Authorities Focus on New Monster--Methamphetamine 

Authorities Focus on New Monster--Methamphetamine 
Posted by FoM on May 08, 2000 at 05:32:31 PT
By Tina Dirnann, Times Staff Writer
Source: Los Angeles Times
Law enforcement: With seizures plummeting, officials say cocaine is yesterday's drug of choice. Now meth dealers have become the top priority for the county's narcotics agents.   It was a warm January day in 1994, and Robert Garcia was sweating as he drove toward the Hilton Hotel in Newbury Park. But it wasn't the weather; it was nerves. 
The undercover sheriff's deputy was just minutes away from the drug bust of a lifetime.   Garcia met his Colombian connection in the hotel parking lot. As the Colombian handed over 400 pounds of cocaine, a dozen uniformed deputies swarmed in. And local law enforcement chalked up one more victory in the war on drugs.   This time it was a nationwide money laundering and cocaine trafficking ring operating out of Ventura County. Over the following months, county, state and federal agents would seize 1,000 pounds of coke and $7 million in cash.   The case was big. But, in one way, it was also routine. Cocaine, the glamour drug of the '70s and early '80s in Southern California, was still the biggest problem drug for law enforcement well into the '90s. And big coke busts were almost commonplace.   But this is a new decade and everything has changed. In the early months of this year, law enforcement in Ventura County is focused on a new drug menace--methamphetamine. Cocaine was yesterday's drug. The county's user population has found something new.   Cocaine seizures in Ventura County have plummeted. Methamphetamine seizures now far outstrip cocaine hauls. Last year the county's new multi-agency drug task force seized 29 pounds of meth in a six-month period, and only four pounds of cocaine. Three out of every four drug cases in court involve meth.   So what happened? Did law enforcement in Ventura County win the war on cocaine in the '90s? Was there some other reason for the shift from coke to meth? Is there anything to be learned by law enforcement in its latest fight against meth?   The answer: Nobody really seems to know. But the story of the rise and fall of coke in Ventura County contains at least some clues about what is most likely to happen in future drug wars.   "Maybe cocaine is still around," Sheriff's Capt. Dennis Carpenter said. "It's just not as public. And it's not the jet-set drug anymore. Some people stopped, some people switched to alcohol, and a lot of people switched to meth."   It was a combination of many things, others suggest. Law enforcement pressure and tougher penalties for users and dealers helped change the tide. Violence scared some away from coke. Then there were the users, their lives frequently devastated by the drug once touted as being no more addictive than aspirin.   Not long after that, the new monster exploded on the drug scene.   Methamphetamine use took off with a popularity and omnipresence that have marginalized its predecessor. It is cheaper and can be cooked up in anyone's kitchen. And meth dealers are now the top priority for local drug enforcement agents.   For years now, meth seizures and arrests have far outstripped cocaine cases in the county.   Gone are tales such as the 1990 raid in Simi Valley, when police found 125 machine guns, 100 bladed weapons and $750,000 worth of cocaine in the home of a suspected high-level dealer named Gardner Ernest Flockart. Rare are reports of lives leveled, such as Santa Paula multimillionaire Tony Bridges, owner of Tony Bridges Chevrolet in Santa Paula, who was fatally shot during a 1992 robbery after literally throwing his life away on cocaine.   "I don't think we're beyond it, no," Sheriff Bob Brooks said. "Our officers still seize it on occasion. But it's all personal use amounts. . . . We just don't see the volume that we used to."   Cocaine's Emergence in California:   It was the mid-1970s when cocaine emerged on the California scene as the new drug for the middle class. In those years most of the U.S. cocaine supply came through Florida before being shipped to the rest of the country.   But as law enforcement hit hard in Florida, Colombians looked for other points of entry. They set their sights on California because of the long-established smuggling routes for marijuana and heroin controlled by Mexican drug lords.   Recognizing the business potential, Colombians joined forces with the Mexican cartels. By the 1980s, Los Angeles had replaced Miami as the cocaine capital of the country.   Watching it all from a distance were Ventura County authorities. Through the '70s, cocaine busts were few. Most involved small-time users. But as Los Angeles became the nation's new hub for coke activity, the inevitable spillover reached Ventura County.   In 1983, sheriff's detectives in Thousand Oaks arrested a local businessman for buying a kilo of cocaine--one of the biggest local seizures at that time. Detectives were astonished at the price tag for the 2.2 pounds of powder--$50,000.   "This was clearly the chic drug of the affluent," recalls Undersheriff Craig Husband, who spent years early in his career working for the department's narcotics unit. "And that's the way it was marketed. It was glamorized by the press, glamorized by Hollywood, it was the in thing to do."   In Los Angeles, law enforcement reacted to the heightened coke activity much the way authorities in Florida did. They hit back, creating large task forces to zero in on big-time dealers.   That pressure encouraged cocaine traffickers to once again look for alternate areas to conduct business, remembers Capt. Gary Pentis, who oversaw the sheriff's narcotics unit for much of the 1980s.   "So they came to Orange and Ventura counties to stash their stuff, where they felt they were away from some of the pressures of law enforcement," Pentis said.   Investigators saw the addicts first.   Like the Hollywood producer investigators found thrashing uncontrollably in a Thousand Oaks laundermat bathroom. Just a few blocks from his home, the laundermat was his place to shoot up, a hide-out to keep his wife from learning of his habit. By the time police found him, he had overdosed and was near death.   And there was the 21-year-old addict Husband can't forget. The addict weighed about 85 pounds and had frazzled blond hair that framed a gaunt and tired face. During a search of her home, Husband found the 8-by-10 glossies of a once-stunning blond with radiant blue eyes taken during a modeling shoot. "How could you do this to yourself?" Husband asked her.   "I can't help it," she told him. "I can't stop."   Then they found the dealers.   Among those arrested, a 60-year-old grandfather living in a trailer park in Ojai. Turned in by his 13-year-old granddaughter in December 1986, William Rakestraw was caught handing over four pounds of cocaine to a man. In Rakestraw's pocket, the receipt for a storage locker, where detectives found another 110 kilograms of cocaine.   That was the year the Sheriff's Department created a major offenders unit--four detectives directed to infiltrate the drug rings setting up camp in the county.   "Some people were in denial that we had that level of drug trafficking," said Pentis, an original member of the team. "But we were finally able to show our administration we [Ventura County] were being used by trafficking organizations to sell narcotics. This was the other battlefront."   Statistics on cocaine seizures during the 1980s tell the tale. Between January and June of 1984, sheriff's investigators claimed 11 pounds of cocaine, and no methamphetamine. For the same period in 1987, investigators seized 283 pounds of cocaine and three pounds of methamphetamine.   But by now, the climate surrounding powder cocaine was changing. Ugly stories of arrests and overdoses and mental breakdowns helped take the sparkle out of the so-called champagne drug.   Suburban upper-crust users were forced to confront the dark reality that their so-called nonaddictive recreational drug was destroying lives.   "It burned up so many people," Husband said. "So many people died behind it, people were finally becoming afraid of it."   But the drug dealers were already a step ahead. Powder cocaine was about to morph into a more addictive version of itself, and at a cost so cheap it could now be peddled on the inner-city street corners of Los Angeles.   Greedy and ruthless gang members joined the business, and Ventura County detectives once again braced themselves for the aftershocks.   Crack Introduced to Ventura County:   Husband remembers the first time he pulled the small, crystallized rocks from the pocket of a man spread-eagled against a county patrol car. Fellow detectives gathered around, staring in disbelief.   Crack, also known as rock cocaine, had come to Ventura County.   "Yeah, it was scary," Husband said. "We saw what was happening to our neighbors to the south, how ruthless the gangs were to protect their business interests. We knew we were going to have to start dealing with this too."   Crack would never grip Ventura County and its middle-class suburban households with the same type of vengeance it held on the inner-city streets of Los Angeles.   Nevertheless, the newer, cheaper, more addictive form of the drug found a niche on minority-populated streets of Oxnard.   Motel rooms along South Oxnard Boulevard and apartments dotting Aleric Street became popular dealing points. Dealers from Los Angeles drifted up to Oxnard, setting up shop for a day or two before heading back to L.A. to "rock up" more supplies.   Almost overnight, rock replaced heroin and powder cocaine, the drugs most traded on the streets of Oxnard in the early 1980s, as the No. 1 drug peddled to residents.   "It was constant," remembers Oxnard Cmdr. Mike Matlock, then a sergeant in the Police Department's narcotics unit. "And the users, they were just overwhelmed by it."   Stunned by the drug's power, Matlock once asked an addict, his thin body clearly ravaged by the drug, how long it took before he was hooked. "Just once," the man said.   