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Deadly drugs extract stiff toll

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Hard evidence concerning the dangers of illicit drugs continues to mount along the Wasatch Front - along with the body count. Yet too many residents young and old inexplicably turn to substance abuse to escape reality. Attempting to drown their problems, they often destroy themselves and leave a wake of crime and sorrow among survivors.

The problem demands the full attention of law enforcement and a supportive community. It fuels violent crimes and thefts and relates to the ongoing presence of some illegal aliens who, according to statistics, often are principal traffickers.So far this year, 47 people in Salt Lake City alone have died from drug overdoses. Six more deaths are under investigation, with drugs being the primary suspect. There were only 14 overdose deaths in all of 1997. Police Chief Ruben Ortega calls the problem a plague. It is that, a tragic and frightening one for users and for law-abiding citizens as well.

The genesis of the increased fatalities, according to Ortega, is that users of illegal drugs are buying products that are much more potent than they are accustomed to. "Hot batches" usually arrive in town from Mexico via illegal aliens, and several consecutive overdoses often lead to death.

Drugs are becoming more potent because source countries of cocaine and heroin have developed direct pipelines into Salt Lake City, eliminating middlemen. The result is that drugs are not "cut" or diluted to reduce potency and increase profits.

The result has been a drug problem law-enforcement officials have called the worst Salt Lake has seen. Unfortunately, as goes the drug trade, so go other crimes. The Wasatch Front already has a reputation for being a methamphetamine mecca and one of the worst locations in the nation for drug trafficking. That is alarming news for an area that prides itself on an outstanding quality of life.

If there is any good news, it is that federal, state and local agencies are uniting their efforts as never before in waging war against illicit drugs. A number of multi-agency task forces are at work to combat the problem. Increased federal money has been poured into the local fight, which is helpful.

Beneficial strategies include targeting users as well as dealers for prosecution, removing cultural and language barriers to treatment for violators who do not speak English, educating the public about the dangers and soliciting greater involvement from teachers and clergy to mentor at-risk youths.

Continued cooperative efforts are essential if this deadly conflict is to be won. As deaths mount in this record-setting year, we are reminded the battle is nowhere near over.