DRUG SQUAD KEEPS BUSY, STAYS QUIET.
SANTA CLARITA - Though they keep a tight lid on their operations, Santa Clarita narcotics officers are among the busiest Sheriff's Department officials in the city.
Working undercover and acting on tips provided by the people they arrest, narcotics deputies in Santa Clarita say they sniff out drug activity in the most unlikely places -- remote mountainsides with tens of thousands of marijuana plants, fast-food restaurants that provide a front for drug sales and nondescript houses with kitchens that serve as methamphetamine labs.
``Drugs are everywhere, and the most popular drug right now is methamphetamine,'' said Sgt. Gloria Gressman, head of the narcotics bureau at the Santa Clarita Valley sheriff's station. ``We know there are meth labs operating right now, we just have to find them.''
Local narcotics officers made 526 felony and misdemeanor arrests last year for drug sales and possession, and issued 165 citations for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, officials say.
However, because those arrested in drug busts often become informants in exchange for shorter prison sentences, Gressman said her division does not publicize its arrests.
For instance, nearly 24 pounds of methamphetamine were quietly seized in 1999 when authorities busted several drug labs in the city, and 20,000 marijuana plants were discovered last summer in a field on Oat Mountain, near the Newhall Pass. An encampment surrounding the field was abandoned before authorities arrived, Gressman said.
While law enforcement officers say they don't offer information to the public to protect their sources, some community members say the city could better cope with the drug problem if people were better informed.
``In my mind, if you have a big bust, it really says we've got some issues up here that need to be looked at,'' said Stephanie Weiss, a member of the city's Blue Ribbon Task Force, a drug prevention committee. ``And if we honestly want to deal with that, it seems to me that we'd want to get the word out. It's easier to solve a problem when you talk about it than when you keep quiet.''
However, Sgt. Tony Hollins, who oversees narcotics operations in northern Los Angeles County, said he believes the solution to the drug problem lies with the individual, not with law enforcement.
``Our job is to take people to jail that violate the rights of others, not to be a social worker,'' he said. ``Until our citizens stop being users, there's no way to stop the drug problem.''
The skyrocketing demand for methamphetamine, for example, has led California to become a ``source country'' for the drug, he said, adding that drug labs in the state provide much of the national methamphetamine supply.
In 1999, a total of 2,063 meth labs were seized statewide, 272 were seized in the county, and 140 were seized just in the northern part of the county, which includes Santa Clarita, he said.
The drug labs range from large, warehouse-based operations that crank out up to 100 pounds at a time, to smaller labs found in homes and garages, he said.
In Santa Clarita, Hollins said, drug labs are typically the smaller, home-based variety - which in some ways are more hazardous than larger labs found in remote areas.
``The gas generated in the process is more deadly than cyanide and it all has to be vented,'' Hollins said. ``We usually find these places when a neighbor calls and says, This place has a stench.''
He added that meth labs pose a threat to the water supply because the poisonous byproducts generated by drug labs are routinely dumped along the roadside, where they seep into the groundwater. More than 800 such dump sites have been found statewide since January 1999, he said.
``Every pound of meth generates five to seven pounds of waste material,'' he said. ``And it's all going into our aquifer.''
Authorities have tried to limit the amount of methamphetamine an individual can produce by restricting the amount of ingredients he can purchase, Hollins said. For instance, he said, a new law prohibits stores from selling an individual more than three packages of cold medicine - which contains pseudophedrine, an ingredient needed to make meth.
However, some have found creative ways around the new law.
``I've seen some people open a package and shove six packets in it, and the cashier rings it up like any other transaction,'' he said.
Rave parties - which can involve large groups of young people using drugs to stay awake all night - have increased demand for drugs such as methamphetamine and MDMA, aka ecstasy, authorities say.
But they are quick to add that drug abuse exists in all social groups.
``We find a lot of women here use methamphetamine to lose weight and we see a lot of dancers using it to stay slim,'' Gressman said. ``Most of them become addicted and need it all the time.''
Ultimately, Gressman said, the city's drug problem will be solved only in the home.
``We have a lot of kids using drugs here and parents are either turning a blind eye or they don't have a clue,'' she said. ``The solution starts with kids and it starts at home.''