Last fall, the country's drug czar, John Walter, announced a plan to target methamphetamine production and use in 23 U.S. cities. High on his list are communities along the I-4 corridor, beginning with the Tampa Bay region, which has become the "focal point" of all methamphetamine distribution and abuse within Florida, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
State officials agree. While Florida has long been a key part of the pipeline for smuggling marijuana and cocaine into the U.S., methamphetamine now presents the "greatest drug threat to the state," according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant. The drug is injected, snorted, smoked or swallowed, resulting in a euphoric rush followed by a host of problems ranging from hallucinations to paranoia and depression.
Most crystal meth is still smuggled into Florida from so-called "super labs" in Mexico, Texas and California, but a growing percentage is homemade. Polk County was an early hotbed for "tweaker labs," one- or two-man operations that cook up crystal meth. Authorities seized 16 meth labs in Polk between 2002 and 2003. Meanwhile, however, the labs began popping up in surrounding counties, particularly in Pasco. The number of labs seized there has increased from nine in 2002-03 to 18 in 2004-05.
Drug enforcement experts in Tampa also are concerned that the crystal meth itself is becoming more toxic, with purity levels hitting 99%. The higher the purity, they say, the harder it is to kick the habit.