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— What's cooking? If you're in San Diego, more than likely it's meth. By the "Nazi" method. Dry, odor-free, small-scale, impossible to catch. And if you're selling, you'll still have more customers than anywhere else in the country.

That's if you believe a San Diego Association of Governments-organized study based on questionnaire responses from detainees who have been arrested in five cities: Los Angeles, San Jose, Portland, Phoenix, and San Diego. On a guarantee of anonymity, the suspects in police custody supplied personal drug information and urine samples to the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program (ADAM), a study sponsored by the justice department's National Institute of Justice.

Attorney General Janet Reno called for the study to prepare the rest of the country for the problem San Diego gave birth to. She asked SANDAG researchers to do the job.

"Actually, I don't believe this is the meth capital of the world anymore," says Susie Pennell, director of the criminal justice research division of SANDAG and the main writer of this report. Pennell says it's not that San Diego's methamphetamine usage is going down so much as other places', like San Bernardino's, are going up. "The Central Valley," she says, "is where it's at."

Pennell acknowledges that the study is skewed because its subjects, the suspects in police custody, are likely to use drugs like meth more often than Joe Average. Urinalysis showed that 74 percent of all those arrested in San Diego were positive for some drug in their system; 95 percent of admitted meth users were positive.

But the study does show trends as to what's happening to meth use in San Diego. And the news is good and bad. The good: The number of men who were high on meth when they were arrested between 1997 and 1998 was down to 34 percent compared with 40 percent the year before. Only 35 percent of women arrestees were using meth at the time of their arrest, compared with 45 percent the previous year.

The bad news is these percentages still leave San Diego way ahead of neighboring cities. When 40 percent of San Diegan arrestees had meth in their urine, only 21 percent did in San Jose, 18 percent in Phoenix and Portland, and 7 percent in Los Angeles.

And those figures just begin to tell the story of what's happening in San Diego. The report says that 62 overdose deaths were associated with methamphetamine in 1997, the highest ever reported in San Diego County. Additionally, meth treatment hospital admissions in 1997 rose to 3855, a third of all admissions in the county.

"They throw a number around San Diego County that the government expends $1.8 billion a year on alcohol and drug abuse," says Pennell. "How much is due to meth, I don't know. This is county money. Alcohol and drug violations constitute almost half of all the county's arrests."

How do San Diegans take their meth? Forty-two percent reported smoking the drug, 39 percent snorted it, and 18 percent said they inject it.

Portland users, on the other hand, were far more likely to inject (49 percent). Juvenile users overall were more likely to smoke (50 percent). "Both injecting and smoking result in the drug getting to the brain more quickly. About one in four users stated that they use meth four or more times in a typical day."

The report says 53 San Diego County meth labs were seized by DEA agents in 1996. Methamphetamine sold for $50 to $80 per gram, and its purity in 1997 ranged from 20 to 40 percent.

Meth is popular because it inhibits hunger, it keeps you awake, it makes you feel good, and jazzes up sex. But does it make you crazy, violent, paranoid? Remember the guy on the wild bus ride? Remember the tank driver? Remember the couple who scalded their niece to death? All high on meth.

Yet the SANDAG study shows for the first time that the violent image of meth users is misleading.

"About 40 percent of the adult meth users [in the ADAM study] were charged with a drug or alcohol violation," says Pennell. "About 25 percent were booked for a property offense, and [only] 16 percent were arrested for violent behavior. Nonmeth arrestees were significantly more likely to be arrested for a violent offense, contrary to a common perception that associates meth use with violent behavior."

Yet the problem with meth "is that everything bad about it is true," says Pennell. "And kids really need to know that."

For a start, she says, meth is a lot older than people think. It's known by many street names. "Boo," "chicken feed," "geep," "spoosh," "load of laundry," "tick tick," "scootie," "jet fuel," "wake me up," "lemon drop," "trash," and "schmiz" are just some of the common terms for meth. Ephedrine, an essential ingredient, was first used by the Chinese approximately 5000 years ago. Methamphetamine, a derivative of amphetamine, was first developed in 1919 by a pharmacologist in Japan. By the early 1930s, methamphetamine began to be used therapeutically when it was found to be useful in treating asthma and an epileptic seizure disorder called narcolepsy (in which the patient repeatedly lapses into sleep). More recently, the drug and its derivatives have been used as appetite suppressants and in treating certain attention deficit disorders in children.

San Diego seems to have been chosen as meth central because the original manufacturers -- or "cookers" -- of the drug were members of local outlaw motorcycle gangs who made it for themselves and their friends.

World War II was an important factor in bringing the drug here. During the war, ephedrine "waker-uppers" came into accepted use, especially among bomber pilots who had to stay awake on long flights across the Pacific. Immediately after the war, when Japan was in the depths of its defeat, methamphetamine use rose dramatically. The meth habit spread to U.S. occupation soldiers. They in turn brought it back to the States with them. And when they did return, they most often landed and settled in San Diego. Some of the fraternal groups they formed turned into the precursors of today's motorcycle gangs, such as the Hell's Angels. The meth, they said, reproduced the adrenaline rushes of their war experience. East County, Lakeside, Santee, and El Cajon have been the traditional centers for these groups and for their meth-production facilities.

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