The discovery of two methamphetamine laboratories in suburban West Hills last week was a lesson in simple economics for police.
Once relegated to remote outposts in high-desert communities, meth labs are popping up in the city's San Fernando Valley area to feed a voracious appetite from a new breed of users.Police call it the drug of the '90s - a highly addictive form of speed that gives users a feeling of invincibility.
"Now it's filtering out onto the street, to where it's starting to rival cocaine. There are `call-out' people who you can call on your pager," said Los Angeles police Detective Patrick Dammeier of the Valley Narcotics Bureau.
What police and drug counselors alike are finding is that meth is increasingly the choice among middle-class teenagers and baby boomers "trying to rediscover the good old times," said state Department of Justice spokesman Mike Van Winkle.
In the San Fernando Valley, police say meth has begun making an appearance on the streets of North Hollywood and Pacoima.
"Way back when, it was called `the poor man's cocaine,' " said Gregg McClung, special agent supervisor for the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement's Los Angeles field office. "Now, in my opinion, it's the drug of the '90s."
As of July, Los Angeles police had seized 2,403 pounds of methamphetamine this year - more than they seized in all of 1996 and 1997 combined.
And for the first time, meth has begun to rival cocaine in terms of poundage confiscated by the LAPD. So far this year, police have seized 2,830 pounds of cocaine. Only two years ago, police seized nearly 12 times as much cocaine as meth, according to LAPD statistics.
The trend mirrors a similar one statewide. Last year, state agents actually seized more methamphetamine than cocaine. By comparison, in 1991 state agents seized roughly 30 times more cocaine than meth.
To meet the demand, relatively small methamphetamine labs are turning up in densely populated areas of the Valley, despite the risk that neighbors will smell the acrid fumes and call police.
Glendale. Sylmar. San Fernando. "They are all over," Dammeier said. "You find them in a little chicken ranch in Sylmar. You find them in the middle of a normal neighborhood."
The state is responding by shifting 70 percent to 75 percent of its anti-drug money to combating methamphetamine.
Measured by the percentage of resources the state spends to combat all drugs, methamphetamine is "the Chicago Bulls - it's the champ every year and winning every time easily," Van Winkle said. "It used to be one of the four big drugs, but it's separated itself from the pack."
For the big-time producer, a $5,000 investment can buy enough components to make $1 million worth of the drug. Wholesale, one pound could be sold for $4,000 to $7,000, depending on quality. On the street, at $100 a gram, it could bring in up to $45,000. The drug is often sold in a $25 portion known as a "quarter."
The drug is manufactured using chemicals such as Freon, iodine and phosphorus - and every pound of meth produces 5 pounds of waste, authorities estimate.
Because of the health threat, authorities are cracking down on companies that sell the chemicals in bulk without complying with new state regulations.
"It damages not only the plants and the critters out there but people too," said Dale Ferranto, special agent in charge of the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement's Los Angeles office. "They pour it down the drain, put it in the sewage, and it gets into the water table, seeps into the aquifers."