HEALTH : In Rural America, Crank, Not Crack, Is Drug Plague

The Washington Post

In the piney woods surrounding this old east Texas oil town, a burgeoning cottage industry is taking root. Setting up makeshift laboratories in remote trailers and farm houses, an army of amateur chemists is churning out hundreds of pounds of "crank," a powerful chemical stimulant that has become the hottest-selling drug in a chunk of rural America.

"It's kind of like the old moonshine days," Paul Black, a Tyler police narcotics officer, said as he drove down an isolated dirt road near the recently discovered site of some crank labs. "It seems like every time we take one down, two more pop up. Sometimes I feel like I'm banging my head against the wall."

Used illegally for decades, methamphetamine--known as crank or speed--is enjoying a comeback in blue-collar and rural areas, a development officials regard as dramatic and alarming. Produced exclusively in the United States, crank could soon rival the popularity of crack cocaine in some parts of the country, especially the Pacific Coast and Southwest, drug professionals and law enforcement officials said. "This is our domestically produced cocaine," said Ray McKinnon, chief of the dangerous drugs desk for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, whose agents seized 810 crank labs last year--more than three times the number found in the early 1980s. With crack and crank "you have two drugs that have the same pharmacological effects on the body. They're really going to be in competition with each other," he said.

Federal drug officials estimate that rogue chemists will produce as much as 25 tons of methamphetamine this year--enough to generate nearly $3 billion in illegal profits. That will supply 1.5 million to 2 million crank users, or three times the estimated number of U.S. heroin addicts.

As McKinnon and others noted, the spread of crank defies some of the most common assumptions about the country's drug abuse problems.

While members of Congress call for the U.S. military to "seal the borders" against drug smugglers and to destroy South American coca crops, the crank phenomenon shows that the United States has developed its own thriving drug industry, more than capable of filling any foreign shortfalls of cocaine.

In Texas, one of the major crank-producing states, the indigenous roots of the drug are part of its appeal, some officials said. Often cooked and sold by motorcycle gangs, the drug sometimes is billed as a native American product so as to play on patriotic sympathies, much the way Detroit auto manufacturers try to steer car buyers away from Japanese imports.

'Patriotic to the Flag'

"They sell it as home-grown dope, made right here in the U.S.A.," said Brad Watson, a DEA agent who hunts crank labs from Waco, Tex. "Some of these groups are patriotic to the flag. They'll say, 'You should help Americans. Why give your money to the Colombians?' "

The drug and similar amphetamine products stimulate the nervous system, producing euphoria and excitement, often more intense than the high experienced by cocaine users. While long popular among truck drivers, crank has recently broadened its appeal, making inroads among the patrons of country bars, strip-tease nightclubs and small-town motels.

The profile of an average crank user, law enforcement officials report, is a white male in his mid-20s or older with a high school education.

"If you're a Wall Street guy, you're going to go with cocaine," said Kevin Fitzpatrick, chief of intelligence for DEA's dangerous drugs section. "But if you're a guy that likes to drive a Harley, your drug of choice is going to be methamphetamine."

During the 1960s, amphetamine diet pills were popular among college students, but use soon tapered off as pharmaceutical companies imposed controls on the drugs and health concerns mounted, epitomized by the slogan "speed kills."

In the mid-1980s, the more potent methamphetamine gained popularity, in part because it was cheaper than cocaine and produced a longer-lasting high. More recently, it has benefited from increased public awareness about the dangers of cocaine, drug professionals said.

A 'Tremendous Economy'

"There's a tremendous economy for this drug," said James Hall, executive director of Up Front Drug Information Center, a Miami-based group that recently prepared a study on the methamphetamine problem for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "It has a long duration of action as a single dose. Unlike cocaine, it will last six to eight hours for the first-time user. . . . So it has certain market advantages."

Preston Isham, 53, a mild-mannered former tile setter who never attended high school, is one of the residents here who has turned to crank in recent years. About three years ago, while working on a tile job in a private home, the owner gave him some crank. Isham said he was exhilarated.

"I stayed up for the next four days and nights straight," said Isham, who is now being held in the county jail pending trial on charges that he was trafficking in the drug. "It makes you talk 40 miles an hour. . . . You just want to stay up and keep going, and go out and party, man."

But Isham acknowledged the drug had its down side. "When you're coming down, it makes you nervous," he said. Isham also said he eventually became wary of crank. "I was scared if I did too much of it, I'd get to using that needle" for intravenous injections, he said. "That just ruins a man."

