The No. 1 rule at Tranquility Village, a live-in drug treatment center in Atwater, is no using.
It says so on the walls of almost every room there.
"They mean it, too," says one resident, a chubby woman with a pierced lip who looks about 30.
She used methamphetamine on and off for a decade and a half before coming to Tranquility Village late last year.
She says kicking the drug has been the hardest thing she's ever done, and she's serious about staying clean.
But if she wanted to, she knows she could score some meth almost as fast as she could a pack of Marlboros.
"Meth is all over this county," she says. "Doesn't matter what neighborhood or what side of town you're on. It's everywhere."
She pauses, then points over her shoulder and says, "I know one place right over here I could go get some right now."
Ask her whether she thinks the county's meth problem has improved any over the past decade or so, and she doesn't hesitate: "No way."
Ask local law enforcement officials and drug treatment providers, and they say the same thing: Merced's appetite for meth is as voracious as it's ever been.
"I wish I had something I could point to that shows it's getting better, but I don't," Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said. "And it's probably generous to say it's not getting worse."
Indeed, the numbers back up Pazin's take.
Between 2000 and 2005 the number of meth addicts admitted each year to publicly funded treatment programs more than doubled in Merced County, from just over 400 people in 2000 to 900 in 2005, according to the California Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.
In comparison, the county's population grew by about 17 percent during that time.
The number of arrests in Merced County for possession or sales of methamphetamine also has far outpaced local population growth in the past several years. In 1996 the sheriff's department recorded 81 meth-related arrests. That rose to 135 in 2002 and to 178 last year, a 32 percent increase.
Local law enforcement agencies also are busting far more meth labs than they were five years ago, sheriff's spokesman Tom MacKenzie said.
He acknowledged the jump in arrests and busts is partly a result of accelerated efforts by authorities, including multi-jurisdiction anti-drug task forces. But he added, "I think there's also just more labs and more users out there to find."
Some critics view the numbers with skepticism: The more addicts supposedly on the street, the more money law enforcement can ask for from the federal government and other sources to fight meth.
And some have opposed the war on drugs since it began. "On the basis primarily of our experience with Prohibition, drug prohibition has not reduced the number of addicts appreciably if at all and has promoted crime and corruption," Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has said.
All that aside, Lori Newman, who runs Tranquility Village, calls Merced's meth problem an epidemic. "Regardless of the numbers, I can tell you nothing's gotten better," she said. "I don't think it's ever been crazier out there."
A recovered meth addict herself, Newman said more and more of her clients are naming meth as their No. 1 drug of choice -- about 85 percent of them lately.
She thinks a big part of the problem is the way meth production has changed in the past 15 years or so.
In the early 1990s, when meth emerged as a widely used street drug, most of it was produced in large labs by serious dealers who protected their recipes as closely guarded secrets.
"Now you can pretty much find all the information you need (to cook meth) on the Internet," Newman said. "It's not a few big operations making it all, like before. Now you've got average street users making it in cars, hotel rooms, garages, wherever."
Addicts agree. "Most people who are using it are probably cooking it or selling it too," said another Tranquility Village resident who recently checked in after years on meth. "I think it's way easier to get meth now."
In response, local law enforcement agencies have boosted their efforts to fight the drug. Still, its influence here hasn't waned, said Neil Compston, who commands the Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force.
As quickly as authorities find new methods to thwart meth producers, Compston said, producers find new ways to beat them.
As one example, he named efforts by law enforcement to stem the flow of pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient in meth, into the U.S. from other countries.
Once local producers couldn't easily get pseudoephedrine that way, Compston said, they started bulk-buying pseudoephedrine-based decongestants at drug stores. And once authorities put laws in place to limit and track decongestant sales, organized buying rings and pseudoephedrine brokers emerged to beat those rules.
"Meth is an ever-evolving problem," Compston said. "As soon as you think you're starting to make some progress, you find yourself right back where you started."
Ray Framstad, also of the narcotics task force, said he's worried the county's meth problem will worsen with the recession.
"When times are bad, more people use," Framstad said. "They use as a coping mechanism, or they start cooking to make money."
And times, indeed, are bad.
Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209)385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.