Methamphetamine has cooked in Santa Barbara County drug laboratories for decades, yet its current prevalence trumps even the days when Andy Warhol’s cohort Edie Sedgwick made her meth-fueled romps through Isla Vista’s streets.

It is the drug of choice in the county, and accounts for a significant portion of its crime, particularly in North County. Its popularity maintains a stronghold in I.V. and at UCSB, and it can still be found in the homes of 40-year-old dealers on Abrego Road or in the dorms of 18-year-old freshmen on campus.

Oft ignored and rarely talked about outside of the C.A.S.E. classroom, the drug has infiltrated the area. In 2005, for instance, 78 percent of drug-related bookings to juvenile hall were for meth, while more than half of Santa Maria’s Drug Court participants who tested positive for drugs were found to have meth in their system.

Beyond the personal problems related to health and general well-being, meth causes a headache for the county both for its financial and social costs. Officials hope to cut the problem off at the knees, but are finding the eradication – or mere stemming of it – increasingly complex.

Antifreeze, Drain Cleaner and Kitty Litter

Created by the Japanese a century ago, and used by Kamikazes before they made their last flights, meth was recently named California’s “drug of choice” by a report from the county’s Methamphetamine Prevention Network Summit. But you don’t have to tell Santa Barbara County officials that; community leaders have been decrying meth’s prevalence for years.

Meth is a stimulant that activates the central nervous system and drastically increases the amount of dopamine – a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, enjoyment, and positive reinforcement – in the brain. And thanks to that jolt of euphoric dopamine, meth is more addictive than many other drugs.

“The sensation of anything by comparison – pleasurable sex or easy money – is dwarfed by the amount of dopamine meth releases into the brain,” said John Doyel, the treatment coordinator for Santa Barbara Alcohol, Drug & Mental Health Services. “It is more addicting than alcohol or marijuana.”

Crystal meth appeals to all sorts of people, from the weight-conscious woman who uses the drug to curb her appetite to the student who uses it as a study aid to the curious preteen, Doyel said.

“It is a culturally synchronic pandemic that fits in beautifully with American society, as it appeals to things we value, like optimism,” Doyel said.

What’s more, anyone can brew methamphetamines with a mixture of household items, including detergents, cold medicines and kitty litter. And addicts can get high almost any way they please: Meth can be injected, inhaled, or ingested. Of course, purchasing it isn’t that difficult either: a few doses run for about $20.

In the short term, meth can induce irritability, insomnia, confusion, tremors, convulsions, cardiovascular collapse or even death. Meth users also often develop “meth mouth,” in which their teeth rot out of their head as a result of the drug and the user’s poor dental habits and the consumption of sugary drinks, which users crave on binges. Even if a user quits the habit, he or she is still subject to a slew of long-term effects, including vitamin and mineral deficiencies, lowered resistance to disease and organ damage to the lungs, liver and kidneys.

But then, the user isn’t the only one who suffers. Families in Santa Barbara have been torn apart over the drug; about half of the 300 child out-of-home placements as of July 1, 2006 were done so as a result of abuse or neglect resulting from a parent’s meth use.

Some I.V. residents have noticed the influx of the drug into their beachside town. In a report given to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, former UCSB student Shanna McGuiness said she had seen the drug – and its effects – in I.V.

“I have recently heard that meth has been circulating in I.V., and I am hoping that it does not become the new trend, because I have seen the effects it can have on families,” she said. “It’s disturbing to know that this is the drug people in California are using, because it has the potential to be more harmful than other things.”

Meth and U(niversities)

Because of meth’s widespread appeal – and the “Superman” feeling associated with it – meth addiction has spread like a weed in California, which the National Institute on Drug Abuse said has one of the highest rates of meth usage.

Colleges are a hotbed for meth usage, Doyel said.

“This is a drug that has always been a problem in California; they used to deal it everywhere up at Stanford because kids used it to study harder,” he said. “There is still an old speed limit sign posted up on frat row that says ‘Speed, $5 a hit.'”

