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Meth epidemic spreading along East Coast

/ Source: The Associated Press

Methamphetamine use is increasing along the East Coast after years of largely being confined to rural areas west of the Mississippi River, a government report shows.

But officials nationwide are finding fewer meth labs where the highly addictive drug is cooked — a bright spot in the nation’s war against a drug the White House describes as dangerous as cocaine and heroin.

Meth “is as bad, or worse, than most of those drugs for most of those people who have encountered it,” John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press.

“The good news is, at this point it looks like we have reacted before this became a bigger problem,” Walters said. “But the onus is on us to follow through.”

The number of workplace employees who tested positive for meth dipped dramatically in several Midwest and western states where the drug so far has provided the largest punch, including Missouri, Iowa and New Mexico.

But it surged along the East Coast, including in Connecticut and Maine, and by a whopping 115 percent increase in the District of Columbia.

The data by New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics Inc. compared state-by-state drug tests from the first five months of 2006 to the same period last year, the most recent data available. Nationally, positive drug tests decreased by 12 percent between the two years.

The drug test results were included in a White House report titled: “Pushing Back Against Meth,” to be issued Thursday as part of a government-wide awareness day to “underscore the dangers of methamphetamine and reaffirm our collective responsibility to combat all forms of drug abuse,” President Bush said in a proclamation.

Reaching inner cities

As part of the campaign, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will lead a government discussion in Washington about stanching meth use with state and local health and law enforcement officials.

Justice Department officials cite mostly anecdotal evidence showing that meth use and cooking labs are spreading to inner cities. Walters said that’s in part because drug traffickers, largely from Mexico, are now selling meth to cocaine and heroin customers in urban areas. Additionally, many East Coast states do not have state laws that require cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine — the ingredient used to cook meth with other household chemicals — to be placed behind pharmacy counters.

By contrast, some western states where meth has been a long-standing scourge have such laws on the books, making it harder for addicts to buy large amounts of pseudoephedrine. Walters attributed part of the drop in workers testing positive for meth in those states to the laws. Earlier this year, Congress approved a federal law to keep medicines containing pseudoephedrine behind pharmacy counters in all states. The federal law, however, was passed after the data for the new report was collected.

But nationwide, the number of meth labs that were busted or otherwise discovered by authorities dropped by 51 percent — from 6,472 in the first four months of 2005 to 3,160 in the same period of 2006, the report showed.

Experts believe people between ages 18 to 25 are the most likely to use meth, and women account for 45 percent of addicts seeking treatment — higher than for any other drugs. That’s largely because women have reported to using meth to help lose weight while maintaining high energy levels.

Instead, it has made users’ teeth and hair fall out, Walters said, and “turns you into the walking dead.”

“Nobody has glamorized this drug,” he said.