After that, the only thing that mattered was getting more. And now, dominating the new dealers in Oxnard were members of the infamous Blood and Crips gangs that ran the crack business in the inner city--complete with their red and blue gang colors.   "It was just like right out of a Hollywood movie," Oxnard Sgt. Marty Meyer said. "Everyone dressed down in their colors then."   They came to sell, and to recruit locals to sell for them. And business boomed. Hoping to stem the tide, local detectives sometimes trailed dealers back into Los Angeles.   It was during these trips across the county line that Pentis witnessed the sophistication of the gangs' drug network. At a time when street cops still went to pay phones to make a call, drug dealers had expensive scanners, pagers, cell phones, and toted AK-47s.   "These weren't the gangs of the '50s and '60s, fighting with fists and knives," Pentis said. "With the money they were making, they had all the technology. This was when if you had a pager you were either a doctor or a crook."   Back in Oxnard, membership in local gangs had reached 1,200 by 1991. And by 1993, cocaine drug seizures in the county reached an all-time high at 537 pounds.   County authorities reacted by beefing up gang units and other special enforcement details to infiltrate the gangs in much the same way they once infiltrated the Colombian drug organizations.   Bolstering their battle was a continuing cocaine backlash. The county's white, well-to-do users abandoned the drug they once romanced so enthusiastically. Cocaine wasn't Hollywood--it was gangs, inner-city minorities and violence.   Ronald K. Siegel, a UCLA psychopharmacologist, first studied cocaine addiction in the 1970s, watching a group of lab monkeys ingest cocaine until they dropped dead. From the beginning, he had been one of the strongest voices warning about the dangers of cocaine.   "It lost its Good Housekeeping stamp of approval," Siegel recalls. "Movies of glamorous users turned into movies about gangs and people getting killed. All of a sudden, Woody Allen laughing about blowing it away in 'Annie Hall' turned into Al Pacino in 'Scarface.' "   Local detectives saw the result. Busts on the street for cocaine use plummeted as middle-class users and dealers finally gave up on the drug.   But as cocaine receded in popularity, a new problem drug and a new group of drug users began to move into the spotlight.   Meth Traps a New Class of Users:   Methamphetamine, long the drug of biker gangs and sold in relatively small quantities, began spreading to a larger group of users in Ventura County in the early '90s and has grown in popularity every year since.   In 1991, county prosecutors filed 186 cases involving methamphetamine. By 1995, that number jumped to 608. Over the same period, cocaine prosecutions dropped from 165 cases to 35.   Meth tapped into a new class of users. These were often blue-collar workers, low- to middle-class folks who could afford meth's low price tag and didn't have to contend with violent gang members to obtain it.   "Meth just took over crack cocaine," said Bob Holland, who helps run Ventura County's drug court program. "It's cheaper and lasts longer."   Mexican drug rings again moved into the new drug market, producing meth in large quantities and taking over the new market. And when a newer, easier recipe for mixing the drug became popular about 1993, home-grown dealers jumped onto the meth bandwagon, cooking up batches in motel rooms and camper shells.   Today, evidence of meth's power litters police files: the woman who starved her newborn to death while bingeing; an addicted Thousand Oaks student-athlete who tried to run down her mother with a car; an Oxnard user who curled into a ball on his apartment floor and refused to get up.   "Meth just blows the door off cocaine use," said Bill Redmond, felony supervisor for the Ventura County district attorney's office. "It is the predominate drug on the street."   In the past two years, meth's popularity has even expanded to a wealthier crowd, Holland said.   "Now I see everything from Westlake Village-types born with silver spoons in their mouths to third-generation ghetto people," Holland said. "It's making further inroads up and down the social scale."   Last year Ventura County won a $338,000 grant to fund a new countywide task force to battle methamphetamine. The Ventura County Combined Agency Task Force combines authorities from the Sheriff's Department, the Ventura, Oxnard and Simi Valley police departments, Drug Enforcement Agency and FBI.   Cocaine simply isn't a priority.   "We can pursue other drugs," said Dennis Carpenter, who oversees the team. "But our main focus is to go after methamphetamine."   Cocaine Still Seen as Factor in County:   Despite meth's current dominance of the drug market, some federal authorities contend cocaine still flourishes in Ventura County.   They say unrelenting pressure by authorities in Los Angeles has prompted traffickers to divert cocaine northward, where suburban neighborhoods and police distracted by the burgeoning methamphetamine trade make it easier to do business.   