Skip to comments.WHAT MAKES METH SO BAD
Posted on 02/22/2004 4:54:03 AM PST by sarcasm
Paul Stevens couldn't figure out why so many meth addicts he came across had the same piece of busted equipment a VCR.
The special agent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension had noticed the pattern for a while. One day in a meth user's home he saw a VCR with a screwdriver jammed into it. He thought the resident might be hiding drugs. That wasn't the case.
Said Stevens: "They're so paranoid, they wonder where those people (on TV) are. They attack the VCRs with screwdrivers, hammers."
Paranoia is just one side effect of methamphetamine, a highly addictive illegal drug increasingly taking hold across Minnesota.
Reported meth activity in the state doubled between 2002 and 2003, by one measure, and related prison sentences jumped to 38 percent of drug offenses in 2002, from 14 percent in 1996. About 75 percent of Minnesota's labs are outstate. In just one county, Pine, officials spent more than $980,000 on meth-related costs in 2003 one-eighth of the county's net tax levy.
As the drug's popularity grows in the state, so does its far-ranging, devastating effect: jails are packed with inmates who need health care, kids are being permanently removed from their parents, addicts face the challenge of trying to kick a powerfully addicting stimulant and law enforcement agencies struggle for resources to battle the growing number of labs. In addition, meth is reaching new populations, recently prompting concerns among school personnel and American Indian leaders.
"We have not hit our peak with methamphetamine yet in Minnesota," said Brent Lindgren, Mille Lacs County sheriff.
Meth is unique among illegal drugs.
Unlike other narcotics, the powerful man-made stimulant can keep users awake for weeks. It can provoke psychotic violence, unlike marijuana, and is easier to make than cocaine, the only illegal drugs that are more pervasive in the state. Meth also called speed, crank or ice is so addicting that jailed users who make bail may be arrested for taking the drug a second time before their first court appearance, sheriffs say.
"When you think you've heard the worst in human nature," Stevens said, "come see a meth head. Methamphetamine just grabs your soul and it doesn't let go."
Addicts are easy to spot.
"(They're) thin, sunken-eyed, sores on their face, teeth rotted out. They scratch all the time, can't stay on topic. They're extremely paranoid," said Kanabec County Sheriff Steve Schulz. "They have a lot of issues, physical and psychological."
The use of methamphetamine, a neurotoxin, is also linked to speeding hearts, pounding blood pressure, damaged blood vessels, skin abscesses and memory loss.
Patrick McVenes, 44, of Mankato, Minn., used the drug to keep awake while running heavy equipment in a steelyard. He became addicted and spent his off hours partying and dealing drugs to feed his habit. He lost his family and landed in prison. He vows to stay clean. "I don't want to die in prison," he says, "and that's what'll happen. I lost a lot already."
The problems posed by methamphetamine's spread in Minnesota are proving hard to solve because of the unique and wide-ranging impact of the drug.
WHAT MAKES METH SO BAD
The uniqueness of meth starts when it is made: Anyone can learn to cook it.
Its ingredients include over-the-counter cold remedies, batteries, brake cleaner and farm fertilizer that are easy to come by unlike the coca leaves used to make cocaine and easy to combine, for those who can stomach the stink and the risk of an explosion. Meth cookers use chemical processes in makeshift "labs" that can fit in the trunk of a car.
"If you can make chocolate chip cookies, you can make meth," Schulz said.
Cops and others say more than 90 percent of addicts who quit meth will start using again. Treatment experts dispute that figure and contend that while meth poses unique challenges, recovery is possible.
Withdrawal can last longer than with other drugs, addicts and others say.
Former meth addict and dealer Ralph Larson, currently housed at the Douglas County Jail, took his last hit on July 13, 2000, about 20 minutes before narcotics investigators arrested him. He quit in jail, and he couldn't sleep for two weeks. When he finally slept, he dreamed of meth.
"I'd wake up with the sweats and I could taste the dope in my mouth," he said.
Narcotics investigator Ginger Peterson said meth deals cause her extra anxiety.
"These people are completely dangerous. They're different from any other person I've bought drugs from. Their aggression is above and beyond any other drug. There are more guns, more explosives, more booby traps in meth labs than in crack houses," the Martin County investigator said.
Meth's effects reach beyond users. Proximity to the chemicals can make children ill, and in-utero exposure can lead to a condition called "worm heart," which requires surviving infants to have major surgery.
The drug also causes environmental problems derived from its distinctive, homegrown manufacturing process. It can be cooked in car trunks, homes, hotels, fish houses and farm fields, and making a pound of meth creates five to seven pounds of hazardous waste that cookers must dump somewhere. Polluted sites may require costly cleanup, or remediation, to be safely returned to their original use.
