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Potent Form of Speed Could Be Drug of ‘90s

Times Staff Writer

The use of methamphetamine, or speed, already a major problem in the Inland Empire and other areas of the state, is expected to rival cocaine as the illegal drug of the 1990s as smokable forms of speed become more available.

In Hawaii, a type of speed called “ice” that is sold in small crystals and smoked like cocaine-based crack already has become the islands’ most serious drug problem. And in Southern California, a smokable mixture of speed and crack--called “croak"--has been spreading.

Cocaine consumption proliferated when crack first appeared in the inner cities in mid-1985, and authorities are concerned that the same thing will happen with smokable forms of methamphetamine.

‘Speed Capital’

In the Inland Empire, known as “the speed capital of the world” because authorities say there are more outlaw labs there than anywhere in the country, methamphetamine already is the most commonly used illegal drug.

“You’ve got all these meth labs already in place, already churning out the drug,” said Dan Largent, a methamphetamine expert at the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. “Once they start making smokable forms of the drug it could spread like wildfire. Look at Hawaii. They don’t even have a crack problem. It’s all ice.”

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Almost 400 methamphetamine laboratories were busted in California in 1988, four times the number compared to five years ago. And in the last year about 100 speed labs have been raided in Riverside and San Bernardino counties alone, more than any other area in the country, authorities said.

Ice is considered highly addictive and more potent than the powdered form of speed, which usually is snorted. Smoking methamphetamine produces a higher concentration of the drug in the brain in a shorter period of time, authorities say. And the high from ice can last up to 12 hours, compared to the approximately 20-minute high from crack cocaine.

Los Angeles gang members who have moved to San Bernardino County have begun selling croak, the smokable mixture of powdered methamphetamine and rock cocaine, said Sgt. Felix Damico of the county sheriff’s narcotics unit.

“It makes for a bigger rock and a longer high,” Damico said. “We’re seeing more of it on the streets.”

In most of the nation’s cities, law enforcement efforts still are focused on cocaine. But as authorities become more successful in slowing the flow of cocaine into the country, speed labs will continue to multiply, said Edward Synicky, a narcotics bureau special agent based in Riverside.

Made in the U.S.A.

“You don’t have to pay someone to grow it in Colombia, and you don’t have to pay someone to smuggle it into the country,” Synicky said. “People set up their own labs and make the stuff right here in the U.S.A. The profits are greater and the risks are less.”

In the past, most of Southern California’s speed was manufactured in remote desert areas. Because one of the chemicals needed to produce speed is extremely odorous, “cookers” sought out isolated areas to make the drug, said Synicky. But a few years ago a new formula was developed and an odorless chemical was substituted. Now, with the threat of detection eased, an increasing number of the “cookers” are moving closer to urban areas.

Los Angeles traditionally has not been a big area for speed. Known as a biker or a blue-collar drug, it has been more popular in rural areas of the state. But in the last year 12 speed labs in Los Angeles have been busted, and use of the drug is on the rise in the city, said Detective Roy Wunderlich of the Los Angeles Police Department’s lab squad.

“I have no doubt that meth is going to be the No. 1 drug problem before too long,” Wunderlich said. “Once they find out they can rock it and smoke it, they’ll be off and running, and society will be inundated with it.”

A Longer High

Speed is popular in the gay community in West Hollywood, authorities say, and in the eastern San Fernando Valley. And some crack users have turned to croak because a pinch of speed “gives legs"--lengthens the high--of rock cocaine.

Because of the recent speed epidemic in Hawaii, California authorities are most concerned about ice becoming popular on the mainland. Most of the ice used in Hawaii is smuggled into the state from illegal labs in Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong, said Lt. Alika Desha of the Honolulu Police Department’s narcotics unit.

In the last year ice has surpassed cocaine as Hawaii’s most widely used illegal drug, Desha said. At Queen’s Medical Center, Honolulu’s public hospital, an average of six people a day are admitted to the emergency room after smoking ice. And a recent survey among pregnant mothers receiving state welfare benefits indicated that about a quarter of their babies had methamphetamine in their systems, Desha said.

Because the high from ice lasts much longer than that from crack, the psychological crash is more severe, said Ken Willinger, a psychologist with the Hawaii state Alcohol and Drug Abuse Division.

“We’re seeing people with some serious problems,” Willinger said. “A lot of paranoia, hallucinations and depression. It’s similar, and in many cases even worse, than chronic cocaine use.”

Desha, who has given seminars on ice to California law enforcement officials, said the drug surfaced about 18 months ago and was first distributed by Asian gangs.

“Now it’s touched everyone--all levels of society,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t spread to California, but if you look at drug trends and the amounts of labs there, indications are that it will.”

Speed was popular in the late 1960s, and outlaw motorcycle gangs became involved in the manufacture and distribution of the drug. By the early 1970s, speed use waned in Southern California because of its addictive qualities--many users at the time injected the drug--and its reputation for side effects.

But in the last few years speed has been making a comeback. And in the remote desert areas of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, law enforcement authorities estimate that there are hundreds of illegal labs.

“In the big cities coke is still the No. 1 problem, but out here it’s meth,” said F. J. Harnen, a Drug Enforcement Administration special agent based in Riverside. “At one time a lot of bikers lived in the desert and they started out using the stuff. They got it going and the drug spread throughout the area.”

The Toll Rises

In the last two years, 121 people in San Bernardino County who died of overdoses, violent crimes and car accidents had methamphetamine in their system, according to Sheriff’s Department statistics. And speed-related emergency-room admissions at Riverside General Hospital have tripled in the last year and a half. Speed is becoming the drug of choice for teen-agers in the Inland Empire area, authorities say, and local drug-treatment centers are admitting more people for speed abuse than any other illegal substance.

At one time San Diego County was the center for speed manufacturing, but after a large chemical wholesaler in the area was shut down and police targeted the problem, some of the cookers moved to other areas. And now that speed can be manufactured without the telltale odor, labs are much more mobile and difficult to detect. Labs have been discovered throughout the state in motel rooms, garages and even mobile homes. The state Department of Justice has established task forces in nine California cities to investigate illegal drug labs.

“If you can follow directions to bake a cake, you can make meth,” said Synicky, who heads the state’s task force in Riverside. “You can set up a lab for a few thousand dollars and buy all the chemicals and glassware you need. Every three days you can make enough product to gross you $10,000. That’s why some people are making meth rather than dealing with cocaine.”

Chemical Problem

The chemicals needed to make speed are illegal in California. But a number of states still sell many of the chemicals openly, Synicky said. State officials are currently attempting to standardize the nation’s chemical-distribution laws.

The illegal labs are also environmental hazards, Synicky said. Each gallon of methamphetamine produces about two gallons of toxic waste, and drug cookers are disposing of the waste by pouring it down drains and burying it in back yards. Although officers who disassemble the labs are swaddled in protective suits, hoods and boots, several agents who have discovered lab sites have been contaminated and hospitalized.

“All these carcinogenic chemicals could seep into the ground water and cause some serious health problems,” Synicky said. “Some kids in Riverside got sick last year and had to go to the hospital. It turned out the guy who had rented the place before was making meth and had buried all the chemicals in the back yard. These things are toxic waste dumps waiting to be discovered.”


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