Crack cocaine and heroin were the most common illegal drugs in Clatsop County until about five years ago - "then it was like a light switch going on, and meth was just everywhere," Sheriff Tom Bergin said.

As the leader for several years of the county's multi-agency Narcotics Task Force, Bergin has first-hand experience with the local drug scene. He and the other members of the team set up stings to catch drug-sellers and busted drug-making labs and marijuana grow operations.

Though somewhat late to arrive at the North Coast, meth quickly became the No. 1 problem for law enforcement, spreading into the drug community to the point that Bergin estimates that 80 percent or more of criminal activity is directly or indirectly related to the drug.

Most intoxicants, legal or not, bring a host of related social ills including family violence, theft and other crimes. But meth, with the extreme level of addiction and aggressive, often paranoid behavior it causes, has put the local drug problem on a whole new level, Bergin said.

"It creates havoc throughout the whole system," he said.

Methamphetamine affects the entire community thanks to the law-breaking that addicts pursue to feed their addiction, which can reach $100 or more a day. Burglaries and identity thefts in particular are more and more connected to meth users, Bergin said.

"People come to us on a daily basis and say 'this is going on in our neighborhood,'" he said.

Rural communities in particular are hard hit. Police have been dealing with a rash of burglaries in Westport, Taylorville and other east county areas, Bergin said.

There are also more serious consequences, such as last year's stand-off with an armed man high on meth who barricaded himself inside the old county animal shelter on Oregon Highway 202. The confrontation ended without bloodshed, but it showed the level of paranoia the drug can cause, Bergin said.

Until last year much of law enforcement's focus was aimed at local mini meth laboratories, some so small they fit into the trunk of a car and could easily be set up in an apartment or motel room.

The state law requiring that pseudoephedrine cold medicines, a key ingredient for the labs, be kept behind the counter, as well as tighter scrutiny on the sale of other common ingredients, has dramatically reduced the number of local labs, just as it has statewide - prior to the law, it was common for meth "cooks" to steal armloads of cold remedies off the shelves of local stores, Bergin said.

But the slack has been picked up by supplies coming in from out of state, most of it from Mexican sources, and U.S. Highway 101 has become a major corridor for traffickers, Bergin said. Just last month police, with the help of a drug-sniffing dog, found a quarter-pound of meth hidden in the dashboard of a car during a traffic stop.

Meth is also a major cause of the growing problem of violence in the county jail, where addicts often end up. Meth, and the withdrawal that users suffer, keep people in an agitated state far longer than other drugs, he said. That leads to more fighting between inmates, and violence against jail guards too, and the facility has few spots to isolate out-of-control prisoners.

"It takes several weeks to get stabilized," he said. "With cocaine or marijuana, they're over it in a couple of days. But with meth, it can be months before they become a normal person again - it's much more powerful."

Bergin estimates as many as nine out of 10 people brought to the jail are there for a meth-related reason - if not for using or selling, then for an assault or theft linked to the drug.

"I can walk through the jail and point to just about all 60 people and say 'meth, meth, meth' - it's just amazing."

The growing problem among inmates is a big reason Bergin has proposed trimming the population in the county jail. The Clatsop County commissioners recently approved a plan to cap the maximum number of inmates at 60 instead the current 64, a reduction Bergin said would free up some cells that could be used to isolate violent inmates.

Bergin said he supports substance abuse treatment asa tool to fight the drug problem, and applauds the efforts that the county Community Corrections Department, under former director Danny Jordan, made to boost services for drug- and alcohol-addicted offenders through various alternative programs like Drug Court and the Transition Center, due to open next year.

But Bergin also thinks punishment is an equally important tool.

"People need to be arrested, and the laws need to be toughened on delivery and manufacture of controlled substances," he said. "Until we go to the state and toughen our laws, this problem will continue to exist."

The jail overcrowding problem has meant most convicted offenders serve only a fraction of their sentences. For drug addicts, that lack of accountability also means the system has no time to impact a person's behavior with treatment, he said.

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