Crack is back and a new scourge is on its way

ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. - If you want an instant assessment of the hottest trends in illegal drugs today, just ask corrections officials at the St. Lucie County jail. They see the latest results every day.

Trevor Morganti is the classification manager at the jail. He confirmed a trend I'd noticed in recent news reports.

Crack is back and cases involving crystal methamphetamine are on the rise, Morganti said. He sits in on first court appearances by jail inmates and tracks what offenses they're being charged with.

In addition to meth cases, Morganti is also seeing new variants of synthetic marijuana and expects to see many more of those in the future.

This year there have been 10 busts of meth labs in St. Lucie County, according to Detective Steve Martinez of the sheriff's Special Investigations Unit. We can expect more, he said.

Some law enforcement officials credit the rise of the new drugs and the re-emergence of old "favorites" as evidence that crackdowns on prescription drug abuse are having an effect.

Florida's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program is definitely increasing the number of people caught "doctor shopping." It's also saving lives, experts at Friday's Drug Abuse Summit told an audience of 400 people at Indian River State College.

Yet with the good there's also the bad.

For most of the 20 years I've been in journalism, we've been told over and over that meth is coming. Yet somehow it's never really arrived. Perhaps that's because until now crack cocaine has been the cheap drug of choice along the East Coast.

It looks as if things are finally about to change.

Meth, like crack, is a drug that's easy to manufacture, cheap to buy and it produces an intense, incredibly addictive high. Communities in the Midwest have long been hit hard socially and economically by the drug.

One speaker at Friday's conference, Karen Kelly, heads up Operation Unite, a drug awareness nonprofit based in Kentucky.

Kentucky, you might recall, is one place from which vanloads of patients seeking prescription drugs have descended on South Florida — Broward County in particular — to feed their habit.

Kelly described a cycle of manufacturing and sale of meth back home to finance trips to Florida to buy pain pills they can take home and sell for more profit.

Kelly told me they also kept hearing warnings about the dangers of meth long before they actually experienced them. When they did, the reality was horrible, she said, citing one awful case of a toddler found drinking meth from his plastic sippy cup. The child died after 54 minutes of excruciating pain from the drug burning his intestines.

"Meth is usually the last drug people take, not the first," Kelly said.

She spoke about the physical signs of meth use in abusers — jerky movements and skin sores. "Meth addicts look 'hollow,' " and much older than their years, she explained.

Kentucky, despite a $50 million lobbying effort by the pharmaceutical industry to gut the bill, has managed to impose an annual maximum amount of pseudoephedrine (24 grams) that an individual can buy over the counter to "cook" up crack.

"That has slowed down the meth labs," she said, "but now the 'smurfers' (meth addicts) go by the vanload from community to community" to get the raw ingredients they need to "cook" up batches of the drug.

Law enforcement officials in Kentucky and here are straining to react to the meth problem. They lack the special training needed to clean up labs after they've been busted.

St. Lucie County law enforcement officers are encountering the same issue. The 10 cases this year have cost an average of $10,000 each to clean up. Carpeting and drywall must be torn out to remove the toxic waste the cooking process creates, and those costs must be borne by the homeowner.

Sheriff's deputies have to wait for the Drug Enforcement Agency to arrive, according to Maj. Michael Graves.

"That $10,000 figure is for cleanup only. It doesn't include our staff time," Graves added.

Officers I spoke to seemed divided over the reasons meth and other new drugs are rearing their ugly heads now. Yet they all agree we need to be more vigilant for signs of drug use and that law enforcement agencies are going to have to devote a lot more resources to defeating the next wave of drugs.

Hold on to your hats — and your pocketbooks.

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