Meth becoming big threat
By NATHALIE ORAVETZ Of the News-Register
t starts out simply enough: a couple of lines to lose a few pounds, a hit to finish a double shift, a week-long binge to make it through finals week.
The problem is methamphetamine is powerfully addictive. And once a person is hooked, it's a long lonely trip back to sanity.
The hellish memory of waking up on the operating table will never leave Karleen Waldrep, a methamphetamine user for 28 years. Her tolerance for drugs had gotten so high, the anesthetic wore off in mid-surgery.
Waldrep is now living at Oxford House, a communal recovery house in downtown McMinnville. But she will never right all of the wrong meth has done to her.
"People like guarantees," said fellow resident Jerri Lee, who used methamphetamine for 29 years before moving into Oxford House to begin the process of putting her life back together. "What you can guarantee with meth is jail, institutions and death."
The drug got its start as a potential cure for obesity, nasal congestion and drowsiness. Its insidious nature unrecognized, it first came into wide use by the armies of Japan, Germany and the United States during World War II as an antidote to combat fatigue.
Unfortunately, Oregon is now one of the top 10 most affected states in the nation and Yamhill is one of the more affected counties in the state. After averaging only about one meth lab bust a year for many years, Yamhill County has had 10 in the last 10 weeks alone.
Methamphetamine is a stimulant that dramatically affects the central nervous system. It can be distilled out of relatively inexpensive over-the-counter products, following recipes widely circulated on the Internet.
The chemicals used in the process and left over afterward are highly flammable, explosive and toxic, but that doesn't deter clandestine meth cooks. They typically work out of campgrounds, apartment units, motel rooms, storage units and stolen vehicles - facilities in which they have no personal stake.
Innocent parties end up facing serious risks and inheriting big cleanup bills from the manufacturing process. In addition, they suffer burglaries, robberies, thefts and assaults at the hands of addicts desperate to support their habits.
Finally, they have to cope with the social and economic burden of disease and addiction. Diseases like AIDS and hepatitis C are spread through shared needles and the drug is one of the most difficult of all to kick - even worse than heroin, many say.
Then there are the children.
Frequently, neglected and malnourished toddlers are found living amid the filth and squalor of houses where meth is manufactured and used.
Several times in recent months, local narcotics agents have found small children living at meth lab sites in Yamhill County.
These factors combine to make methamphetamine a menace of epidemic proportion. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says it represents the fastest growing drug threat in America today.
History of methamphetamine
First synthesized in Japan in 1919, methamphetamine is a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that easily dissolves in water or alcohol. Known on the street as speed, crank, crystal or ice, it is a more potent, more highly refined form of amphetamine.
In 1927, British chemist Gordon Alles recognized the potential of the newly discovered stimulant for increasing alertness, alleviating fatigue and creating euphoria. And he acquired a patent.
In 1932, a U.S. pharmaceutical company bought Alles' patent and began marketing an amphetamine-based nasal decongestant called Benzedrine as an inhaler.
In pill form, the drug is still in use today. Known on the street as bennies or goofballs, Benzedrine pills are popular with long-haul truckers as a means of staying awake through the night.
During World War II, Japan, Germany and the United States introduced amphetamines into combat use, valuing their energizing and antidepressant functions. The German fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, was said to be a regular user.
In the postwar years, more than three dozen legal pharmaceutical uses were developed. Members of the amphetamine family were used to treat obesity, narcolepsy, nasal congestion and fatigue.
In 1959, the first intravenous injection of amphetamines for nonmedicinal purposes was reported. In the ensuing years, methamphetamine began to develop a recreational street following.
Members of the amphetamine family also remained popular for medicinal purposes. Some pharmacies even began selling it in injectible forms.
President John F. Kennedy reportedly injected methamphetamine to give him increased energy and help him cope with chronic back pain.
But by the late '60s, the danger of amphetamines had become more apparent and the government began to crack down. Passage by Congress of the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 eliminated nonprescription uses of amphetamines and the last over-the-counter amphetamine inhaler was taken off the market.
