September 18, 2005 in Nation/World

Drug war’s ‘ice age’

Lee Rood Des Moines Register
 

at a glance

About ice

A synthetic drug made in laboratories like powdered meth, ice, or methamphetamine hydrochloride, is a potent form of the drug that stimulates the release of the feel-good chemical dopamine in the brain. Over time, it also damages the brain cells that contain dopamine and serotonin, another neurotransmitter. Dopamine levels are reduced, which can result in symptoms like those of Parkinson’s disease, a severe movement disorder.

Street methamphetamine is often referred to as “speed,” “meth” and “crank.” Ice is also called “crystal,” “glass” and “tina.” When smoked, one high can last eight hours or more. When the drug wears off, users enter a stage called “tweaking” and are prone to violence, delusions and paranoia.

Chronic abuse can lead to psychotic behavior, such as out-of-control rages and delusions such as the sensations of insects creeping on the skin. Researchers report that as much as 50 percent of the dopamine-producing cells in the brain can be damaged after prolonged exposure.

With Congress and many states clamping down on homemade meth production, narcotics officials are turning their attention to an imported form of the drug that is fast replacing that which addicts can no longer make as easily themselves.

What crack is to cocaine, “ice” is to methamphetamine. In the past year, the smokable, crystallized form of meth that has wreaked havoc for years in Hawaii has flooded several states – including Washington – where domestic meth supplies have been drying up, narcotics officials say. Arizona, California, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Texas, Tennessee, Minnesota and the Dakotas also have reported huge influxes of the drug in the past six months, according to Ken Carter, the head of Iowa’s narcotics bureau.

“I’m afraid the ice age has come,” he said.

Last year, a record 5,900 adults and almost 300 youths in Iowa sought treatment for meth addiction. For the thousands still using, ice promises to replace in popularity not only the less-pure powdered meth that has been imported into Iowa for years, but also a potent anhydrous-ammonia-based recipe that users have traditionally made in clandestine labs.

“Over half, if not 60 percent, of the cases we have right now are ice cases,” said Sandy Stoltenow, a chemist and supervisor at the state crime laboratory in Des Moines. “Addicts are not using less. If they have the addiction, they will do anything to feed their habit, and that has created this new market.”

The switch by users will likely bring different headaches to states saturated with meth for years: An ounce of ice can cost $1,200 to $1,400, while homemade meth – if users can find it – runs about $750. As a result, police have been reporting anecdotally spikes in thefts and burglaries by addicts looking for ways to pay for their habit.

Mexican cartels have seized on a void left in the drug market created when hard-hit meth states began to place much tighter restrictions on sales of cold products containing pseudoephedrine, Iowa’s undercover drug agents say. With homemade meth’s main ingredient in far shorter supply, discoveries of the toxic, makeshift labs have plummeted – in Iowa, by 79 percent in just three months.

In recent months, dealers have been peddling a more expensive, more pure brand of ice made in Mexico that has been smuggled through existing pipelines along interstates from the Southwest, particularly Arizona. Hard-core addicts prefer the potent crystallized form, because, like crack cocaine, it enters the bloodstream more quickly when smoked than when powder is inhaled through the nose.

As soon as next week, Congress is expected to shut the door on pseudoephedrine availability even further by passing federal legislation requiring consumers to buy most pseudoephedrine in pharmacies. At the same time, however, the Senate has been debating proposed cuts by the Bush administration that could mean the loss of 135 Iowa law officers – many of them drug task force members – and millions earmarked for enforcement and treatment.

Drug agents have been appealing to U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin and Charles Grassley to preserve the federal money so agents freed up by declining meth labs can go after bigger dealers and traffickers.

Even if interdiction efforts are more successful, however, demand for meth has not subsided. Last year, 14.6 percent of people entering chemical dependency treatment had meth addiction as their primary problem, a record high. Substance abuse officials say Iowa is on track to break another record this year.

Dr. Jeff Allyn, an addictionist at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, said the only difference in meth users seeking help at the hospital is that more are using ice. “Ice is just what is available,” he said, echoing many drug agents who purchase ice almost exclusively in undercover buys.

Allyn said ice can cause users to be more volatile because of its potency. However, ice addicts experience many of the same symptoms as powdered meth users. “They all come in with this pretty intense craving,” he said. “They keep chasing that original high, because the methamphetamine is all that makes them feel relatively normal. Their neurochemicals in their brain are depleted, so there’s nothing there to boost them. They are depressed, slowed down, wanting to use.”

With no signs of the meth epidemic waning, drug experts are intensifying their demands for more treatment as well.

Sherry Green, who heads a policy group called Alliance for Model State Drug Laws in Washington, D.C., said as the country’s meth lab problem dissipates, pressure is building on legislatures to provide more funding to address demand. “States are going to have to make serious decisions about whether they really want to address the addiction problem,” she said.

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