Oregon Lawmakers Scramble to Tackle `a Huge Problem'

Article excerpt

Byline: The Register-Guard

Lane County Circuit Judge Darryl Larson can spot methamphetamine abusers from his bench, before he hears the charges.

Defendants arrive with tell-tale sores on their arms and faces. "They have a vacant, dead look in their eyes, like a shark, almost. They just look dead. Their mouths are moving a million miles an hour, but it's just crap coming out. It's clueless," Larson said.

Meth abuse has become a "huge problem," in Oregon, Larson warned. And that "isn't just howling in the wind."

He and scores of other leaders want the state to tackle the problem now.

The Legislature was barely in session this January before lawmakers put dozens of anti-meth bills into the hopper. Legislators linked arms across the aisle and between chambers.

"Make a blood-brother, blood-sister agreement," Rep. Wayne Krieger, R-Gold Beach, said.

"It became evident that we did have a tiger by the tail," he said.

The House and Senate hope to pass an omnibus bill with a comprehensive set of anti-meth measures. Proposals range from stiffer sentences for endangering children and dumping chemicals into rivers and streams to tighter control over meth-making ingredients.

Doctors, police, pharmacists and drug treatment providers are waiting to see what emerges from this new-found passion.

Will drug-treatment proponents get their message through? Will lawmakers opt for harsher penalties and more prison space? And how to pay for it all?

Brain drain

Meth is different from past drug scares, and it may require a different response, lawmakers say. Meth is poisonous and powerfully addictive. It demolishes - at least temporarily - a user's ability to reason.

Methamphetamine use is associated with brain damage in regions connected with attention and memory, researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles found in a 2000 study. Researchers found some recovery of function a year or two after users have abstained, but it's unclear whether they fully recover.

Meth is so bad it makes Oregon's police officers wax nostalgic about the days when opiates such as heroin were king.

"It's not a natural substance like cocaine or marijuana or heroin - or any of those," said Lt. Craig Durbin of the Oregon State Police. "This is a chemical and it changes the brain chemically."

Meth now dominates the caseload at the Lane County Drug Court. …