Federal authorities suspect upscale homes on the eastern edge of the county hold garages filled with multi-kilogram stashes. But the powder may never hit the local market. Most of it, they argue, is marked for distribution in states where coke continues to be a regular on the party scene.   "For many reasons, Ventura County is a perfect distribution spot for other areas of California as well as other parts of the United States," said Dick Flood, supervisor for the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.   "Maybe the problem on the street is not cocaine, but cocaine is still housed here."   Drug Enforcement Agent Dick Marzullo said his investigators are working large-scale cocaine cases in the county. But it's tough. His resources are also strained by the methamphetamine war.   "If I had more, I could do more," Marzullo said. "Because I personally believe there are significant stash houses here that hold large quantities of cocaine."   Local authorities take offense at the notion that cocaine is going unchecked while they fight the methamphetamine battle. If coke was out there, they argue, they'd hear it from informants and they'd see it on the street.   "But what we hear and what we see is meth," Carpenter said.   And some drug experts say it really doesn't matter whether there are secret mountains of cocaine here--no more than it matters which drug is the big problem drug of the moment for law enforcement officials and the larger society.   The past proves there will always be a market for drugs. Experts say the only thing that changes is which drug is abused. Sometimes it's a newly discovered narcotic. But often it's an old drug that lost favor and becomes hot again with a new generation of users.   Meth, for instance, was more popular in the late '60s than cocaine, then dropped as publicity slowly surfaced on fatal overdoses by meth users.   "These things go in cycles," Undersheriff Husband says. "Something catches on, it's popular, then it starts its destruction and people stop using it. Then it starts all over again. People have a very short memory."   To prove the point, Siegel shares the tale of a socialite from Chicago who was arrested after she had taken to shoplifting to support her cocaine habit. During her confession to authorities, she revealed she even plucked out her gold teeth to pay for her addiction.   The year was 1902.   "If it's not cocaine, it will be something," Siegel said. "But it could so easily be cocaine again. All it needs is another good advertising campaign. The product still works, it just needs to be repackaged and it'll be back."  Published: Sunday, May 7, 2000   Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times Related Articles On Methamphetamine:
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Comment #1 posted by Dan Hillman on May 08, 2000 at 13:09:38 PT
"A cop says it, we print it" -- LA Times
>This time it was a nationwide money laundering and cocaine trafficking ring operating out of Ventura County. CIA set up operations in VC? Thanks for clearing that up...>"So they came to Orange and Ventura counties to stash their stuff, where they felt they were away from some of the pressures of law enforcement," Pentis said. CIA must've thought that VC was getting too hot.>In the early months of this year, law enforcement in Ventura County is focused on a new drug menace--methamphetamine."new drug menace"? Gee, I guess I'll have to go tell all those speed freaks from the 50's, 60's and 70's that they really weren't on meth, because these cops say that a "new monster" has emerged.  It appears the CIA is moving into more cost effective revenue building strategies. Why smuggle cocaine into the inner city when you can make meth so much cheaper, step on it so much more and sell it to people with more money?>"We can pursue other drugs," said Dennis Carpenter, who oversees the team. "But our main focus is to go after methamphetamine."Why do I get the feeling that DC won't be going after the pharmaceutical companies that filled 4 million prescriptions for desoxyn (methamphetamine), adderall (amphetamine), and ritalin (methylphenidate) to children in our school systems?>Ronald K. Siegel, a UCLA psychopharmacologist, first studied cocaine addiction in the 1970s, watching a group of lab monkeys ingest cocaine until they dropped dead. From the beginning, he had been one of the strongest voices warning about the dangers of cocaine. Didja hear that, PETA? This guy Siegel is on your list, right?>"If I had more, I could do more," Marzullo said. "Because I personally believe there are significant stash houses here that hold large quantities of cocaine." Ah. There it is. The whole point of the story. More money for the cops. Well, hell, if a cop says it, it must be true, right LA Times? By the way, what's the count on overturned convictions stemming from Rampart division miscreants? Over 200 you say? Well, gee, lets start a whole *new* "war" on meth and get the count over 1000! I know you can do it, LA!
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