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"Meth' called growing threat

Polk County Sheriff Lawrence Crow saw his first case of methamphetamine in 1980. The deadly drug's popularity has soared in the rural community since then.

The most recent case of meth-related violence was the death of 2-year-old Alfredo Montes, whose mother left the boy with two of her friends, said Crow. All were meth addicts, officials said.

Those caregivers killed the boy earlier this month and dumped his body by the side of an interstate highway, according to investigators.

"The reality of the violence of this drug is beginning to sink in," Crow said. "I've seen the evolution in Polk County."

Crow told his stories Monday to a roomful of federal, state and local officers. They gathered at the Wyndham Westshore Hotel in Tampa for the "Meth in America: Not in Our Town" conference, which was sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Administration and attended by DEA director Asa Hutchinson.

"Meth has clearly become the No. 1 drug problem in rural America," Hutchinson said.

Tampa was the 22nd stop on Hutchinson's so-called Meth Tour, a nationwide effort to educate people about the drug's nasty effects on society. James Moore, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, James McDonough, the director of the Florida Office of Drug Control, and Hillsborough Sheriff Cal Henderson were among the panelists.

Through aggressive enforcement, prevention and treatment, Hutchinson hopes to curb the growing trend of meth use nationwide.

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant that is initially pleasurable to the user, but also one that causes mental confusion, severe anxiety and paranoia. Users become aggressive and paranoid and can become violent. The drug comes in pill form, powder and chunks.

Polk County has the biggest meth problem in the state, authorities said. Sheriff Crow estimated that in the past two years, Polk law enforcement officers have seized a meth lab every 90 days. Meth users there often use raw materials meant for agriculture _ such as hydrous ammonia _ when "cooking" the drug. Another component is over-the-counter cold medicine; some states have regulated the amount of cold medicine available for purchase at any one time.

A recent outbreak of hepatitis A in Polk County has been linked to meth use. Between January and May of this year, more than 200 hepatitis A cases have been reported to health officials there.

Since Polk County is central Florida's methamphetamine capital, Hillsborough County is feeling the residual effects.

The largest-ever meth seizure in Florida was made in Hillsborough in May; Hillsborough and Polk deputies and DEA officers seized nearly 60 pounds of the drug. It had an estimated value of $2.7-million. All of the suspects in that case were from Polk County.

From January to July of last year, said Sheriff Henderson, there were six meth lab seizures. There have been 15 such seizures in Hillsborough so far this year.

Still, methamphetamine use and production has not reached epidemic proportions in Florida as in states such as California.

While Florida has had 33 total meth lab seizures so far this year, California reported 1,872.

"Florida has set up a barrier against meth use," said Hutchinson. "You need to remain vigilant. If you don't, there will be future problems."