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Meth labs on decline, but not drug problem

OLYMPIA The small meth lab a toxic, dangerous and squalid symbol of the methamphetamine problem is becoming a rarity in Washington and around the country, but the drug itself remains.

The number of meth labs found in Washington dropped by more than 50 percent last year a decrease credited in part to tough new laws that include restricting over-the-counter sales of everyday cold and allergy medications used to make methamphetamine.

But into the void stepped Mexican-based drug organizations that ship a purer, more addictive form of the drug crystal meth, also known as "ice." Officials now say 75 percent of the state's meth comes from outside its borders, compared to an estimated 50 percent in 2001.

"As we have controlled our domestic problem, our importation problem has increased exponentially," said State Patrol Detective Sgt. Gary Gasseling, who works with the state's Meth Initiative, a coalition of treatment, prevention and enforcement agencies. "These people are very, very well-organized, very well-connected and they know what they're doing. This is big business for them."

Nearly 40 states, including Washington, now have laws that restrict over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine products; in Oregon, a prescription is required.

In Oklahoma, the first state to put allergy medications behind pharmacy counters in 2004, meth-lab seizures fell 90 percent in a year. But that state's trafficking rose significantly.

Idaho has seen its lab numbers fall as well in the past few years, though its own law doesn't take effect until July, and Maj. Dave Kane of the Idaho State Police said there has been a slight upswing in the number of labs they're finding this year.

"We are spending so much time tracking down drug-trafficking organizations, we haven't been able to be as proactive on labs," Kane said.

While Washington officials don't have a definitive number of how many trafficking cases they deal with a year, Capt. Mark Couey said WSP's drug unit seized 14 pounds of trafficked meth last year, compared with 3 pounds in 2004. Statewide, meth-trafficking seizures increased from 101 pounds in 2001 to nearly 400 pounds last year, he said.

At purity levels of 90 to 95 percent, crystal meth is much more addictive than home-cooked powder meth.

The number of people seeking treatment for meth addiction has been on a steady increase for several years. The state treated 7,669 adults and 820 teens last year, compared to 6,379 adults and 717 teens the year before, according to the state's Division of Alcohol and Substance Abuse.

And the number of methamphetamine-involved deaths continues to rise: 176 deaths in 2002 to 257 last year. "The demand is still there," Couey said. "That's the unfortunate part."

Attorney General Rob McKenna said meth addiction is tied to everything from identity theft and burglaries to a marked increase in foster-care caseloads. "This is the biggest problem to ever hit the state, period," McKenna said. "Meth wrecks families more frequently and more completely than any drug we've ever seen."

State officials are claiming some success. Even before the state passed new laws last year that put pseudoephedrine products behind the counter, officials had been successfully targeting labs in Washington state, which has regularly ranked near the top of the country in the number of meth labs raided annually.

The number of labs and dump sites has decreased from a high of 1,890 in 2000 to 806 last year.