March 29, 2007 -- For the cigarette companies, it was Joe Camel. Now, methamphetamine manufacturers are accused of borrowing a similar tactic -- using cartoon characters and candy flavors to lure teen users.
Chocolate, peanut butter and strawberry? They're not just ice cream flavors, they are the new taste of meth, the latest way dealers and manufacturers are packaging their goods in an ever-changing drug economy.
Gina Attaguile, 27, knows the devastating effects of crystal meth. She started using the drug at 16, when she was living in Las Vegas and working as a prostitute to support her habit. Her casual drug use quickly turned to addiction.
"It was euphoric. I would do a line, and it was a rush. I had all this energy," said Attaguile, now sober and a drug counselor to teens. "It was overwhelming. It felt so right like I was supposed to do it."
Soon Attaguile started making her own meth, a highly addictive stimulant usually in the form of crystalline powder that is either smoked or snorted. She also experimented with colors and flavors that made the drug more appealing and desirable.
"When you're smoking popcorn dope, it tastes like butter, the smurf dope is blue, the peanut butter dope definitely takes like peanut butter when you take a hit," said Attaguile.
This new trend is troubling lawmakers, who are working to prevent teenage drug use. Carson City Undersheriff Steve Albertson said crystal meth has been a major problem in Nevada for at least 15 years, but he's never seen anything like the new marketing gimmicks.
"Sometimes on the packaging you see little cartoon characters," he said. "Drug dealers and clandestine labs give the meth names like strawberry quick, peanut butter meth, blue ribbon, even chocolate meth."
Dealers Get Creative to Fuel Slumping Sales
Albertson believes that drug outreach efforts in local schools have been so effective that the drug manufacturers are using these new techniques to target a younger audience. According to an annual survey by the University of Michigan, teen drug use is down 23 percent nationwide over the last five years and teen meth use is down even more sharply.
The number of people 12 and older who used methamphetamine for the first time in the previous year decreased from 318,000 people in 2004 to 192,000 in 2005, according to a national survey on drug use by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Decreasing numbers mean decreasing dollar signs for dealers and manufacturers. Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the drug industry relies on the teenage market to fuel sales and will do anything to lure new users.
"As the market for meth has gotten tighter, it makes sense that the dealers get more desperate and more creative," said Riley. "Drug dealers understand that the key to addiction is drug use by teens. If you don't start using drugs in your teen years, you're statistically unlikely to have future problems with drugs."
Costuming illegal substances in appealing attire is nothing new, however. Riley said the branding of marijuana is a trend that has spread across California over the past few years.
"Growers are using the logos and packaging of kids' breakfast cereals and candy -- for example calling it Pot Loops instead of Fruit Loops," said Riley.
Bucking the Trend
With meth marketers continuing to court the youngest and most vulnerable audience with an ever-changing product, drug prevention educators and enforcement agencies are constantly changing their strategy.
The Drug Enforcement Agency is investigating and tracking regional reports of the colored, flavored crystal meth trend, but it's proving difficult to track. Drug rehabilitation centers in Tennessee, West Virginia and Montana said they had no patients who reported using flavored meth, and say this may be just the beginning of a trend.
Tony Bylsma, director Narconon Drug Prevention and Education, said parents are the key to stopping the spread of the revamped products and need to let their kids know that just because it looks different, the consequences of using are unchanged.
"Drug education agencies say parents have to alert the kids to this and make sure they understand that it's the same drug and let them understand how dangerous these drugs are," said Bylsma. "It's just as important for them to teach the kids to understand drugs as it is to teach them to stay out of traffic."
Attaguile says just hearing about young people trying meth makes her sick.
"My stomach turns because I know what they're in for. I know how addictive it is," she said. "The teenagers won't have a choice in it, it's that powerful. … It's very sad."
ABC News' Jasmine Ellis and Blair Soden contributed to this report.