The discovery by police of a home-based methamphetamine lab up in the Merrimack Valley last week was troubling. It confirms the worst fears of law enforcement about the drug commonly known as "crystal meth" are coming true.

Police and prosecutors have long worried about the slow advance of methamphetamine abuse into New England from the West and Midwest, where the drug presents an enormous problem. In 2006, Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett already was issuing warnings about crystal meth.

"It's on its way," Blodgett said then. "And it scares the hell out of me."

Abuse of opiates — heroin and prescription painkillers — is still the major drug concern in New England. Opiate abusers will ruin their own lives and those of their families by lying, cheating and stealing to support their habits.

Opiates are depressants. But methamphetamine is a potent, addictive nervous system stimulant. What scares law enforcement about crystal meth is that its abusers tend to go on violent, drug-fueled rampages.

What's worse, the home labs for making the drug are deadly themselves. The chemicals used are highly toxic — even carcinogenic — and explosive. After police bust a meth lab, it takes workers in protective gear to clean up the sites.

The lab busted by police on Lowell Street in Andover was a small one. Police have charged two men with conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine. According to a spokesman for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, the lab was capable of "gram-quantity" production — tiny compared to labs in the Midwest capable of making meth by the pound.

These small "box labs" — so called because all their equipment could be carried in a small box — are all over New England. They are like the seed pods of a destructive new weed. They are building a taste for meth among the region's drug abusers. The bigger labs will follow to satisfy that taste.

Police are doing their best to stamp out this new weed before it grows and the bust at the Andover lab is a good start. But they'll need the help of a vigilant public to keep this menace from invading our communities.

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