Europe Fears That Meth Foothold Is Expanding
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, the Czech police raided 19 cooking facilities. 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 United Nations 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 United Nations drug office. “It must be feared that something similar could happen in Europe,” said the expert, Thomas Pietschmann, a main author of the annual United Nations World Drug Report.
Czech legislators and law enforcement officials are trying to crack down on the local, small-time producers who, according to police officials, are preparing enough methamphetamine for the entire Czech market.
But the experience in the United States has shown that once the demand is clear, it can be filled by the tidal flows of the global drug market. Though the United States has made significant headway in the fight against small meth producers with tighter restrictions on the sales of the medications used in its production, enormous labs in Mexico and Asia continue to supply American users.
The challenge is “to stop the methamphetamine market while it’s in its infancy,” Mr. Pietschmann said. “Once it’s established it’s really far more difficult.”
Mr. Pietschmann said that in addition to the Czech Republic’s exporting the drug to neighboring countries, the Baltic states were producing it for northern countries, including Sweden and Finland; he has even heard about two labs discovered in Vienna, where his office is based. “It’s dangerous because it’s so easy to produce,” Mr. Pietschmann said.
A meth cook in the tiny Czech town of Jesenik, not far from the Polish border, said he once sent several batches of the drug — known locally by an old trade name, Pervitin — to friends in England who went there for work. “They wanted to escape from Jesenik, to escape Pervitin, but when they got there they asked me to send it,” said the cook, who covered his face and refused to give his name out of fear of prosecution.
In his crude laboratory, the world outside was cut off with makeshift blackout curtains, old rugs and worn blankets hung over windows. The cook tended with painstaking care to the bubbling red stew that he said would yield more than an ounce of homemade methamphetamine.
Though that batch alone — which could produce hundreds of doses — would be worth, based on average street prices, around $1,800, he was so short on cash he could not even make calls on his prepaid cellphone because it was out of credits. He said that he did not sell his output, but used it or shared with friends.
The national police here say that such tight circles of users are the norm, and the decentralization is part of the difficulty in shutting down operations. “If one of them is seized, three mushroom up somewhere else,” said Bretislav Brejcha, head of the methodology and prevention group at the national drug headquarters for the police.
In the decades when what was then Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule, addicts largely had to produce their own highs by concentrating medications. These drugs were produced by small, tight-knit rings of users, known as squads, for their own consumption rather than for distribution and sale. Meth came on the scene here in the early 1970s, and it and other drugs boomed with the end of Communism and opening of the country in 1989.
Of the roughly 30,000 “problem drug users” identified by the Czech government, 20,000 use Pervitin — Pervitin was the trade name of the drug when the Nazi military gave it to its soldiers and pilots to counter fatigue. Among problem users, 90 percent are injecting the drug with needles — known in the United States as slamming — rather than snorting or smoking it. More than a third of intravenous drug users in the Czech Republic have hepatitis C, although their H.I.V. infection rate remains contained, below 1 percent.
According to the United Nations drug office, the Czech Republic has high levels of cannabis use, the highest for ecstasy, and “by far” the worst methamphetamine abuse in Europe.
That may have been encouraged by the accessibility of the main ingredient. The town of Roztoky, just outside of Prague, had one of the world’s largest ephedrine factories until 2002. According to the Czech police, that was the year the factory began to shut down its production of the chemical. Not coincidentally, they say, it was the first year the number of seized labs really jumped, nearly quadrupling from 28 the previous year to 104.
The police said that up to that point, larger, more organized rings were getting ephedrine from the factory and producing the drug in quantity for street sales. Now, the production system has reverted to the squads of the Communist days and is reaching smaller, out-of-the-way places.
The Parliament is working on legislation to give pharmacists discretion over the quantity of cold medication containing pseudoephedrine (used to produce the drug when pure ephedrine is not available) that any individual customer can buy. Others say a national registry listing all sales of precursor drugs should be mandatory. “A solution where a pharmacy will be deciding without a national registry is not going to solve the problem,” Mr. Brejcha said.
The meth cook in Jesenik agreed with that point. “There will be pharmacists who consider 100 boxes a proper amount,” said the man, who admitted to using the drug for over a decade but to cooking it for only two and a half years.
A short distance from the Polish border, Jesenik is among the most isolated corners in the entire Czech Republic. There are no highways, and even a small November snowfall in the mountains makes switchbacks on the sharply curving roads dangerous.
Unlike many small rural communities, the inhabitants do not have deep roots here. Ethnic Germans, once the main population, were expelled after World War II. The industries from the Communist period largely disappeared after the Velvet Revolution toppled that government.
“Young and educated people are away,” said Jiri Stana, the deputy mayor. “There is no work for them. Who is clever enough is in Prague.”
The local government keeps no statistics on the number of methamphetamine users, but the head of a small, overstretched drug clinic near the bus station in this town of 12,500 said employees had given out over 17,000 clean needles in just the first 10 months of the year.
“In bigger towns, the situation is really anonymous,” said the clinic’s director, Josef Vondrka, 31, who is himself a former user. “Here it’s much more personal. To go to a pharmacy and ask for syringes immediately ends anonymity.”
In his black hoodie and large black boots he would not look out of place at a hard-core punk show. But the boots, he said, were protection for when he stepped on used needles. At the center, clients can shower, wash their clothes, have a cup of coffee and receive counseling. The center also provides H.I.V. tests.
Lenka, a 23-year-old user who refused to give her last name, said that on a recent morning she knocked on the doors of five neighbors — all of whom use meth — and could not find anyone who could give her a clean needle. “Many people don’t start snorting like they used to,” she said. “Many people start with needles.”
Though she has been using for six years, Lenka said she refused to cook the drug herself. “If you start it can get really dangerous,” she said, “because you never stop.”
The local meth cook agreed. “When people ask me to show them how to do it, I tell everyone, ‘I will not show you,’” said the man, as he added more iodine into his batch. “Don’t do it. When you learn to cook then you will die.”
“I think I will die because of this,” he said, keeping watch on the thermometer buried in the thick red mixture.
Katerina Zachovalova contributed reporting.