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Meth incidents jump in state

| Monday, Feb. 27, 2006

A long-feared explosion in methamphetamine use may be arriving in Western Pennsylvania.

State police responses to meth labs skyrocketed from 19 in 2001 to 124 last year. In Allegheny County, responses jumped from none in 2004 to five last year. And in Cranberry, Butler County, which authorities view as a key crossroads in the drug's incursion into the Golden Triangle, local police made their first meth lab bust last year.

"It seems that the crystal methamphetamine is starting to rear its ugly head in Butler County," Cranberry police Sgt. Dave Kovach said.

Cheap and easy to make, meth has thrived in America's heartland, with labs popping up in small towns from California to the Carolinas. The drug has been around Western Pennsylvania for years, but its prevalence has yet to reach the epidemic proportions seen in other areas of the country.

"We've been living under a lucky star," said Pat Cannon, head of the Butler County District Attorney's Drug Task Force.

Local authorities said that could be changing. Police uncovered nearly 50 suspected meth labs in Erie, Crawford, Warren, Forest, Venango and Mercer counties last year. Produced in home labs, the drug thrives in rural areas -- such as Crawford County and much of Butler County -- where its makers can be nearly impossible to track down.

Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center, said he's seen signs of increased meth use in the region. The number of meth addicts admitted to Gateway facilities has doubled in the past several years, he said. Many of those being treated either made the drug or got it from local labs, rather than buying out of state as in previous years, he said.

Known by such names as crank, crystal, ice and tweak, meth is a more potent version of the drug amphetamine, developed by the Japanese in 1919. It was once a common prescription drug in the United States called Methedrine and is still prescribed for attention deficit disorder and weight loss under the name Desoxyn.

Meth users inject it, smoke it, snort it or dilute it with liquid and swallow it. The drug produces a euphoria that can last for six to 14 hours, compared with a typical cocaine high of 30 minutes.

But the drug is pure poison.

Meth makers frequently burn themselves or blow up their homes. Addicts often steal to support their habits, become violent when confronted by authorities or neglect their families while chasing or relishing another high.

"With meth, it's just such a continual problem," said Melanie Swanson, prevention specialist at the Bucks County Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in Doylestown. "(Addicts') kids are often found starving or with dirty diapers or just totally unsanitary conditions."

A bill, introduced last year by state Sen. Richard Kasunic, D-Dunbar, Fayette County, would require people buying pseudoephedrine and ephedrine -- key ingredients in meth -- to provide a photo ID. The drugs are commonly used in over-the-counter cold medications. Kasunic's bill also would require pharmacists to track buyers' names and addresses.

"I can't overemphasize how substantial a step that is in putting a stop to locally manufactured methamphetamine," state police Capt. David F. Young said.

Police and drug agents throughout Western Pennsylvania have braced for the worst, undergoing training to spot signs of meth labs and know how to respond.

"We've been getting ready for it for several years because we saw it coming down, primarily from the north, from the Allegheny National Forest region," Armstrong County District Attorney Scott Andreassi said.

Authorities in Bradford County -- where meth lab busts jumped from none in 1999 to a state-leading 33 in 2005 -- said Andreassi and others are right to be on guard, especially because of the sudden rise in meth busts in Northwestern Pennsylvania.

"It's drastically changed our community," Bradford County Sheriff Steven Evans said. "We've had houses burn down, overdoses, fatalities from cookers inhaling fumes." In March 2004, a man killed two Bradford County sheriff's deputies as they tried to serve him a warrant for unpaid fines and court costs in a meth case.

"I've never in my life seen anything like this," Evans said. "I've seen heroin addicts and cocaine addicts, but I've never had those people come up to me and say, 'This meth is out of control, you've got to do something about it,' and I've had that happen several times with methamphetamine."

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