Alibi V.13 No.4 • Jan 22-28, 2004 

Newscity

Tweaker Town

Local officials say crystal meth use “out of control”

The city condemned, then razed, the Zia Motel after discovering a meth lab
The city condemned, then razed, the Zia Motel after discovering a meth lab
Singeli Agnew

A few years ago, I met a Euro-hippie who was hanging out in Nob Hill. He was travelling around the country on a Greyhound bus, choosing his destinations based on recommendations from one of those travel-on-a-shoestring books. He said he was pleasantly surprised by Albuquerque's charm—the mountains, affordable bars and cafés, amiable weather—especially because his guidebook advised him not to stop here at all, calling our town uneventful, dirty and worst of all, dangerous. But thankfully he checked it out anyway and seemed to enjoy it.

And hopefully he didn't get rolled before he left. Because, let's face it, our city does have its problems with violence. And now to add one more nefarious item to the list, methamphetamine (or crystal meth) use has become an epidemic, according to city and state officials.

Last week, Pete Dinelli, director of the Safe City Task Force, said the Albuquerque Police Department busted 91 labs in the city in the past 12 months.

The task force is run out of the city attorney's office and was formed in March 2002, in an attempt to prosecute property owners and tenants that violate the city's nuisance abatement ordinance.

“On any given week we review between 45 and 60 properties,” said Dinelli. “We look at calls reporting crime, police reports and city housing code violations.”

By following this formula, Dinelli said, “In the last year and a half, meth labs have really popped up on our radar screen.”

With this in mind, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish appeared in front of a condemned apartment complex in the 400 block of Tennessee NE last week to announce how state lawmakers plan to address the problem. Flanked by lawmakers and law enforcement officials, Denish said two identical bills will be introduced this week in the House and Senate mostly dealing with stricter penalties and more restriction on the sale of ingredients used in the production of methamphetamine.

One bill will give the state board of pharmacy more power to regulate the sale of over-the-counter cold medicine, such as Ppeudoephedrine, which is a central ingredient in crystal meth. The amendment would, for now, leave the proposal up to the board to determine how to abate frequent thefts or mass quantity purchases of the legal medicine.

The second bill allows prosecutors to file child abuse charges if children are present when the drugs are being made, or living in the home. According to Dinelli, one-third of the lab busts in Albuquerque last year involved property where children resided.

That statistic explained why technicians from the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver flanked Denish during last week's press conference. The researchers had been manufacturing crystal meth inside the condemned buildings as part of a government-aided study to measure the level of toxic chemicals that absorb into the drywall, framing and carpet.

National Jewish specializes in respiratory health and part of the study was aimed at compiling data on the damage done to children exposed to the vapors emitted when crystal meth is cooked in a confined area.

“They already know that in hotel rooms—if they do a batch in the bathtub and split—it seeps not only into the drywall, but into the studs,” said Bob Schwartz, a senior advisor to the governor on criminal justice policy, who helped craft the new legislation. “This has real environmental safety implications when people go to buy or a rent a house, or stay in a hotel.”

Schwartz said when people buy an established home in Colorado, a recent law requires the buyer and seller split a $300 fee to check for crystal meth contaminants and added: “We might see this coming to New Mexico.”

Lastly, Denish announced a new 24-hour, anonymous hotline (888-442-6677) to report meth lab activity.

The Clampdown

To avoid the usual bureaucratic morass that often leads one city department to unknowingly overlap with another, the Safe City Task Force brings members of APD's criminal investigations and nuisance abatement units, the fire marshal, the city planning department's housing code enforcement division and members of the District Attorney's office together for meetings every week to review anywhere between 45 and 60 properties.

As a result, Dinelli says the city has been able to take a “very aggressive approach” to streamlining cases against methamphetamine laboratories and other criminal activity.

In some cases, the task force has enabled the Bernalillo County District Attorney's office to file criminal charges simultaneously with the city filing a civil lawsuit against property owners or tenants. Dinelli said the city has also used a recent change in the law to counteract owners who try and sell an apartment complex after it's been shut down.

