JESENIK, Czech Republic The methamphetamine epidemic is not just a scourge of the American heartland. It has a powerful foothold here in the heart of Central Europe. Home meth labs are sprouting up all over the country to produce this cheap, potent drug using the pseudoephedrine found in common cold medications. In 2000, Czech police raided 19 cooking labs. By last year that number had grown to 416 in a country of just 10.2 million people.
The appetite for methamphetamine in the Czech drug scene grew out of the strange ingenuity fostered among users once cut off by the Iron Curtain from imported highs. Now the consumption of this strongly addictive, often injected stimulant appears to be spreading from the Czech Republic to the rest of Europe.
Whether it is carried by the flow of Czech workers migrating within the European Union or simply is gaining appeal as a half-price alternative to cocaine is unclear. But the number of countries in Europe reporting seizures of methamphetamine more than doubled between 2000 and 2005, to 25 from 11, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Use of methamphetamine remains for now far behind heroin and the continent's swiftly growing cocaine habit. Though the quantity seized rose fourfold over the same period to 300 pounds, that is a small amount compared with the 11,300 pounds seized in the United States. But the concern is that the European growth lays the groundwork in demand, production and distribution that could lead to an explosion in use.
The sudden growth of the drug in the United States and its expansion from a regional issue to a national one serves as a warning, said an expert at the U.N. drug office. "It must be feared that something similar could happen in Europe," said the expert, Thomas Pietschmann, a main author of the annual U.N. World Drug Report. The challenge is "to stop the methamphetamine market while it's in its infancy," Pietschmann said. "Once it's established, it's really far more difficult."