With the manufacture and abuse of methamphetamine reportedly climbing in Klickitat County and around the nation, local school officials, police, health experts, pastors, nurses, parents, and many others are gearing up for what everyone expects to be a long fight.
Dena Kline, prevention specialist with the Klickitat County Health Department, is coordinating the effort in the county. Kline came up with the idea to create an "action team" to confront the problem and find ways to combat what is seen as a meth epidemic.
Known as the Klickitat County Meth Action Team, its purpose is "to address the methamphetamine issue in our communities, both the meth lab problem and meth use epidemic."
The group's first meeting was held in Lyle in January, with upcoming meetings scheduled for the third Wednesday of each month at the Lyle Lions/Community Center.
The inaugural event on Jan. 19 drew 27 team members from a variety of agencies and programs. Included in a long list were representatives from the White Salmon Police Department, Henkle Middle School, Whitson Elementary School, the Klickitat County Health Department, Mothers Against Meth, Programs for Peaceful Living, Klickitat County Sheriff's Office, Klickitat-Skamania Development Council, the Lyle Celebration Center, Adult Probation Services, Comprehensive Mental Health, and several others.
"It just erupted. I didn't expect that number of people," Kline said. "There's obviously a need, and people are willing to put time and effort into this subject, because it affects everyone, the entire community. I think we can make a difference in getting the word out."
Law enforcement officials and others say the drug is increasingly pervasive because it's relatively inexpensive to purchase and manufacture.
Kline said local officials are not prepared to effectively combat the booming problem.
"It's happening so fast, law enforcement and treatment agencies don't have the resources to deal with this," Kline explained. "It's going to get worse before it gets better. Obviously we need more resources."
In the city of Goldendale, for example, meth use has been going up sharply. In 2001, the police dealt with 13 meth cases. There were 52 cases reported in 2004.
Klickitat County Sheriff Chris Mace said meth activity is a big issue in law enforcement these days.
"It keeps us pretty busy," Mace explained. "In the last couple years, it has gotten worse. The meth problem itself is worse, but we're seeing it bleeding over into other crimes, like thefts, car prowls, and burglaries. People who can't afford meth turn to other crimes to fund it."
Mace said search warrants are repeatedly tied back to illegal meth activity.
"Here it is mid-February, and already we've had eight or nine search warrants where we've recovered stolen property related to narcotics. I don't know if we had any warrants by this time last year," Mace said. "Goods are stolen to fund drugs or to trade for narcotics."
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D.-Wash.) is among those calling for more funding to deal with meth.
Following a recent meeting in Vancouver with local elected leaders and law enforcement officials, Sen. Cantwell urged President Bush to double federal funding to fight the surging methamphetamine problem in America's communities.
Cantwell pointed out that federal funds to fight meth nationwide are declining as the problem is increasing. The federal government provided $70 million to fight meth in 2002, but it dropped to $52.5 in 2005.
The state of Washington's share of the federal funds also has dropped, from $4 million in fiscal year 2002 to $2 million for 2005. Cantwell added that the federal funds were relatively small to begin with, as the state spent $56 million battling the meth problem in 2004.
Cantwell wants local communities to be given the resources critical to the fight against meth.
"We need to show federal support for the officers on the front lines of the meth epidemic, rather than shift the burden onto local communities," Cantwell said.
Those dealing with the effects of this drug are deeply troubled by its use.
"It's such a weird drug," said Susan Benedict, an emergency room nurse at Skyline Hospital. "Kids are so messed up they can't keep a job. People in their 20s are getting arrested, and kids are coming in to the emergency room with their teeth falling out. People are very sick from chronic abuse. They end up with sores all over their body, and their teeth are literally gone or black. They get crazy on it, and hallucinate."
Benedict said she believes meth use is "getting a lot worse."
"I think it's super-addictive," she explained. "It must be, for people to give up so much to get it. What feels so good it's worth ruining your whole life over? It makes no sense."
According to the Klickitat County Sheriff's Office, most of the meth used in Klickitat County comes in from outside the area. Law enforcement officials believe that meth in the west end of the county comes primarily from the Portland/Vancouver area, while in the east end, it tends to come from Yakima.
Sheriff Mace said deputies have been finding roughly 10 meth labs a year in Klickitat County, and most of the labs are mobile.
"It used to take a whole house to manufacture meth, now it's so refined they are doing it in minivans and out of trunks of cars," Mace explained.
According to Mace, the majority of those using meth are young adults.
"You try it once and it's so addictive you're stuck, and it just tears you up," Mace said.
He added that he has no sympathy for anyone distributing a drug as hazardous as meth is.
"If you're a dealer, you belong in jail and can stay there forever as far as I'm concerned," Mace explained. "If you're a citizen who gets hooked on it, to me, they need help, and we need to offer them help before they start getting into thefts and burglaries to support the habit."
Mace urged citizens to watch for the signs of meth use.
"The common physical signs are a rapid reduction in weight and developing sores," Mace said. "It may not necessarily mean that, but it's a sign. Sometimes you'll see teeth start to decay."
The ingredients required to manufacture meth include acids, iodine, sodium hydroxide, flammable solvents, and anhydrous ammonia. Some of the materials involved can cause severe injury or death if inhaled or touched, and they require special handling to remove safely.
Cleanup costs for houses contaminated by meth production can climb to the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the extent of the contamination.
Experts suggest that junk cars and frequently used burn piles might be one sign of meth manufacturing.
"Landlords should be aware of what's happening on their property," said Steve Garrett of the Lewis County Health Department. "Windows covered with black plastic, discarded solvent cans, propane tanks with blue or green corroded valves, and paranoid behavior by a tenant is often a sure sign of a meth lab."
"They're cooking it up in houses with kids. All the ingredients are readily available, and so toxic," said Penny White Morris, a member of the White Salmon City Council. "It has to be highly addictive. Why else would people put that kind of poison in their body?"
Morris added that White Salmon is not immune from the ravages of meth abuse.
"I feel it's a nationwide problem, and it's been in our community a very long time," said Morris. "It changes people who are just very nice before starting it. After starting meth, they start stealing from their own parents and uncles and grandparents. It definitely pushes them to do things they would ordinarily never do."
Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel said he wasn't convinced meth was as serious a problem in the local community as some contend.
"I'm sure we have our share," Prigel said. "As far as being an acute problem, I don't know. I always view those connections with a little bit of skepticism. It's an easy scapegoat. In terms of thefts, there may be a connection, but there may not be."
Prigel added that he has not heard of any meth labs being discovered in Bingen.
However, Mace said there was a case in Bingen in early February that was linked to meth use.
"A stolen vehicle was recovered in Bingen, and it led to more narcotics," Mace said. "It was an offshoot of an investigation into thefts in Goldendale and surrounding areas that has ties to meth use in the Goldendale area."
Mace said meth use was a serious dilemma that would require a major effort to overcome.
"I don't think enforcement alone is going to win this war," Mace warned. "There are medical issues and education issues. Enforcement is not going to solve it all. For every one you arrest, there are two to take their place. It may not be a war we're winning, but we'll continue to fight. Society as a whole has to take great steps to deal with this problem."