Each polluted site and Minnesota is home to thousands, experts say could be considered the environmental equivalent of an old gas station. Volunteer roadside cleanup crews find remnants of meth-making, such as cold-medicine boxes and empty plastic buckets. Officials warn people how to spot icehouse labs, from which waste may be dumped right into a lake.
Deborah Durkin, an environmental scientist with the Minnesota Health Department's meth lab program, travels the state to teach about the drug. She often finds herself in rooms filled with worried police, teachers, social workers and, inevitably, grieving families.
"This isn't like anything else we've seen. This is costing us more societally and economically than any other drug phenomenon," Durkin said.
SPREAD OF THE DRUG
Meth was smuggled from Taiwan and South Korea into Hawaii in the 1980s. By 1990, its presence had grown in the U.S. mainland, according to the Koch Crime Institute, a national organization aimed at understanding the causes of crime.
It has long been reported as the dominant drug problem in the San Diego area and has spread across the west and southwest. About 8.8 million people, 4 percent of the U.S. population, reported having tried meth in a survey in 2000, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
It's hard to say when meth entered Minnesota, but Mille Lacs County Undersheriff Alan Marxhausen says he tracked the emergence of labs in central Minnesota in the mid-1990s to an individual who was a meth cooker from Washington state.
The man was advanced a plane ticket against his future earnings to come and set up operations near Princeton, Minn.
Minnesota's meth today comes from local cookers as well as interstate drug runners. About 80 percent is imported from "superlabs," many of which are in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico, said Peterson, the Martin County investigator, who also serves on the Minnesota River Valley Drug Task Force in southern Minnesota.
Bags of meth are often tucked into cars cruising into the state on Interstate 90 or Interstate 35. They may be packed with peppercorns to mask the strong chemical smell.
Meth labs hit rural areas first because it's easier to obtain farm fertilizer and distant neighbors are less likely to smell the odor, described as similar to cat urine. But the number of labs is growing steadily, even in urban areas. In recent years, Minneapolis police have found labs in Uptown and on the North Side. Washington County authorities took down a lab in a middle-class neighborhood in Oakdale in 2003.
Motorcycle gangs once dominated distribution, and users were characterized as blue-collar workers.
Both trends are changing. Meth is now being reported in Minnesota schools and on its Indian reservations, and a broad cross-section of people use it.
Meth offenders are driving up prison populations significantly, the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission found, contributing to increased bricks-and-mortar costs for taxpayers.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has asked the Legislature to consider spending $74.9 million to expand the Faribault prison, and corrections officials hope for a second phase that would bring the bill to about $100 million.
Taxpayers are also on the hook for longer stays for addicts in jail and, often, for their subsequent medical care.
For example, dentists yanked 43 meth-rotted teeth last year from the mouths of inmates at the Pine County Jail, causing officials to switch dentists to save $23 a tooth.
"It's not like one or two. We're talking most of an inmate's teeth," jail administrator Rick Boland said.
The Pine County Jail spent $132,974 on meth-related costs in 2003, an estimate Sheriff Mark Mansavage called conservative. Some factors: Judges keep bails high so addicts don't leave jail to cook again, which means longer jail stays. And the long prison sentences for such crimes mean inmates often fight in court instead of pleading guilty, he said.
To grasp the frustrations of paying for the cost of addiction, visit Sheriff Schulz's office in the Kanabec County Courthouse. He'll show you the blister-pack pills used for inmates' prescription medicines.
The single-use packages let him return unused medicines for refunds. The sheriff doesn't yet know how much money he'll save, but it's not enough: Although the county allotted the jail $25,000 last year for medicine, he spent $47,809.
"It's primarily methamphetamine-related costs," Schulz said, adding that addicted inmates often need anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medication. His small jail holds about 22 inmates; he houses another 35 elsewhere. Schultz said about 70 percent of those inmates use meth, a figure consistent with the estimates of some other outstate sheriffs.
Alan Peterson, the Kanabec County coordinator, said the $47,809 figure was a huge hit to take in a budget where savings come in hundred-dollar increments.
County residents have made it clear they'd like better funding for extension services and children's 4-H programs, Peterson said, but "instead of taking care of our kids, we're taking care of the medical expenses of meth users."
In Alexandria, Lt. Bill McKay, assistant jail administrator, often has to separate meth users from other inmates because of their hallucinations. "One of them was seeing Janet Reno all the time," McKay said.
Douglas County learned a financial lesson when a home lab exploded in Alexandria this past July. Two suspects who were burned in the fire were jailed, McKay said.
In an unusual decision, those suspects were released before trial, "mainly because their medical bills would have been extremely expensive," McKay said.