An Ideal Site

Such reactions are well known to officials in this city of 75,000 people about 90 miles east of Dallas. The Tyler region is now considered by federal officials one of the methamphetamine capitals of the country, largely because the rural surroundings are ideal for setting up clandestine laboratories.

"All of east Texas is just ate up with this," said Stephen Newton, a narcotics officer from the nearby city of Henderson, who along with Black has been assigned to a special DEA-local task force set up to destroy the crank laboratories. "It's amazing the amount of speed that's going around."

In the past 18 months, the DEA task force has broken up 35 crank labs, nearly the DEA's score in Dallas, which is considered another crank trafficking center.

Another factor driving the crank comeback is the enormous profit it offers dealers. Federal officials say all the chemicals needed--such as ephedrine and acetic anhydride--can be purchased in bulk from legitimate chemical wholesalers and distributors. About $10,000 worth of chemicals and $2,000 worth of lab equipment, such as triple-neck flasks, will make $200,000 worth of the drug, they estimate.

Recipes for mixing the chemicals are swapped openly among dealers, and officials say it takes only a few days for a novice to learn the process. But manufacturing the drug has its hazards. Most of the chemicals are highly toxic and flammable, resulting in occasional fires and explosions in crank labs.

These have created a host of new headaches for the DEA. The agency has invested heavily in protective equipment and special masks for its agents, many of whom have reported dizziness and other ailments after entering the labs.

The agency is also increasingly worried about the labs' environmental effects. DEA agents recently raided a crank lab on a farm in Arkansas and found dead goats, pigs and cows on the premises--an apparent consequence of chemical seepage into the ground water.

The surge in crank use has fostered growing public health concerns. Emergency-room admissions linked to methamphetamine more than doubled from 1985 to 1987, according to the Up Front report. Fatal overdoses from the drug have increased and include 87 reported methamphetamine-related deaths in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego in 1986.

Bouts of Paranoia

Although crank is not initially as addictive as crack, drug specialists said crank eventually becomes habit-forming and produces bouts of extreme paranoia and nervousness among chronic users. Treatment specialists said users can experience intense psychotic episodes and become frenzied by imaginary attackers, such as police officers hiding around their homes or insects crawling over their skin.

"They'll start picking holes in their skin trying to chase the bugs away," said George Pate, clinical director of the substance-abuse unit at University Park Hospital in Tyler. "Of course the bugs are not there. . . . They're hallucinating."

Perhaps most alarming, specialists said, is the changing pattern in the way the drug is taken. An off-white or brownish chunky powder, crank is generally distributed in eighth-ounce quantities called "eightballs," packaged in plastic bags. The amount costs about $150 and provides several highs, depending on the degree of dilution and the user's tolerance.

That form of crank used to be snorted, much like cocaine, or dissolved in coffee. Now, however, users increasingly are mixing the powder in a water solution and injecting it intravenously, a method that provides a powerful crack-like jolt to the brain.

"Once they put the needle in their arm, they're gone," said Black, the Tyler narcotics officer. "Each time, they keep chasing that very first rush and they never obtain it. . . . It literally fries their brains."

The increase in needle use and sharing has raised new concerns about a possible outbreak of AIDS in communities such as this one. "These people are so paranoid they will not go and buy clean syringes because they're afraid the pharmacists will go and tell the police," said Robin Roberts, chief of Tyler's narcotics squad.

Motorcycle Gangs Deal

Compounding the problem is a growing sophistication in crank production and the emergence of large-scale crank trafficking groups, particularly motorcycle gangs such as the Hells Angels and the Banditos, federal officials said. The Banditos, who are particularly active in Texas, now are the target of a federal grand jury investigation.

"They have a significant share of the methamphetamine market in Texas," said Mark McBride, assistant U.S. attorney in Dallas.

The Banditos may represent the essence of crank culture, some law enforcement officers said. As one former Bandito put it: "Everything in the whole club revolves around crank. You can't ride a $10,000 motorcycle, have a big gun collection and take care of three 19-year-old ladies working in no . . . body shop."

To supply its expanding market, he said, Bandito "cooks" have set up labs throughout the area, using "recipes" that are frequently swapped at a nearby state penitentiary. "It's just pure money," he said. "This is just going to get bigger and bigger. I . . . see no way of stopping it."

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