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For fomatted story, visit http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/media/2006/media0331.html.
On March 19, the Washington Post warned readers of a growing meth epidemic in the D.C. area. Turns out, there are plenty of sources out there that suggest the paper got it all wrong—including plenty of statisticians and on-the-record experts indicating there is no big meth problem in the region.
Says Metro section editor Robert McCartney: “We stand by our article. It’s based on interviews backed up by on-the-record quotes and on statistics provided by police and health officials. It’d be nice to have more details, and we’ll be looking to provide more information to readers as it becomes available.”
Until those details get filled in, here’s how the story could have been written, using much of the Post’s reporting to draw another conclusion.
(Post content looks like this.)
Washington City Paper Staff Writer
Jimmy Garza was freaking out. As officers handcuffed him inside his posh Fairfax County home on charges relating to a crystal meth addiction, the America Online administrator realized he was about to lose his $60,000-a-year job, his two cars and his freedom.
The arresting officers seemed baffled by his drug of choice. “You know, we don’t have a meth problem in this area,” Garza remembers one of the officers telling him that night in 2004.
“Are you kidding?” Garza, now 40, snapped back. “Wake up and look around you.”
The officers were not kidding. The number of seized methamphetamine labs in the Washington area has been flat in recent years; the number of meth-related visits to emergency rooms has plummeted. National data show meth use falling off in recent years. Federal officials and local law enforcement confirmed what the arresting officer told Garza.
“It’s not that big of a deal, but we’re keeping it on the radar,” said Kristine Vander Wall, an intelligence analyst with the Washington/Baltimore bureau of the federal High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program who has done heavy analysis of meth usage and arrest data.
Meth, a mildly addictive synthetic drug that stimulates the nervous system, has not infiltrated the Virginia suburbs to any significant degree.
The same is true for Maryland and the District of Columbia. In 2004, Loudoun, Fairfax, and Arlington Counties reported no meth-lab seizures. Prince William County had one that year; in 2005, the number was zero for all four suburban counties. Overall in Virginia, 75 labs were seized in 2004. That number stayed level in 2005, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); in both years, the seizures were generally in the Southwest part of the state, near Kentucky and Tennessee.
The District had one seizure in 2005.
In Maryland, eight meth labs were seized in 2005—all in rural areas. Three were in Anne Arundel, two in Harford, and one each in Charles, Caroline, and Cecil Counties.
Sgt. Shawn A. Urbas, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel police, said that the county’s three lab seizures have not corresponded with a noticeable increase in meth use. “It’s funny—the Washington Post guy asked me that, but we haven’t per se seen any increase in meth possessions here,” he said. Media reports, however, are keeping county officers vigilant. “I’ve seen the shows on Dateline and Oprah, and it’s a nasty drug,” he said.
For years, officials thought the Washington region might be immune to methamphetamine, which has ravaged West Coast and midwest communities for more than a decade. Some wondered if meth was just a localized problem.
All indications are that this thinking is generally correct. Further, national data regarding meth use suggests that the problem is less serious in the West and Midwest than was previously reported. The two largest national drug surveys show that the trend in meth use is flat or declining. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that meth use between 2002 and 2004 was level. The University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future youth-drug-use survey, the longest-running of its kind, charts a decline among high-school students from 1999 to 2005.
Meth-related visits to emergency rooms in the region are also declining. In 2001, according to federal data, 33 people in the District mentioned having used meth before coming to the emergency room—though the use might or might not have contributed to the need for the ER visit. In 2002, that number was 17, and in 2003—the last year for which data is available—the number fell to 10, which represents 0.2 percent of all drug mentions. In Maryland in 2002, the figure was 122, rose to 142 in 2003, then fell to 129 in 2004. That also represents 0.2 percent of all drug mentions. In Virginia, the numbers rose from 130 in 2001 to 545 in 2004—still less than 1 percent of all drug mentions. The numbers are not broken out by rural, suburban, or urban regions.
Because of the lack of any evidence of a serious meth problem in the region, law-enforcement agencies are focusing their priorities on actual problems.
“The jurisdictions in this area just have not picked up on the exigency regarding crystal meth,” said Sgt. Brett A. Parson, commanding officer of the D.C. police’s gay and lesbian liaison unit.
Sounding the alarm that the meth crisis could become the next crack epidemic, some law enforcement and public health officials are pushing for a stronger response.
