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Meth on the Rise in Loudoun

In a survey conducted by the National Association of Counties earlier this summer, 58 percent of 500 law-enforcement agencies in 45 states cited methamphetamine as their most significant drug problem.

Having spread from the West Coast across the country over the past decade, the highly addictive and easily produced stimulant has ravaged communities throughout the United States.

In its wake, meth Ñ also known as "speed," "crank" or "crystal," Ñ has left a long trail of addicts, broken families and victims of violence.

Now, according to state, local and federal law-enforcement officials, meth use appears to be steadily increasing in Loudoun County.

"Meth is definitely on the rise in Loudoun," said Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office. "It's something we're starting to hear about and we're starting to see it on the street."

Meth can be made with a few hundred dollars worth of equipment and chemicals, most of which can be obtained at hardware stores and pharmacies.

An estimated 85 percent of all meth sold in the United States is produced by gangs. The remaining 15 percent is made in clandestine labs, often in motel rooms and low-rent housing, according to Doug Coleman, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency.

"If you follow the trend pattern over the last 10 years, meth has spread across this country like wildfire," Coleman said. "I'm not surprised they're starting to see it in Northern Virginia."

SO FAR, LOUDOUN AUTHORITIES have not discovered any clandestine drug labs in the county. However, an increasing number of labs are being discovered in neighboring Prince William and Clarke counties.

Throughout Virginia, the number of clandestine meth labs has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2001, only five labs were found in the state. Last year, the number of seized clandestine labs grew to 78. And with four months left in 2005, state law-enforcement officials expect this year's total will be even higher.

In July, law-enforcement agents in New Market, in the Shenandoah Valley, conducted a sting operation and seized more than $800,000 in meth. Also this summer, clandestine meth labs were discovered at motels in Winchester and Manassas.

At this point, Troxell said, Loudoun sheriff's deputies have simply caught a handful of low-level drug offenders who had meth in their possession. Even still, he said, Loudoun authorities want to prevent meth from gaining a foothold in the county.

"We believe the meth is coming in from elsewhere," Troxell said. "It's becoming more popular, but it's still far behind cocaine and marijuana in popularity."

JUST A FEW YEARS AGO, meth was primarily abused by truck drivers and young people attending rave parties. Now, law-enforcement officials report meth is being used by both white- and blue-collar workers in both rural and urban areas.

In Virginia, most meth produced in the far southwestern corner of the state. The highest percentage of addicts reside in the Shenandoah Valley, especially in the Harrisonburg and Rockingham County area, according to a DEA intelligence report on the state.

"Right now we're on guard," said Capt. Gary Jenkins of the Virginia State Police. "We haven't seen the major problems associated with meth yet in Northern Virginia, but we're watching closely."

Meth is often produced in rural areas, where privacy is easier to come by. When mixing the volatile chemicals in meth production, a pungent odor is typically emitted. In urban areas, meth labs are frequently discovered because of the smell.

Meth labs are also highly dangerous. Manufacturing the substance can produce hazardous waste Ñ approximately six pounds of waste for every one pound of meth Ñ and can explode, injuring the manufacturer or law-enforcement officers. The average cost of a meth lab clean up is $5,000, but the cost can climb upwards of $150,000 at large-scale labs.

In the past, meth was frequently distributed by motorcycle gangs. More recently, it appears to be primarily sold by Mexican drug cartels and independent dealers who produce homemade meth themselves, Coleman said.

EVEN THOUGH METH has not exploded yet in Loudoun as it has elsewhere, the growing number of meth-related arrests has caught the attention of U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10).

"Meth is coming here now," Wolf said. "It's been in the rural areas of Virginia, but it's coming."

West Virginia has restricted the sale of cold medicine containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine Ñ key components in methamphetamine production. Wolf said he suspects addicts and dealers may be leaving West Virginia and coming into Loudoun, where cold medicine is more easily obtained.

Wolf wants Virginia to also approve mandatory restrictions on the sale of cold medicine containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. In a July letter to all 140 members of the General Assembly, Wolf encouraged the state lawmakers to consider the restrictions in an effort to curtail meth production.

"Meth takes ahold of you and doesn't let go," he said. "We've got to do something about this drug."

While it is not yet known which lawmaker would carry a bill during the legislative session early next year, the bill may require pharmacists to keep the medicine behind the counter or limit the amount of cold medicine customers may buy.

James Pickral, policy director of the Virginia Pharmacists Association, said pharmacists would probably support some level of restrictions, but would oppose a measure that would make certain cold medicines prescription-only Ñ an anti-meth effort implemented in Oregon.

"We recognize that there is a problem and that something needs to be done," Pickral said.

Many pharmacists in Virginia already restrict the sale of potent cold medicine, following voluntary guidelines issued last year as part of the state's "Meth Watch" program.

At Costco in Sterling, for example, customers may only purchase one box of cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine Ñ namely, Sudafed and other decongestants.