- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2004

RICHMOND — Police recognizing methamphetamine labs when they make routine calls will help stem the rapid growth of the highly addictive drug in Virginia, drug-enforcement officers said yesterday.

“Methamphetamine is now found everywhere in the commonwealth,” Paul J. McNulty, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said during a law-enforcement summit on combating methamphetamine production and distribution. “The time is now for us to decide what we need to do to fight this problem.”

Mr. McNulty — with John L. Brownlee, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, and state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore — convened the Virginia Methamphetamine Leadership Summit to brainstorm strategies to prevent the spread of the powerful stimulant.

During the daylong retreat, about 200 police officers from across the state learned how to recognize the highly toxic and combustible methamphetamine labs, which can be set up with common household items from pharmacies and hardware stores. They also heard about proposed laws that would toughen penalties for drug dealers and addicts.

Mr. Kilgore, a former prosecutor from Southwest Virginia, has proposed several bills for the upcoming legislative session that will address methamphetamine use and sales. The bills would double the jail time for manufacturing the drug and would make it a crime to produce methamphetamine in the presence of a child.

“We have to take steps today to keep it from getting worse,” said Mr. Kilgore, a Republican who is running for governor. “We knew it was coming and now it has arrived. The time for action is now.”

In 2001, police uncovered five methamphetamine labs in Virginia, authorities said. They found 10 in 2002 and 30 last year. This year, officers have discovered 78 methamphetamine labs in the state.

Based on statistics in other states and the growing numbers in Virginia, police expect the number of methamphetamine labs to climb into the hundreds and perhaps the thousands in coming years, Mr. Brownlee said.

A complete methamphetamine lab can fit on a kitchen table or in the trunk of a car, and the drug is “cooked” in stages.

Labs have been found in homes, trailers and hotel rooms, and law-enforcement officials are starting to see that an organized drug-trafficking effort eventually will lead to violence, he said.

The problem is especially rampant in Southwest Virginia, said Mark James, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Richmond. He attributed the surge to an increased “appetite” for the drug.

“It’s become a huge problem,” Mr. James said. “We don’t want to get behind the eight ball.”

Mr. James said the number of methamphetamine labs in Virginia is nearing the amount in West Virginia and Tennessee, adding that there are few labs in the District and Maryland.

Daniel Salter, assistant special agent in charge with the DEA, said Virginia’s proactive approach could have a solid affect on the methamphetamine trade.

“Starting this project now, and recognizing it as a problem, is the most effective way to combat it,” he said.

Methamphetamine, also known as “crank,” first appeared in the mid-1980s as a drug made by the Hells Angels on the West Coast. By the 1990s, new methamphetamine recipes emerged that cooked the active ingredient in cold medicine with other household chemicals. The recipe has spread slowly across the country, rooting the drug’s appeal in rural areas.

• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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