Today, methamphetamine is still the stimulant drug of choice on the street, as it is the most powerful member of the amphetamine family. Thus, illegal manufacture and use are on the increase.
In the United States, use is highest along the West Coast. California had been the national hotbed, but a massive crackdown this year has sent many manufacturers and users scurrying to the supposedly safer confines of the Northwest states - including Oregon.
Unlike crack cocaine, which infects mainly the slums of the nation's largest cities, meth has invaded suburbs, small towns and rural countryside with equal abandon. An increasing percentage of the supply comes from small-scale amateur cooks, and they have taken to less-populated areas to avoid the scrutiny of big-city law enforcement.
McMinnville and Yamhill County are just enough off the beaten track to be attractive to this element.
"In this area, meth is the most popular drug we have," said parole and probation officer Peg Bannister. "Meth is a big one. It's cheap and easy to get. And it's an instant high, which is what they're looking for."
Who uses meth?
The drug was first popularized by outlaw motorcycle gangs. But the stereotypical greasy, long-haired, heavily tattooed biker with rotting teeth is no longer the reality.
The typical addict these days is a white male in his 30s who hails from a blue-collar background. Running a close second is a white female of similar age and background.
Unfortunately, the age of experimentation and addiction is getting steadily lower - something that greatly concerns authorities in law enforcement and rehabilitation.
"The bad part about this drug is that a lot of kids think they'll just experiment, but find they are addicted and can't get off of it," said State Police Sgt. Craig Durbin, who heads the Yamhill County Interagency Narcotics Team. "It ranges from teen-agers to people really down and out to house moms trying to lose weight. They just don't realize what they are getting into."
Kevin Stephens, an addictions counselor, echoed that view. "It's housewives, it's moms, it's people who work and it's people who don't," he said.
"We see a lot on lower- and middle-income levels, but that doesn't exclude the upper class," Bannister. "Often, it is children of children of children who used. Many of these users come from horrific backgrounds of abuse.
"You learn from your parents and the people who come into their home. The sad thing is, it doesn't take long to get addicted."
The drug lures some by seeming useful.
For an overwhelmed housewife and mother, it might seem tempting to do a couple lines to get motivated to clean the house or cook a family dinner. However, initially productive energy quickly turns into paranoia and paralysis as the user comes crashing down from the temporary high.
"After a while," Stephens said, "you're not cleaning the house. You're hiding under the desk."
"The brain keeps telling you, 'I need more, I need more.' You use more and more to recapture your first high, but you never do. You don't show up for the responsibility of life, eventually," addictions counselor Charlotte Pla said.
How does it work?
Methamphetamine has been nicknamed "poor man's cocaine" because it is cheaper and provides a longer-lasting high - anywhere from six to eight hours, depending on the method of intake. It can be swallowed, snorted, smoked or injected.
After smoking or injecting the drug, the user experiences an intense rush for a few minutes, followed by several hours of energy and excitement. The rush poses a specially cruel hook for the developing addict.
"It felt like the base of my spine was melting," said 35-year-old Britt Hill, a longtime addict now in recovery. "I felt like I'd just fallen in love. All of a sudden you've got all this energy."
Now she's trying to cope with the devastating effects of addiction. "The positives to it are pretty false compared to what it takes away eventually," she said.
Swallowing or snorting the drug produces a high without the intense initial rush. It is still powerfully addictive, though.
A host of other dangers
A wide variety of additives can be found in street meth, some of which are highly toxic.
Robert Porath, a pharmacist and addiction pharmacology instructor, said there are 300 different formulas for the drug's manufacture. Depending on the skill of the cook and the formula used, the percentage of toxic impurities can be significant, he said.
"Users don't spend much time thinking about that," he said.
Physical and psychological dependency develops with regular use. Before long, Porath said, "The user is not just seeking pleasure, he is treating withdrawal symptoms."
Tolerance begins developing right away. It soon takes 20 to 200 times the initial dose.
"It takes more and more of the drug to get the sought-after effect, and the cycle deepens," Porath said. "The level of tolerance varies from one person to another. The route of administration, the dose and the purity all play a role.
