Chief Smith aims to halt spread of meth use in city

May 11, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD


Police know they are out there, but have no actual crime yet with which to connect them: The perpetrators might have rotting teeth, and a body rail-thin and scabbed from incessant scratching and sunken cheeks. They might hoard Sudafed, matchbooks and kitchen cleaners.

They are the users of methamphetamine, a highly addictive and destructive stimulant drug that has wreaked havoc throughout the United States, but, for the most part, has steered clear of Washington County. On Wednesday, Hagerstown Police Department Chief Arthur Smith told a group of police, health, school and government officials that the drug is here and will "spread like a disease" unless the community recognizes and fights its spread.

"Instead of waiting until it becomes a big problem, we want to keep it from becoming an epidemic," Smith said, addressing the group gathered Wednesday morning at the Washington County Narcotics Task Force office.


Smith said police have been trained to spot equipment used to make methamphetamine, which is called, among other names, meth, crystal or ice. The drug is manufactured in a variety of ways, but often includes a chemical mix of pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient of Sudafed, and ingredients found in common kitchen cleaners and other toxic products, said Kyle Williamson, resident agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Hagerstown.

Williamson said meth is dangerous to the community for a number of reasons, including the potential for meth lab explosions and the potential for violent, erratic behavior among its users, who often resort to more crime to pay for their addictions.

In the past year, reported use in Washington County of methamphetamine has increased by about 20 percent, according to Health Department figures. Washington County Hospital reports that emergency room and hospital visits from those using meth have been recorded at more than 100 over the past two years.

Unfortunately, Smith said, Maryland doesn't have penalties for buying the drug's ingredients, called "precursors," and has inadequate penalties for making it and distributing it. A charge of manufacturing and distributing meth carries a maximum five-year sentence compared with a charge of manufacturing and distributing cocaine or heroin, which carries a maximum 20-year sentence.

"It's a slap on the wrist for something that is poisoning the community," Smith said.

Washington County State's Attorney Charles Strong said in a phone interview Wednesday that prosecutors "are ready to deal with it," and agree penalties should reflect its dangers.

"Police and prosecutors clearly recognize it coming," Strong said. "The general public has seen it in the national media, but I don't think the message has gotten through that it can come here."

Anyone with information about possible meth use or meth labs may call a meth tip line at 1-866-305-3016.

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