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Meth use in state goes down

The state Department of Ecology cleaned up 11 percent fewer methamphetamine labs across the state last year, signaling the first decrease in calls for spill response since 1995.

Meanwhile, in Kitsap County, local law enforcement officials have seen a rise in meth lab cases over the last seven years, although the number of incidents have reached a plateau.

While DOE officials saw the biggest drop in meth cleanup calls in Pierce County last year — from 589 in 2001 to 438 in 2002 — the department warns the state’s meth epidemic is far from over.

“A lot of people at all levels of government and many community groups have worked very, very hard to achieve even this small progress,” said Dale Jensen, manager of the DOE’s spill-response program, in a prepared statement. “This is not so much a light at the end of the tunnel as it is a tunnel that quit running up hill.”

There was no decrease in Kitsap County last year, according to Ecology.

Still, law enforcement officials are hopeful.

“We are feeling good about what we’re doing here in Kitsap County,” said Sgt. Randy Drake of the West Sound Narcotics Enforcement Team (WestNet). “The number of meth lab cases isn’t increasing as rapidly as it had been.”

Drake attributes that success to the community’s full participation in WestNet. Formed in 1990, the program is a partnership among all the local law enforcement agencies to fight drugs, most notably meth, a highly addictive substance that’s relatively easy to manufacture or “cook.”

DOE studies show there were zero meth lab cleanups in Kitsap County in 1995, three in 1996, zero in 1997, one in 1998 and 21 in 1999.

That number jumped still further in 2000 to 44, and increased again slightly in 2001 to 54. Last year, spill technicians were called out to clean up 60 meth labs in Kitsap County, making it one of the state’s top 10 counties for lab cleanups.

Drake sees a correlation between the rise and fall in meth labs in Pierce and Kitsap counties.

“They were really able to pour a lot of resources into Pierce County,” Drake said. “The meth problem, in turn, was partially displaced to Kitsap areas. The meth labs we do find are often found just past the Pierce County line.”

Ecology technicians are called in for cleanup whenever a meth lab is discovered that could cause health or environmental hazards. The numbers garnered in the DOE study don’t represent all the meth lab founds in each community because smaller sites don’t always require attention from the state department.

“The people who manufacture meth are going to dump (their tools) wherever it is convenient for them,” said Mary-Ellen Voss of the DOE. “They are not going to dump them in their backyard, but along a road somewhere.”

Statewide, the number of meth labs the department cleaned up dropped by 197 to 1,693 last year, and Pierce County’s decline represented about three-quarters of the entire state’s decrease in cleanup calls.

While larger, more urban counties generally saw declines in the number of meth lab clean ups, smaller, more rural counties saw increases.

The House of Representatives introduced a bill in late January that would increase the penalties for cooking methamphetamine. It seeks to increase the maximum prison term from 10 years to 20 years for manufacturing meth, making it a class A felony and a “strike” under the persistent offender statute. The first $5,000 in fines would also go directly to meth clean-up efforts.

Signed on as a co-sponsor to the bill is Rep. Beverly Woods, R-Poulsbo.

“Meth use is on the rise,” Woods said. “It is an epidemic in Kitsap County and across the state and we need to get serious and send a clear message.”

Woods and other bill sponsors, believe the measure could act as a stronger deterrent against methamphetamine.

“This is one of the most serious safety issues facing communities today,” Woods said. “It rips families apart and it’s a life-long addiction.”

Meanwhile, DOE officials are still expecting a lot of work in the future.

“It hasn’t gone away,” Voss said, “and it’s not likely to go away anytime soon.”

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