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New form of meth more dangerous than Ecstasy pill

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Nov. 2, 2002, 8:34PM

Asian drug invades California

New form of meth more dangerous than Ecstasy pill

By LOUISE CHU

Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The newest drug to hit California's underground club scene is sweet, colorful -- and deadly.

The drug, a form of methamphetamine called ya ba, a Thai name meaning "crazy drug," has made its way into raves and is said to be significantly more powerful and dangerous than the current club drug of choice, Ecstasy.

"The scary thing about these is that they are adding color to them and adding flavor, which could give the perception that these drugs are less dangerous than they really are," says Will Glaspy, a spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The pills, which cost $10 to $20 apiece, are sometimes passed off as Ecstasy to unwitting users, Glaspy said. Packing a potent mix of highly addictive methamphetamine and caffeine, ya ba can keep users awake for days and has hallucinogenic effects, sometimes causing users to believe they have bugs crawling under their skin. The drug can be fatal, and common side effects include increased heart rate, dehydration, paranoia and depression.

In August, federal agents in Sacramento made the largest bust of ya ba smugglers since the drug first appeared in the United States three years ago. The arrests of 10 people in Sacramento for allegedly smuggling 75,000 pills from Thailand and Laos came after the U.S. Customs Service seized 46 shipments of ya ba in Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Honolulu, which were destined for Sacramento addresses.

So far, ya ba has appeared mainly in Southeast Asian communities around California. Law enforcement's efforts have been hampered because "we're talking about a pretty closed community, so it's pretty hard to get information," said Daniel Lane, the lead U.S. Customs official in Sacramento.

Methamphetamine abuse is not a new problem in the United States, where about 1 million people reported using meth in 2000.

DEA chief Asa Hutchinson has called methamphetamines "the No. 1 drug problem in rural America." In urban areas, he says, club drugs are the top problem. Ya ba, then, may be a terrifying combination.

Ya ba has become a vague label for any type of methamphetamine in pill form, although it specifically refers to the brand produced in Southeast Asia. Meth more commonly comes in powder form, allowing users to snort it through their nostrils or inhale its fumes when heated.

In Thailand, addiction to ya ba has reached nearly epidemic proportions, with the Thai Health Ministry estimating 3 million people are addicted to amphetamines.

Ya ba was at first sold legally in Thailand, where truckers used the pills to stay awake. The government declared ya ba illegal in 1970, but the drug has since managed to enter all segments of Thai society, with reports of widespread drug use by manual laborers, college students and even 5-year-old schoolchildren.

The drug is now produced mainly in Burma by the United Wa State Army, a group of ethnic tribesmen allied with the country's ruling junta and known to be one of the world's largest and most well-armed drug-dealing organizations, law enforcement officials said.

Ya ba already has spread outside Southeast Asia, and reportedly has shown up on the underground club scene throughout Europe and Australia.

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