WASHINGTON – Montgomery County shuttered three methamphetamine labs in the last year, including last week’s closure of one of the largest in the county’s history, yet county officials and a report say Maryland doesn’t produce as much of the illegal drug as other states in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“We’ve only had about three, it’s not the drug of choice here,” said Cpl. Jimmy Robinson of the Montgomery County Police Department. “It’s a West Coast thing. When you only have three and you’re in September, then it’s not really considered a priority.”
A report released by the Center for Substance Abuse Research confirms Robinson’s claim, showing Maryland jutting out in the Mid-Atlantic region as an exception to the methamphetamine trend — a peninsula surrounded on three sides by states with greater numbers of meth laboratories.
The overall number of methamphetamine users has increased in Maryland since 2001, however the number of labs seized has not, according to the CESAR report. Eight were shutdown in Maryland in 2005; just five were taken by authorities in 2006.
“We just don’t have too big a problem with methamphetamine,” said Cpl. Mark Shawkey of the Anne Arundel County Police Department, soon after the seizure of the Montgomery County lab. “There aren’t a large number of investigations or arrests in our area.”
Meth producers aren’t setting up shop in Maryland, but they are setting up within shouting distance. From 2001 to 2005, 213 labs were seized in West Virginia, according to the CESAR report, and 106 labs were raided in Pennsylvania. Virginia raided 127 labs in 2004 and 2005, a sharp increase from the five closed by authorities in 2001.
Meth used to be a drug confined to the West Coast. Then it moved into the South and is now creeping north, said Steve Robertson, special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
“The trend is basically meth moves where it is not,” Robertson said. “Thanks to the technology age, (dealers) know they can find the recipe for meth on a Web site and they can cook it themselves.”
Erin Artigani of the Center for Substance Abuse Research agrees — methamphetamine is not the top choice in the Maryland drug market.
“Dealers sell what the market demands,” Artigani said. “In Baltimore, heroin is big. In D.C., cocaine is big. There doesn’t seem to have been a strong word of mouth for methamphetamine in this region. And, thanks to our law enforcement, no big time cooks have been able to set up shop.”
The report said that rural, sparsely populated, largely white areas, like those found in Queen Anne’s, Worchester, Caroline and Kent counties fit the mold of areas that are typically high in methamphetamine use.
Most of Maryland’s documented drug use takes place in urban areas like Baltimore, which, Artigani said doesn’t mesh with meth use.
“Baltimore is very neighborhood oriented,” Artigani said. “People don’t move around a lot, and it’s probably hard for outsiders to come in and set up new networks.”
But that incompatibility could be changing, Robertson said. Meth producers have begun to use a cold cooking process, as seen in a DEA meth raid in New York earlier this year. This method produces fewer telltale fumes, allowing the drug to be produced in more densely populated urban areas.
“Rural production used to be the case 10 years ago when meth took off,” Robertson said. “With the heat and the smell, cooks had to keep it away from everybody. Now the cold cooking process allows people to cook it everywhere.
“You can literally cook it in your own apartment and your neighbors wouldn’t know.”
Producers start the process by using alcohol to extract so-called “precursor” ingredients from allergy or cold pills. Then the alcohol is evaporated using heat and the result is combined with chemicals like hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide to produce meth.
Maryland’s peninsula may not last long, the report and Robertson said. The drug’s use and manufacture in other states may be a harbinger of a meth surge in Maryland’s future.
“It’s just human nature,” Robertson said. “It happens to get there and it catches on.”
Education may help Maryland avoid what seems to be inevitable, Robertson and others said.
“We’re trying to educate law enforcement, community leaders, parents, users, anybody,” Robertson said. “That’s what so damning about meth. It’s not limited to one demographic. Anyone can make it, anyone can use it.” – 30 – CNS-9-4-07