“It's a very common practice to try and sell, but now we still have an action by naming the property as a defendant,” said Dinelli.

In some cases involving a meth lab, like the Zia Motel on Central near the Hiland Theater, the property has been bulldozed in hopes of attracting new development.

In reference to the 91 meth labs busted last year, Dinelli concluded, “That is epidemic. There's no getting around that.”

Dinelli said because crystal meth is so easy to manufacture and the financial incentive to sell it so high, the hike in lab busts doesn't come as a surprise. He also said that labs are turning up in all quadrants of the city and are not isolated to the stereotypical, high-crime areas.

Where are the Treatment Programs?

A couple of years ago, New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson would say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over even when it isn't working. He'd use this axiom to define his views on our federal government's so-called war on drugs. He'd say anyone who thinks they can stop the sale of illegal drugs in a free market society is dreaming. Johnson's opinion seems to relate to what is happening in Albuquerque. That is, busting one meth lab has done nothing to deter others from sprouting.

“Right now we are in reactive mode,” said Dinelli. “The prosecutors are there to clean up the mess. To solve the problem you need the treatment and intervention.”

Dinelli, a former Albuquerque City Councilor and former local judge who has practiced law for 27 years, said treatment and intervention funding has to come from state and federal sources or else the problem will get worse.

“We have resources to take these properties out,” said Dinelli. “I don't think a week goes by when you don't see a meth lab [getting busted]. But the sad commentary is, you can change the laws, but unless there is treatment, we're just going to deal with our case loads increasing.”

Last week Bob Schwartz said the Richardson administration is looking at a complete overhaul of the behavioral health delivery system in the state. He said the state spends $56 million annually for substance abuse and $30 million on prevention, “but you can't find a bed.” That's not because the beds are all full, Schwartz said. It's because the administration inherited so many different contracts for hundreds of regionally based services thus creating a bureaucratic mess that Schwartz said is “being untangled.”

As for the rise in crystal meth use, Schwartz said, “Treatment is the biggest monkey out there. It is the toughest drug to keep people off of according to research. The governor is absolutely committed that the money spent helps make addicts clean and sober. In the past we didn't have a predictable return on the money we spent. We want substance abuse treatment to be competitive with incarceration for non-violent, low-level offenders. Hopefully at some point we will have as many beds as we do cells—that's the goal.”

John Robbenhaar, a criminal defense attorney who contracts with the public defender's office, said in the past couple of years he's juggled three or four cases involving crystal meth possession at any given time.

“I have clients that can kick the heroin and crack, that have maintained sobriety, and I'm sure other lawyers can attest to that,” said Robbenhaar. “This is more anecdotal than scientific, but meth seems like a terrifically difficult drug to overcome.” He called meth use a serious problem in the city, but said he doesn't see it as an epidemic and suggested other cities in the west are experiencing an even greater problem.

“What Albuquerque sorely needs is more money into treatment,” said Robbenhaar. “The programs in the penitentiary are just the tip of the iceberg. I have non-violent possession cases, with non-violent history, and they might get time with the hysteria around crystal meth right now. I don't think that's fixing the problem.”

State Rep. Joe Thompson, a Northeast Heights Republican who supported Gov. Johnson's drug-policy reform initiatives, said he sponsored two bills last year similar to what Denish proposed last week. He said he'll raise the treatment issue during this month's session.

“To increase penalties is fine,” Thompson said, “but we should be looking at the treatment aspects.”

Does he think crystal meth use is an epidemic in Albuquerque?

“It's absolutely out of control,” said Thompson, who works as a criminal defense attorney. “As a legislator, as a part of my community, I see constituents and family members whose lives have just been devastated by crystal meth. These are not people you would stereotype as drug users. These are people we see every day; people we have dinner with, people we golf with, people in our families. It's not somebody else's problem. It's our problem.”