"The drug replaces the pleasures that the body normally seeks. The brain is wired to seek food, water and sex. Meth replaces the chemicals that those activities provide."
Hill said, "Meth is really sneaky in that it can seem useful. It skews your thinking."
She said she's heard addicts say, "You can save $100 a week in groceries with a $20 bag of meth. In a week, you can get by on two bowls of cereal and three sandwiches."
Typical users go on runs of two to 10 or more days. As a result, meth addicts are often malnourished and dehydrated.
"During that time, they might not eat or drink," Porath said. "This is extremely hard on the body.
"After that, it is time for the body to crash. The first two to three days of the crash are extremely difficult. The crash will last about a week before the chemicals in the brain start to normalize again.
"There is an extreme depression during the crash. Craving sets back in, so they use again. This is the usual pattern.
"With age, the body can't handle it," Porath said. The user either kicks the habit or dies.
Signs of use
Signs of recent use vary, but often include agitation, breathlessness, rapid speech, dilated pupils, rapid heart beat and attention deficit.
Users call it tweaking when they are on a sustained high. Then comes the inevitable crash, when the body's stamina burns out.
Symptoms of crashing include physical and psychological exhaustion, depression, the inability to experience pleasure, withdrawal and dehydration.
Chronic users begin to experience episodes of paranoia, anxiety, insomnia, depression and violence, often accompanied by homicidal or suicidal thoughts.
They also suffer delusions, along with audio and visual hallucinations. They may, for example, experience a persistent sensation of insects creeping across their skin.
Heavy users also show progressive social and occupational deterioration. Psychotic symptoms sometimes persist for months or years after use has stopped.
"I had audio and visual hallucinations," Hill said. "It was probably a combination of the drug and lack of sleep. When you're on meth, it's a war with everything."
Lee can identify. "I chased Santa Claus down the street at 3 o'clock in the morning, after being up for 28 days," she said.
Costs to society
When it comes to methamphetamine, the cost to society extends far beyond dollars. It ranges from increased violence and crime in communities, to the dangers of meth labs in neighborhoods, to environmental damage from toxic byproducts of the manufacturing, to medical damage from AIDS and hepatitis C.
Meth use is a strong contributor to violence in the home and on the street. It is also a strong factor in property crimes by unemployed drifters trying to support expensive habits.
To cope, society has to divert resources to police agencies, court systems, treatment programs and the social service network.
Users have more automobile accidents, use emergency rooms more often, and spread infectious diseases more frequently. Ranking very low in economic productivity, they also drain government support systems.
Durbin said it is often associated with other illicit drug use as well. "After a while, the meth user may roll over to doing heroin, which usually means you are at the end of the drug cycle," he said.
"It has an environmental impact as well," said State Police Lt. John Salle.
Cooks are usually left with about 5 pounds of toxic waste for each pound of the drug they produce. Discarded chemicals have been found in parks, schoolyards, storm drains, toilets, bathtubs and commercial trash receptacles. Dumping poses fire, explosion and health risks that may linger for years - even decades when toxins enter the groundwater supply.
But the biggest victims of all may be the children of users. "It's not terribly unusual to find children in the meth lab environment," Salle said.
And the risk starts even before birth. Babies can become addicted in the womb.
Birth defects, low birth weights, tremors, excessive crying, attention deficit disorder and behavior disorders are all common problems suffered by meth babies.
As they begin developing, they also face a greatly increased risk of neglect, malnutrition and abuse, including "shaken baby syndrome."
"Theft, break in, child neglect - that's where it really affects the community," Bannister said.
"Then there's the parents not being available for the child. Mom and dad are really high or they're sleeping, and the kids lose. There are behavior issues and learning disabilities when the kids get to school."
She said the price tag is huge. "You and I are feeding and clothing those kids," she said
"The victims are the children - and don't think they don't love their children," Pla said. "There is a toxicity in the drug that distorts the thinking."
Editor's note: This is the first of three parts on the menace of methamphetamine. It focuses on the drug itself. Part two, appearing in Tuesday's main section, focuses on traffickers and enforcement efforts. Part three, appearing in Tuesday's Community section, looks at users and rehabilitation efforts.