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METHAMPHETAMINE use reaching extremes

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A sharp rise in methamphetamine use is forcing law enforcement officers to focus their limited resources on the illegal labs that produce the drug.

``We should be focusing on the mid- and upper-level narcotics dealers, but we've had to refocus on meth,'' Oklahoma City police Lt. Tom Terhune said. ``We've had search warrants we can't execute because we've had to work a meth lab.

``Meth doesn't have the volume we saw with the crack cocaine trend, but it's more manpower intensive.''

For more than a year, the Oklahoma City police department's special operations team has had more work than it can handle. In 2000, the department seized 153 labs and is ahead of that record pace with 91 this year as of July 1.

Terhune has been working narcotics for 20 years and has been involved in about 400 meth lab seizures. He's seen drug fads come and go, but nothing's put him on the defensive like meth.

``What you have to remember is that almost every chemical used in the cooking process has a skull-and-crossbones warning on the container,'' Terhune said.

There isn't enough time in the day, and there aren't enough trained personnel to keep up with the lab seizures. In Oklahoma City, 16 officers have been fully trained to seize a meth lab. At least 20 more are needed, Terhune said.

``I like doing proactive police work, but with the labs, we've become a response team,'' Terhune said. ``It takes a special type of personality to work this stuff.''

Methamphetamine has raised the ante in ways Terhune could not have imagined.

``In the old days of narcotics, we would wear blue jeans and T-shirts and haul out the dope and call a chemist,'' he said.

Now they arrive at the scene toting at least $70,000 in laptop computers, digital cameras and monitoring equipment and more closely resemble trained chemists than police officers.

Often, the Oklahoma City Fire Department is called to support them in case of a fire or explosion, and for every ounce of dope they confiscate, they gather 6 pounds of hazardous waste.

``I've had to crawl over trash to get to trash in some of these places,'' said police Sgt. Vanessa Price, who patrolled in the Will Rogers District before she joined the special operations team.

``I've seen women who were visibly pregnant but they didn't know they were pregnant, and I've seen a 6-year-old child who was the 'adult' in the house responsible for taking care of the younger siblings because Mom and Dad were doing meth for five or six days and had crashed,'' Price said.

Breaking up a lab and posting a placard on the door warning of contamination is the easy part, Price said.

``It's what happened in that house and how if affects that family and that neighborhood that's important,'' she said.
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