Legislators can help stem the spread of crystal meth

(June 10, 2005) — Imagine five young children, all younger than 7, living in a home without electricity or heat except for a gas stove with the door hanging open. Imagine them spending playtime in a room littered with used hypodermic needles and dog feces; sleeping under a card table and having no place to bathe because the tub in the bathroom is filled with sewage. Imagine the children's feet, arms, legs and hands being covered with needle marks from accidental but unavoidable contact with syringes. Then imagine all five children being infected with hepatitis C.

The squalid and horrific scene described above was discovered at a methamphetamine ("meth") lab home in California. The adults "in charge" were abusing and manufacturing methamphetamine.

At the invitation of Monroe County legislators Carla Palumbo and Michael Barker, we recently had the opportunity to address the members of the Monroe County Legislature's Public Safety Committee meeting on a critical public health and safety issue: the rapid increase in the illegal use and production of methamphetamine.

The physical and mental effects of methamphetamine abuse are extreme and often irreversible, devastating lives in rural, suburban and urban communities across the United States. Use of the highly addictive drug can cause schizophrenia-type symptoms, violent and erratic behavior, severe depression and suicide. Acute neurological, behavioral and psychological damage can almost be guaranteed.

Production methods of methamphetamine raise serious concerns because they are relatively inexpensive, easily implemented and dangerous. Ingredients such as lithium, pseudoephedrine and anhydrous ammonia (found in agricultural fertilizer) are readily available. Most of the chemicals used to concoct the drug are highly volatile and toxic, putting "the cook" as well as those who are under the same roof at great risk for skin burns, eye irritation and severe damage to their respiratory systems. Meth labs have been known to blow up, placing others at risk.

A report issued by the New York State Commission of Investigation in part addresses the dark and deeply disturbing link between methamphetamine addiction and production and child neglect and abuse. The state report affirms in no uncertain terms that "the clear patterns of methamphetamine use, addiction and production seen in other states, along with the crime and violence associated with the drug, raise the specter for serious problems in New York in the near future."

Monroe County must prepare itself for the methamphetamine threat that is undoubtedly at our doorstep. New York State Police reports reveal that in the period between 1989 and 1999, there were only four labs discovered in the entire state. Subsequent years have shown a steady increase in the number of labs found: eight in 2000, 19 in 2001, 45 in 2002 and 73 in 2003, one of which was in Monroe County. And these are just the labs that we know about.

Now is the time for our elected officials to take a proactive and preventive approach to fighting what may become a horrifying public health and safety issue. We can begin by ensuring that public safety personnel and social service workers are trained in the identification of illegal labs and that retail operations know to contact law enforcement officials when large purchases are made of items used in meth manufacture, such as lithium batteries or pseudoephedrine. Our teachers and youth program directors should also be educated about the dangers of meth use and signs of abuse.

Furthermore, support for law enforcement and stricter penalties for methamphetamine use and manufacture is critical. Presently, steps are being taken to criminalize the manufacture of methamphetamine as a felony, but more must be done. Local law enforcement needs the legislative and financial support required to halt the proliferation of methamphetamine abuse and manufacture before the drug begins to devastate our community.

Methamphetamine is a problem that knows no political boundaries. We are asking all county legislators to come together and support the creation of a special committee or task force dedicated to devising a coordinated, proactive strategy to prevent the spread of this destructive drug.

Metz is the coordinator of Substance Abuse Studies and co-director of the Institute for Public Safety Policy Studies at the State University of New York at Brockport. O'Grady lost a family member to methamphetamine addiction.