PORTLAND, Ore. - Emergency room doctors often get a first-hand glimpse at the damage caused by methamphetamine use.
In a 2006 study by the National Association of Counties, nearly half of 200 hospitals around the country reported meth is the number one illegal drug associated with their emergency patients.
Dr. Mike Albrich, head of the Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital Emergency Department in Clark County, said more meth users than alcoholics now come to their ER seeking treatment.
"To have one drug be responsible for five to six percent of what we see makes it a pretty significant problem," he said.
A hospital spokeswoman reported the two-year-old emergency department treats more than 100 patients every day. That means about five patients might be treated for a meth-related condition on a daily basis.
Albrich said the symptoms can be obvious - from rotten teeth to premature aging.
"The most toxic people are hallucinating, feeling nauseous, vomiting, their hearts are racing," Dr. Albrich said, adding users are at a higher risk of getting diseases. Even if they survive the physical toll, he noted they continue to have problems like depression.
Kids can be affected too, when they are exposed to fumes and metal often found in labs. The good news is authorities have decreased busts, from 400 in 2004 to just two so far this year.
The general consensus among experts is that statistic is the result of the state making pseudoephedrine, a main ingredient in meth, available by prescription only.
"So we're making progress," said Sen. Gordon Smith. "But Oregon still leads the nation per capital in the number of people in treatment for meth, and that's a statistic we need to get behind us."
ER doctors understand the urgency.
They cannot turn patients away, and since many users have inadequate health insurance, they have to turn to the counties and taxpayers.
"That's a huge impact costing in the billions - tens of billions," Dr. Albrich estimated.