammonia gas, and the father who walked away from his small children, 
leaving them crawling around in a house full of acidic chemicals strong 
enough to burn through the floor joists.

Sheriff Bart, of Snohomish County in western Washington, knows what is 
behind the horror stories.

"Meth," he said. "It touches every part of our lives in this county. I'd 
say it's getting to the point where 80 percent of all our calls are somehow 
related to meth. It's just out of control."

After becoming the drug of choice among rural whites in the Midwest, parts 
of the South and most of the West in the 1990's, methamphetamine has 
ravaged a number of rural areas of the country and has yet to hit its peak 
in use, law enforcement officials say.

"I would call it the No. 1 drug problem in rural America," said Asa 
Hutchinson, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

A synthetic stimulant that can be made in a portable cooler with 
ingredients bought at the corner drugstore, methamphetamine is known as a 
blue-collar drug, easy and cheap to produce.

California, because of its size, has the biggest meth problem in the 
nation, but Washington has been a close second, based on meth laboratory 
seizures and treatment requests.

Meth arrived here in Granite Falls, a former logging town 45 miles 
northeast of Seattle, about seven years ago. Since then, it has seeped 
deeply into the community, doubling its reach in the county every year, the 
police say. In the case of Sheriff Bart, meth has touched his family and 
his neighborhood. His nephew is battling meth addiction, and a 19- year-old 
woman who once lived next door used the drug as well.

"We've got a meth plague," Sheriff Bart said.

The number of meth laboratory seizures in Snohomish County alone last year 
was more than such seizures in New York, Pennsylvania and New England 
combined, according to Federal law enforcement figures.

At the main shopping center in Granite Falls, the Red Apple supermarket 
stopped selling sinus medication for a while because meth addicts were 
stealing it to get at its synthetic ephedrine, a main component of homemade 
meth. Next door, at the Pharm-A-Save, bright yellow notices are posted on 
shelves, warning that no more than three packets of sinus medication can be 
bought at one time.

Lacy Brooks, 26, drives around in the rain, her skin twitching, her mind 
racing, her nails bitten to a pulp. She has been trying to shed her 
addiction and is awaiting counseling. But she also carries a grocery list 
under the seat of her car, with all the ingredients for cooking meth.

"Solvents from the paint store, lithium from batteries, Sudafed -- I know a 
lot of this stuff could kill me," Ms. Brooks said in an interview. "But I 
also know that it gets me through. There are times when I don't feel normal 
without meth."

Another Snohomish County woman, Bertina Perry, 33, has been drug-free for 
two years, but she still shudders at her low point.

"I took a pocket knife and tried to lance an abscess in my mouth," she 
said. "I was doing my own dentistry. Lucky I didn't kill myself."

Because meth is concentrated in rural areas and in specific parts of the 
country, the number of Americans who use it seems relatively small. 
According to the government's annual national household survey on drug use, 
there were 387,000 regular users of meth last year.

Still, there are 50 percent more regular users of meth today than there are 
crack addicts, the study said, and people ages 18 to 25 are four times as 
likely to be using meth as to be using crack.

Experts do not know exactly why whites in rural areas and some suburban 
ones prefer the drug. But in places where heroin is taboo and cocaine is 
still considered exotic, meth is accepted.

"When we go into the schools in Granite Falls and ask students at assembly 
how many of them have tried meth or know somebody who has, a majority of 
the hands go up," Sheriff Bart said. Even accounting for normal adolescent 
exaggeration, other county officials say meth is pervasive.

Nearly two-thirds of all the crimes in Snohomish County, which is about 
half the size of Connecticut, can be tied to meth, said Jim Krider, the 
county district attorney. That includes murders, burglaries, robberies, 
domestic assaults, traffic accidents and credit card thefts.

"These people on a meth binge get paranoid, their brains are literally 
getting eaten, and they will do any thing to keep the high," Mr. Krider 
said. "But our solution is not to lock everybody up. If they agree to 
treatment -- and it takes about a year to effectively treat someone -- they 
can avoid jail."

But providing treatment has proved difficult. With the flood of addicts and 
budget cuts, waiting lists are long; fewer than one in five people eligible 
for treatment can get in, officials say. Snohomish County jails are also full.

As a result, meth addicts follow a circular course through jail and back 
onto the streets. The police, pharmacists and paint-store owners all know 
who the heavy users are, the strangers with familiar faces.

Almost two-thirds of referrals to social workers in Snohomish County for 
domestic violence or abandoned or neglected children are related to meth, 
said Cammy Hart-Anderson, who supervises social workers here.

"It's really depressing," she said. "Our phones never stop ringing."

The chemical byproducts of meth laboratories have become a big 
environmental problem in Snohomish County, and elsewhere in the West. 
According to the state, the number of toxic meth laboratory sites in need 
of immediate response nearly tripled to more than 2,000 in the last two years.

At the abandoned laboratories, often a trailer, a vacant house, a 
campground or the back of a car, officials find acid, flammable solvents, 
sodium hydroxide, lithium and ammonia, often accompanied by pressurized 
cylinders like fire extinguishers or scuba tanks.

"We see it everywhere," said Paul O'Brien, the leader of a spill response 
team for the Department of Ecology. "Sometimes they'll just dump it by the 
side of the road. It gets washed down into streams and kills salmon or 
poisons other forms of life."

Sheriff Bart said he was particularly worried about the attempted theft of 
a rail car full of pressurized ammonia.

"Those guys could have blown the whole neighborhood up," he said.

What frightens him even more, however, is how meth has become inescapable.

"Up here, at times it seems like it's in everybody's backyard," the sheriff 
said. "One guy at Rotary told me his son was cooking meth at his office, 
back in the corner. And then my nephew, this drug just took him over 
completely. What can you do? I can only lock up so many people."
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