Quartet of drugs a problem

Published 5:29 am Wednesday, January 21, 2004

By By ANNA M. LEE Assistant Editor
Escambia County faces four serious drug problems, according to Keith Hutchins, commander of the 21st Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force -- crystal methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana and prescription drug abuse.
Crystal methamphetamine labs are very dangerous. Also, the drug is very addictive, and its use is widespread, he said. "People from all walks of life are using it -- from housewives to professionals."
Escambia County's problem with the drug began in 1999, when the county had the first crystal methamphetamine lab responded to by the Mobile forensics team.
Since then, the problem has grown to include the discovery of 50 labs in the county in 2002 and 32 labs in 2003, Hutchins said.
Most recently, the drug task force initiated a lab clean up in the Nokomis area on Dec. 27, 2003.
Also, on Jan. 15 the task force arrested someone trying to steal anhydrous ammonia, a key component used in the manufacturing of crystal methamphetamine.
Another serious drug problem in Escambia County is the abuse of both powder and crack cocaine.
An arrest was made in the county at the beginning of January for possession of powder cocaine.
Crack sells for $20 a hit and the effects of a hit last about 30 minutes. Drug enforcement agents have encountered addicts who spent as much as $1,400 on crack cocaine in one night, Hutchins said.
According to Hutchins, cocaine overdoses are not always a result of the cocaine, specifically. Instead, additives used to stretch the cocaine, such as flour, detergent, rat poison or "anything white they can find to mix with it" are to blame, he said.
A third drug problem facing the county is the use of marijuana.
Four hundred marijuana plants were found growing in Escambia County last year. The highest number in recent years was over 1,000 marijuana plants found in 1997.
Finally, the abuse and illegal sale of prescription drugs presents a unique problem to the drug task force.
Law enforcement officers can't arrest someone for the possession of prescription drugs if the person has a prescription. The drug task force's answer to this is to catch people for the illegal sale of prescription drugs, which means using an undercover operation to make a purchase, Hutchins said.
One prescription drug being abused is a painkiller called Oxycontin, which Hutchins likens to "legalized heroin" because, like heroin, addiction to it is treated with methadone.
After two to three days without Oxycontin, addicts start to experience cramps, sweats, fever and diarrhea, he said. "It's one of the most horrible things you can go through."
Other prescription drugs that pose a problem include Lortab, Xanax and other painkillers, Hutchins said.
Officers with the 21st Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force visit schools, churches and civic organizations to educate the community against drug use.