Although UCSB Alcohol & Drug Program assistant director Al Rodriguez described the typical meth user in the Santa Barbara area as “a young adult, typically male, unemployed and from North County,” the issue hit close to home last year when university officials discovered a meth lab inside a residence hall room, after the two occupants had been kicked out of the university due to low GPAs.

A former neighbor of the dorm room meth producers, who wishes to remain anonymous, said although he knew his neighbors dealt drugs from time to time, he had no idea that people in the building were involved in the production of crystal meth.

“I knew they experimented with a lot of stuff, but didn’t know about the lab until they got kicked out of school,” he said. “Every new drug was a new story. I was never home at the same time as them, so I didn’t know them very well, but they told me they had used meth once or twice and said it was kind of crazy…

“I knew a lot of people who used meth last year but never thought it was a problem,” he said. From observing his neighbors’ use, he said he could tell the drug “is really addictive and makes people really awake and really hyper.”

The student said it was somewhat frightening that no one would have known about the existence of the on-campus lab if the pair had not been kicked out.

Other students reacted similarly upon hearing about last year’s incident.

“It really scares me that something like this could have happened on this campus , because I had no idea that a crystal meth lab could have been next door to me,” said Sandra Stokes, a second year linguistics major. “I had no idea that meth was a problem in this area, let alone on our campus.”

A Santa Maria Export?

But outside Isla Vista and UCSB’s domain, the problem is not nearly as hidden. According to 4th District Supervisor Joni Gray, crystal meth has created a “crisis” and is a “burden for the county because of the way it destroys peoples’ lives.”

In certain parts of Santa Barbara County – particularly North County and the Santa Maria area – Gray said meth helps contribute to high levels of violent behavior and abuse, in addition to the overcrowding of county jails.

According to a January 2007 county report, meth use has mushroomed in a relatively short span of time; in 2001, 19 percent of patients in county drug treatment programs claimed meth as their primary drug, but in 2006 this increased to 31 percent, making it the drug of choice in Santa Barbara County.

Currently, about 55 percent of Drug Court participants in Santa Maria who tested positive for drug use were found to be on meth; in Lompoc – a possible location for a new detox program site – the statistic is 42 percent, while in Santa Barbara it is 33 percent.

“It destroys families because parents lose their sense of right or wrong,” Gray said.

Gray recalled an incident involving two parents who accidentally killed their child while under the influence of crystal meth.

“They literally rolled over [in bed] and suffocated their own child while sleeping,” Gray said.

Apparently the tragedy is not entirely unheard of. Last March, Lompoc resident Jason Gomez rolled over on his infant twins and suffocated them to death while under the influence of methamphetamines.

Kelly Rodriguez, a recovered meth abuser, told the Methamphetamine Prevention Network Summit that the drug practically ruined her life: She lost her children, went to jail and became homeless.

“Using meth was the most self-destructive thing I’ve ever done,” Rodriguez said.

Biting Back at “Meth Mouth”

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors is currently looking for a solution to the meth “epidemic.” The Methamphetamine Prevention Network Summit’s report painted a dour picture of the current resources.

“Services were being strained and circumstances such as county jail over-crowding, waiting lists for detoxification and overwhelming caseload for child welfare services were attributed to meth abuse,” the report states.

One possible new approach, highlighted in the report to the board, is a project called “From ‘Me’ to ‘We.'”

“It’s a new benchmark for bringing together a broad-based coalition of public and private agencies, organizations and other stakeholders to fight the impact of methamphetamine,” Gray said of the program.

The “broad-based coalition” aims to bolster its ranks with forums held throughout the spring to get the public support and to create more strategies for combating the problem.

Others note the answer isn’t an easy one. Regardless, Rodriguez of the UCSB Alcohol & Drug Program said the meth problem in the county needs to be proactively addressed.

“Our collective approach to our meth problem needs rethinking,” he said.