However, the officials have provided no justification for their alarms, which have been repeated without comment in the media.
Vander Wall said such media reports have an immediate impact on drug policy. “Sometimes the media has a tendency to sensationalize certain drugs. They did it with PCP a year or two ago. My director came to me and said, ‘Kristine, we need to get on top of this PCP,’ and I said, ‘Whoa, let’s analyze this first and see if it’s actually a problem,’” she said.
Meth use is “certainly something we’re paying attention to because of the national trend out there. But I’d say it has not hit us hard here,” said Capt. Mary Gavin, vice narcotics commander with the Arlington County Police Department. She said that she does see some meth arrests in the county, though they are less frequent than those for marijuana, cocaine, prescription pills, and heroin.
Asked to name any drugs that are less prevalent than meth, she said, “Steroids.” After a long pause, she added, “And LSD. We don’t see much of that.”
The DEA agrees, writing on its Web site, “Although still minimal, localized clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine has increased in Virginia every year for the past several years, with most of the activity centered on the far southwestern corner of the state bordering West Virginia, North Carolina, and Kentucky. The Shenandoah Valley region contains the highest percentage of methamphetamine abusers in the state.”
And the DEA doesn’t seem to think the Washington region has much to worry about from the Maryland side, either. “Methamphetamine is not in high demand nor is it widely available in the state of Maryland,” reads the site.
Experts said one of the biggest problems in bringing attention to the meth problem in the area is the lack of reliable statistics on the number of users. Experts, though, don’t let that get in the way. Richard Rawson, a professor at UCLA who has studied the drug for two decades, said public health indicators of a meth problem—such as emergency room visits and patients in treatment—lag five to seven years behind the emergence of the drug.
“In some places”—such as the Washington region—“the public health people are saying, ‘Well, we’re not seeing it; it’s not that big a problem here,’” he said. “But that’s not what the data means.”
The most compelling predictors of an emerging meth epidemic, Rawson said, are the presence of meth use in the gay community and the discovery of even small numbers of meth labs.
By Rawson’s standards, Jimmy Garza is a perfect example: He’s gay. But his tale sheds little light on the prevalence of meth outside of the gay community. He said that most people he used meth with were also gay, though not exclusively. Because he has quit, he said he cannot speak with authority on the prevalence of the drug since 2004.
The region also meets Rawson’s standard of a small number of meth labs—a number that is even more minimal given what constitutes a lab seizure. A stray bottle or tubing can suffice.
“A lab can be something as small as somebody trying to cook something up in a milk jug,” said DEA spokesperson Steve Robertson. Jonathan Newell, the state’s attorney for Caroline County, Md., said the lab discovered there in 2005 was mostly for the methhead’s personal use; it could produce maybe an ounce at a time. “It was not a sort of major distribution and production center,” he said.
One possible explanation for the flat national rate of meth use and the lack of a serious local problem could be that the drug is not very addictive. A recent federal survey showed that of the 12 million people who had used meth in their lifetime, only 1 in 10 had used it in the past year. Only 1 in 25 had used it in the past 30 days.
Despite the evidence, health officials are also pushing for legislation that would restrict the sale of cold medications that contain pseudoephedrine, one of the ingredients used to manufacture meth. Virginia, like many states across the country, limits such sales, but Maryland and the District do not.
The dearth of labs in Maryland, the District, and suburban Virginia raises questions as to the purpose of this proposed legislation. Health officials did not explain why someone would make a 15-hour round-trip drive from Southwest Virginia to the District or Maryland to buy cough medicine.
Some former addicts, though, said the best way to stop meth is to educate the public about its dangers. Garza said he was adamantly against drugs—“I was totally Nancy Reagan about it”—until a friend offered him meth and he began using it at clubs.
Soon he was hooked on the drug—which causes users to stay up for days at a time—and at one point partied for seven straight days without sleep. “I had no idea that that first little bit would alter my life forever,” he said. Many people, according to federal data, use the drug once or twice and don’t touch it again.
After his arrest, Garza lost his job, was evicted from his home, and declared bankruptcy. He was able to get treatment, though, and now works as a limo driver. His primary mission is to tell his story so that people realize the dangers of meth.
“Even though it’s so obviously here, it’s still very hidden. It’s very hush-hush,” Garza said. “But we’re trying very hard to bust the secrecy off of it.”CP