- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

NEW YORK — Skeletal women surface at 12-step programs that were once exclusive to homosexual methamphetamine addicts. An aspiring fashion designer is indicted after federal agents say he was overheard trying to collect cash from a meth deal. A disc jockey at a popular dance club makes no attempt to hide his drug of choice: meth.

Barely noticed in New York outside the homosexual community just a year ago, meth and new signs of its spread have created a citywide scare.

The highly addictive stimulant “could be the crack [cocaine] of the 21st century if we don’t do something to stop it,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said last month at a Manhattan press conference warning of meth’s eastward march.

The drug has been a problem in many parts of the country for years. But until recently, New York — a city normally at the epicenter of drug trends — wasn’t on the meth map, said Anthony Placido, head the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) New York office.

“It’s ironic and sad,” Mr. Placido said, “but part of the reason is the widespread availability of other stimulants like coke and crack.”

Horror stories abound in the city’s homosexual community, where meth’s reputation for boosting stamina and sex drive made it tempting for some.

“It was euphoric beyond anything I’d ever experienced,” said Alan, a 45-year-old magazine editor who adheres to the first-names-only credo of Crystal Meth Anonymous.

That euphoria soon degenerated into sleepless days and deep depression.

“We all thought we were dabbling in a party drug,” said Eduardo, a 37-year-old publicist.

It took overdoses and watching his teeth fall out — “I looked like a jack-o’-lantern” — for Eduardo to clean up.

The stories would have little shock value in states such as California, Oklahoma, Missouri and Florida. Authorities there dismantle thousands of clandestine laboratories each year that serve a cross-section of “tweakers” who snort or smoke a drug commonly known as crank, speed, crystal or tina.

Similar homemade labs have cropped up in rural upstate New York: 73 were reported last year, up from 45 in 2002.

But in the Northeast, cocaine and heroin have been far bigger problems. From 1999 to 2003, the DEA’s Northeast crime lab analyzed about 52,000 pounds of cocaine and 4,500 pounds of heroin seized in investigations, but only 15 pounds of meth.

Local authorities say the city now has been targeted by large-scale suppliers fed by sophisticated “super labs” in California and Mexico. In February, agents arrested six suspects, including the fashion designer and a lawyer, and confiscated 13 pounds of the drug after discovering that it was being distributed at Manhattan nightclubs.

About a month later, police raided the 30,000-square-foot Sound Factory club in midtown Manhattan and arrested the owner, charging that the nightspot condoned the sale of meth and other drugs. One disc jockey kept a bag of meth “in open view” during all-night parties, court documents said.

In all, federal authorities in Manhattan have seized 25 pounds of meth — with a street value of $2.5 million — and charged more than 30 people in meth-related cases in the past six months, compared with 11 arrests in 2003. Twenty-eight other suspects have been charged in unrelated state cases since early last year.

The city’s special narcotics prosecutor, Bridget Brennan, still views meth as a “niche drug.”

Defying meth’s reputation elsewhere as “poor man’s cocaine,” the version reaching the city is purer and pricier, Miss Brennan said. Dealers charge about $120 a gram, versus $30 for a gram of cocaine, in private transactions with friends, Miss Brennan said.

“But if crystal meth breaks out, it’s going to be a big problem,” she added.

Overflow crowds at Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA) meetings demonstrate the threat.

Four years ago, there was one daily meeting with a half-dozen recovering addicts, organizers said. Today, the more than 20 meetings scheduled throughout the week draw up to 100 people at a time.

CMA member Amy, 35, hit bottom by smoking meth nonstop — behind the scenes at her dot-com job in San Francisco, on camping trips, even before yoga classes. She smoked more than she ate, dropped 20 pounds and turned delusional about her haggard appearance.

“You didn’t have to worry about dieting,” she said. “I thought I looked really good.”

She tried leaving her habit in San Francisco. But, after transferring to New York, she had the drug mailed to her. On Jan. 21, 2002, she quit and found herself at recovery meetings surrounded by homosexual men.

“I don’t feel like an outsider because it’s the same issue,” she said. “It isn’t just a gay problem.”

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