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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 07:47 GMT 08:47 UK
Meth wreaks havoc across US
For Rick Bart, the sheriff of Snohomish County, just north of Seattle, it has become a personal crusade.
"The addiction has got to a point . . . well, we can't handle it any more. It's permeating just about every level of our society - from business to home life, to schools, to stores, shopping malls, anywhere you go, we can point out the effects in our county."
He is talking about methamphetamine, a highly potent derivation of the stimulant "speed".
Meth stimulates the brain to produce a chemical called dopamine, flooding the user with feelings of pleasure, vitality and invincibility.
It feels so good that addicts are prepared to put up with the drug's downside - the devastating depressions and the disgusting side-effects.
Users stop sleeping or eating for days, becoming paranoid, and sometimes badly anorexic.
Some hallucinate, believing they have insects crawling under their skin. They cut themselves or scratch themselves raw. Long-term use may cause brain-damage.
But the vast majority simply don't care. Nearly all get addicted the very first time they use it - and then will do practically anything - legal or illegal - to get more.
An astonishing 80% of all crime in Snohomish County, says Sheriff Bart, is related to meth - from burglaries and credit card fraud, to domestic disturbance, child neglect and assault.
Until last year, Leroy Haufman - now reformed - was contributing to those statistics. Among other crimes he stole cars.
"It didn't seem like I'd ever get caught because I thought I had everything all figured out," he said.
"I could outdrive the cops because I wasn't afraid to die, so I could go into a corner at 100mph and they'd hit the brakes. But I wouldn't, because I didn't really care."
But why has meth, used for decades - in a weaker, more basic form by Californian biker gangs, suddenly become so popular? The key is its production.
Unlike cocaine or heroin, which have to be grown, meth can be "cooked" using utensils and ingredients available over the counter - cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, rock salt, solvents, ammonia and coffee filters.
And, about 10 years ago, this attracted the attention of organised drug traffickers based in California.
They sensed big profits by switching from cocaine, which had to be bought from Colombian growers and imported, to meth which they could make themselves.
This new meth could be smoked, instead of swallowed or injected making it even more popular among those with an aversion to needles.
The drug spread rapidly along the established drug routes - including Interstate 5, the main motorway north to the Canadian border. It goes right through Snohomish County, home of Sheriff Bart.
The police estimate that today, about 60% of available meth comes from the organised dealers while the rest is produced by amateur 'cooks' who found their own.
It might be cheap and relatively easy to make meth - but it is also extremely dangerous.
The process produces acids, acidic gases, and a myriad of mixtures which can burn right through to the bone.
Police approach meth production units with extreme caution. If possible, the meth lab is transported to a remote location and roped off.
Washington State, in the Pacific Northwest, has more meth labs per capita even than California - 60 were uncovered in 1995 and 1,880 in 2001.
The drug is also rampant in the Midwest - Wisconsin, Missouri, Indiana and Iowa - and experts say it is only a matter of time before it reaches the big cities of the eastern seaboard.
And, as soon as it arrives in a new state, it turns up in the schools.
This is a one of Sheriff Bart's biggest concerns: "We know about 25 or 26% of the kids in our high schools, and middle schools, are getting addicted to methamphetamine," he said.
"That is a huge number of young children who are being robbed of a real important part of their life."
Neva Hinsley is 15 - pretty, vivacious and - until she finally gave up the drug - one of the 25% of addicts.
She lives about 60km from Seattle in the small town of Granite Falls.
"Everyone knew that I was doing it, because they could either smell it, or they could tell by my eyes and how I was acting."
Donna fights back the tears as she speaks: "You never know if you're going to get a call from the morgue to come and identify her body.
"And then, if you do, are you going to be even able to?
"Or are they going to be so mangled from a terrible beating or whatever that you won't recognise them? That's the hardest part."
States across America are finally beginning to wake up to the threat. Washington State is trying to curb meth production, making it illegal to buy or sell, in one transaction, more than three packets of cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine.
Other states have introduced minimum sentences for meth cooks, and new penalties for the possession of meth ingredients.
After reaching the point when he "couldn't even be bothered to get up and steal something", Leroy Hoffman voluntarily went through drug therapy.
A year on and still "clean", he's celebrating - in his own small way - with a bowl of clam chowder at his favourite fast-food restaurant.
He ia planning a new life, with his new girlfriend, in California.
"I'm one of the lucky ones", he says. "Almost everyone I know who got in as deep as I did, eventually got shot by the police or by another drug dealer, or something terrible happened to them, and their life is over. I've pulled through it, luckily."
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