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Meth's bigger outside county

But cocaine, heroin deaths much more common in Portland area than rest of state

When someone dies in Oregon and cocaine or heroin is a factor, you can almost be sure that person died in Multnomah County.

But when the drug involved is methamphetamine, chances are that person died somewhere else.

Data released recently by the Oregon medical examiner's office shows a large disparity in the role of the state's largest county when it comes to drug-related deaths in the last five years. The disparity fits with some nationally collected data but remains a mystery to some in law enforcement.

'It just doesn't make any sense,' Marion County sheriff's office enforcement Cmdr. Larry Feller said. 'There are more drug users in Portland, and if you're going to use you're going to use. I just have a hard time getting my mind around that.'

More than half of the 973 drug-related deaths in Oregon between 2002 and 2006 - 51.2 percent - occurred in Multnomah County, according to the data. In that period, 74.4 percent of cocaine-related deaths happened here, as did 63.8 percent of heroin-related deaths.

In contrast, only 31.1 percent of the meth-related deaths in that period occurred in Multnomah County.

And while four Oregon counties showed at least one heroin death each of the five years from 2002 to 2006 - and five counties had at least one cocaine death - nine different counties reported at least one meth-related death each year.

Eugene Gray, the forensic administrator for the medical examiner's office and the person who compiles the data, said he could not interpret the numbers to mean one thing or another.

'I just get the toxicology reports and plug in the data,' he said. 'What I do know is that heroin is, almost exclusively, an overdose drug. Cocaine is mostly an overdose drug. But meth is mostly a drug-related-death drug.'

Few people, he said, ever overdose on meth. Instead, they die in car accidents or get shot and killed by police while high, Gray said.

Lane is second to Multnomah in the number of meth-related deaths among Oregon counties, and Marion County is third. More so than their larger cousin to the north, they better fit national profiles on meth use.

A federally funded 2004 report on 209,600 hospital admissions where meth or amphetamines were a significant factor found that nearly twice the rate of people were admitted for meth or amphetamines in places like Lane and Marion counties compared to those similar to Multnomah County.

Called 'non-metro with city' in the report, the areas were defined as counties outside a major metropolitan area but containing a city of 10,000 or more people. The report showed that such counties had meth- or amphetamine-related admission rates of 160 per 100,000 of population.

In counties like Multnomah, the rate was 86 admissions per 100,000 people.

'You also have to consider,' said Eugene police Sgt. Jerry Webber, 'that methamphetamine is easier to find in a place like this than cocaine or heroin.'

Portland police tend to agree.

'As a working hypothesis, sort of anecdotally speaking, meth is on more of an equal footing here than in more rural areas,' Portland police drugs and vice division Lt. John Brooks said. 'It's just as available here as any other drug. That's almost certainly not true elsewhere.'

From 2002 through 2006, 54 people died meth-related deaths in Lane County - 19 in 2006 alone, according to the medical examiner's data. The total represents 13.6 percent of Oregon's total during that time.

Webber, who leads Eugene's vice narcotics unit, said because meth travels north on Interstate 5 and gets cut at various points along the way, Portland meth may be less pure than Eugene meth, and therefore less potent.

But with overdoses on meth almost nonexistent, Webber points at enforcement.

'Here, we have four cops working dope full time,' he said. 'Springfield has one. Lane County has one.'

The Portland Police Bureau's drugs and vice division has 19 officers and sergeants assigned to dope full time. The Multnomah County sheriff's office has another five, plus another on loan from Gresham police.

Webber said to imagine one family where parents were never home and kids partied all weekend, every weekend. And then to imagine another where parents were around more often.

'Well,' he said, 'relate a city to that analogy. In Eugene, Mom and Dad are always out of town. And in Portland, the parents are around at least some of the time. The environment is going to be a little different.'

And because meth is the most potentially lethal drug available in Eugene, Webber said, it is responsible for a disproportionate amount of damage.

'But really, with this kind of data, I didn't know it was like that,' he said. 'You just figure that everything's all about Portland. I just had no idea at all.'

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