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Methamphetamine, known as crystal, meth or crank, is the fastest growing drug problem in Juneau. "We're seeing a drastic increase in methamphetamine, in Southeast and Juneau," said Steve Hernandez, who heads up the drug unit for the Juneau Police Department. Based on seizures and police contacts with users, meth is becoming a primary drug of choice.
Meth is a powerful stimulant, a white powder that usually is snorted - inhaled - and occasionally injected. A cousin to prescription amphetamines, meth can be made in basic home labs using ingredients from hardware stores and pharmacies.
Editor's note: This is the second in a three-day series that looks at drug trends in the capital city.
Sunday: IV drugs
Monday: The new problem drugs - Meth and OxyContin
Tuesday: Kids and drugs
Hernandez said the cost of meth in Juneau is comparable to cocaine, $100 to $150 a gram. The price depends on quality, which ranges from poorly made, brownish "peanut butter" meth to high-grade, white crystalline powder.
A gram could provide three to five lines for a user, each providing an eight- to 12-hour high. Hard core users, called tweakers, can stay up for days doing meth. Like most forms of speed, meth makes users alert and agitated, and long-term meth users lose weight and become suspicious and paranoid, even suicidal, said Matt Felix, director of the Juneau chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
The drug, which is physically addictive, damages the central nervous system and the teeth, and tweakers tend to scratch because the drug causes dry, itchy skin.
People working in social services with drug users are seeing the increase as well.
"In our programs, 15 to 20 percent are (in for treatment of) meth. Meth is what's happening," said Greg Pease, who oversees behavioral treatment, outpatient and halfway house programs for Gastineau Human Services in Juneau.
"Meth used to be called 'poor man's coke' but then it just took off. In the last four years meth consumption and manufacture has gone through the roof," said Zoran Yankovich, who heads up the federal Drug Enforcement Administration in Alaska. Formerly a police chief in Haines, Yankovich now is based in Anchorage.
He said meth is rampant in the Midwest and on the West Coast. While Alaska doesn't have the scale of problems that Oregon and Washington are seeing, police say it's clear that use of the drug is growing in Alaska.
The Juneau district attorney's office also is seeing an increase in meth cases.
"I think meth cases are the biggest change we've seen in the past few years," said Dean Guaneli, chief assistant attorney general for the state. "Alaska lagged behind the rest of country, particularly the West Coast, on meth labs. But they've moved up the West Coast and started showing up, first in Anchorage, and we've seen a little bit in Juneau."
According to the DEA, 60 percent of the meth in the United States is made in Central California. But hundreds of meth labs have sprouted up. In Alaska, the DEA found 50 meth labs in 2000, and 21 in 2001.
The manufacture of meth is as much a concern to police as its growing use. The process creates stinking gases and toxic waste and is a fire hazard and potentially explosive.
Meth labs were discovered in Juneau in December 2000 in a Mendenhall Valley motel and in a home on Back Loop Road. In the latter case, the smell of the operation alerted the neighbors. There hasn't been a meth lab busted in Juneau since.
Sitka police found two meth labs this year, one aboard a boat and another in a home. Police said they were part of the same operation.
"They were stealing anhydrous ammonia from fish (processing) plants, leaking it out of tanks, which could have been a huge problem if they'd left a valve open," said Detective Ginny Moring of the Sitka police.
Moring said five dump sites for the chemical waste created in the manufacture of meth also were found in the area. Meth production creates six times its weight in waste.
"The dump sites are horrible," said Hernandez of the Juneau police. "There's some real caustic stuff there."
In some cases, small meth labs simply supply the users. A group of users will fan out to collect the ingredients for the cook. The group then splits up the product, a one- or two-ounce batch, for personal use.
Meth can be lucrative for the cook-it-yourself dealer, said Hernandez. According to the DEA, $100 in supplies can net $2,000 in meth.
"There's no growing the coke leaf, just the lab work," Hernandez said. "You're getting rid of a whole level and that means more profit. As a business person, that's the way to go."
Meth has such a lucrative mark-up in Juneau that Hernandez said dealers have told him they don't need the hassle of running a lab. Juneau prices have been around $100 a gram recently, low for Juneau but three or four times what users pay down south.
Hernandez said community involvement is a key factor in keeping meth usage down in Juneau. Police vigilance is greatly enhanced when neighbors and concerned citizens share information.
"Maybe someone in a neighborhood sees a house frequented by foot and vehicle traffic at all hours of the day and night for very short periods of time," Hernandez said. "What does that tell you? Maybe you've got a drug dealing situation there. If there's particular chemical odor coming from a closed location, a shed, house, or hotel room, we want to hear about that. It might be a piece of the puzzle we're looking for."
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A short history of meth
Methamphetamine was developed by a Japanese scientist in 1919.
Meth, known as crank or crystal, is part of a family of drugs that includes amphetamines such as Benzedrine and dextroamphetamines such as Dexadrine.
Amphetamines came into common use after Los Angeles research chemist Gordon Alles discovered in 1927 that it could treat respiratory illnesses, replacing other drugs then in short supply.
In 1965, possession of nonprescription amphetamines became illegal and the number of clandestine labs began to grow.
At that time, two methods were used to make "bathtub" crank. One is known as the Nazi method because it was employed by the Germans to make meth during World War II. It uses lithium and anhydrous ammonia as key ingredients. Also called the anhydrous ammonia method, it still is used in home labs.
The second method, called "prope dope" or P2P method, uses phenyl-2-propane as a key ingredient. This method has fallen out of favor because it is more precise and time-consuming than other techniques and the federal government began regulating the key ingredient in 1980.
Since then meth cooks have found new recipes using ephedrine and pseudoephedrine as key ingredients. These recipes proved to be easier and made a more potent form, known as d-meth.
Most of the ingredients are readily available from hardware stores and pharmacies. Ingredients, such as antifreeze, drain cleaner or lighter fluid, can be acquired without arousing suspicion, but not all of them. Even a small batch, producing perhaps an ounce of meth, requires 25 or 30 boxes of cold tablets, and drug stores are on the alert for those purchases.