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St. Paul fights a meth epidemic

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Crystal meth (MPR file photo)
Much of the focus of the methamphetamine has been in rural areas. But there's no doubt the drug has become a big city problem. Methamphetamine accounts for nearly half of all the drug crimes in the city of St. Paul. St. Paul police are looking at meth-related crimes as one of the main reasons the city has seen a 13 percent increase in violent crime for the first half of this year.

St. Paul, Minn. — St. Paul police say methamphetamine abuse is epidemic in the city.

Police Officer Heather Weyker says the drug has wide appeal, crossing over race, class, and neighborhood. She says she responds daily to meth-related calls.

"We just booked a guy for possession of meth," she says. "And he was geekin', and he had meth on him. You find it on traffic stops, you find it when you go into domestics. You find it anywhere and everywhere."

Meth is a powdery substance made from household chemicals including the cold medicine pseudoephedrine, which is mixed with acids or solvents like brake fluid.

And what does "geekin'" mean?

A man we'll call "Stan," knows firsthand.

"If you've ever seen someone in an insane asylum, they can't stop moving. They're following things on the floor. They're seeing things on the wall," Stan says. "That's how someone on meth acts after about four or five days with not sleeping. It's a psychosis."

Stan, who says his life would be in danger if he were identified by his real name, says he did anything for meth because it's a good high, at first.

"It was more of a high than weed, it lasted longer," he says. "It's an intense high and it keeps you up and keeps you busy. I mean, you don't sleep."

The problem with meth for police is it's not just about people getting high and acting funny.

Bill Martinez is Senior Commander of the St. Paul Police Department's Eastern District. He says meth is so addictive it drives people to commit crimes.

We just booked a guy for possession of meth. You find it on traffic stops, you find it when you go into domestics. You find it anywhere and everywhere.
- St. Paul police officer Heather Weyker

"Especially when individuals become addicted to meth and they don't have the financial means to support their habit, they're going to do other things to get money to buy their meth," Martinez says.

Martinez says meth addicts will commit crimes like stealing from relatives, panhandling, and robbing. And many, like former user and dealer Stan, will hurt people to get what they want.

"I was more or less the one committing the violence," Stan says. "Assaulting people, taking their drugs, taking their money. Granted, I can't say it was the right or wrong thing to do, but at the time, it seemed to be the way to do it."

Police say assaults are common in domestic calls and gang violence related to meth.

They say 85 percent of the meth coming into St. Paul comes pre-processed from Mexico or other states. And, Narcotics and Vice unit Commander Todd Axtell says gangs then sell it to users in St. Paul.

"It's almost like they run a business. But, they use violence, coercion, in order to protect their territories and their trade," he says.

Axtell says the meth businesess is lucrative. He says meth averages around $900 an ounce. That's a little less than crack, and far more pricey than marijuana at $165 an ounce.

Police are getting some federal money to help fight meth, but Axtell says meth-related gang violence and domestic calls are putting stress on already limited public safety resources.

Police Officer Heather Weyker says no matter how much police spend trying to react to meth, she sometimes feels like there's no way they can win.

"It's not saying we're not utilizing our resources. It's saying that they are bigger and craftier than we are," she says. "A drug dealer's whole focus in life is money and dealing drugs. And our whole focus is not methamphetamine. We have other things that we have to deal with on our daily basis."

Weyker and others say today's meth problem is similar to what the city and country experienced in the 1980s with the craze over crack cocaine. But, they say in many ways, meth is even more destructive.

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