"We would have had to pay for it and tried to get the money back from them. Whereas when they were released, they were covered under their dad's insurance."
While individual counties are seeing direct impact, state prisons are also burdened.
Nanette Schroeder, health services director for the Minnesota Corrections Department, said because many inmates who do meth also smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, it's difficult to specify which health needs are driven by meth use.
But she is sure that meth-related illnesses are driving up health costs in prison, where offenders pay only a $3 copay when they seek an appointment and the state is responsible for the rest.
Those costs will increase as more meth offenders reach prison, and the percentages are jumping.
In 1996, 48 percent of drug offenders sentenced to prison were there because of cocaine, compared with 14 percent for all amphetamines.
Cocaine claimed 40 percent of all cases in 2002, but methamphetamine/amphetamine offend-ers had grown to 38 percent, according to the state sentencing guidelines commission.
Schulz sees the toll.
"Are there a lot of psychological medications because of this drug? Yes," he said.
"Is the United States in a lot of trouble down the road because of this drug? Yeah, probably. We don't know what will happen 10 years from now. It's wrecking a lot of good people."
STEEP PRICE FOR KIDS
Authorities estimate they find children at more than 30 percent of Minnesota meth labs.
Those children must be checked for heavy metals, meth, physical or sexual abuse, leading to clinic visits costing $175-$230 apiece and sometimes emergency room visits of $1,500, according to Olmsted County public health data.
Even if a child is healthy, protective custody costs add up.
Dan Papin, director of Washington County Community Services, offers an example of a methamphetamine case involving the parent of three children younger than 8. It would cost the county about $28,000 in staff time, therapy and placement costs, Papin said, calling those figures conservative.
Washington County had 427 assessments for children's services in 2003, and about 225 involved meth use by the parent or a child as young as 14, said Tammy Kincaid, children's services intake and assessment supervisor.
"People often choose the meth over their kids," Kincaid said.
Timothy Hofmann, 39, from North Minneapolis, said his addiction to the drug made parenting impossible. When meth takes hold, "it's got you 100 percent," he said. "When you wake up, the first thing on your mind is not your kids, it's the drugs."
At the end of January, a 9-month-old girl was left in a 17-degree apartment in Ashby, Minn., tears frozen on her cheeks. The baby's mother told police she had taken meth and left her baby to flee people who were out to get her.
That infant joined a growing group of Minnesota children who risk being permanently placed away from their parents because of meth.
The trend is stark, according to a December 2003 report by the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota. Out-of-home placements due to parental chemical abuse increased 82.3 percent in greater Minnesota counties from 2000 to 2002. By contrast, placements statewide declined during the same period.
The study tracked parental drug abuse in general, not meth in particular, but it found a correlation between out-of-home placements due to parent drug use and the number of reported meth labs seized in the county.
And kids who are temporarily removed from home due to parental drug abuse may never live with mom and dad again, the study found. In cases that don't involve drugs, the vast majority of children eventually may return to parents.
Pat Hass, Pine County's health and human services director, summed up the impact of meth addiction on families:
"You have a rigid, colicky baby with medical issues in a household where parents are using methamphetamine and are paranoid and even irrational. What kind of a combination is that?" Hass asked. "I'm concerned about losing more than one generation. I'm afraid of losing two."
THE TOLL ON ADDICTS
It only took one hit to hijack Ralph Larson's life, which experts say is one of the troubling aspects of meth addiction.
Larson was in downtown St. Paul in 1996 when some people offered him a yellowish powder called meth.
"I tried a line and it felt like my nose was going to burn off my face, but the effect of this drug it gave me a boost and I mean a boost!" wrote Larson, 40, of Lake Elmo, in a letter about his addiction.
"I partied all night," he said, and his monthly use doubled by early 1997. "Within a short period of time I had to have this drug just to function like normal people do."
He once stayed awake for 10 days in a row, taking hits as he tired. Nine of his teeth rotted and had to be pulled. He hallucinated, seeing "shadow people" lurking along the edge of his vision.
"The effects are devastating," Larson said.
"You're not human when you're doing meth because all you care about is getting high," he said. "I've seen people peel their face off while high They would look in the mirror and keep scratching and opening up facial wounds."
Larson and three other former dealers sat in a sparse conference room in the Douglas County Jail annex on a snowy January day, describing their addictions to meth. The drug landed all of them in Alexandria, where they build homes and pray to God to stay clean.
Dan O'Neill, of St. Paul, who has been clean since 1999, worries that meth has "scattered" his brain.
"Look where it's got me. I've never seen a successful meth user yet," he said.
Yet the men say they are turning their lives around.
Hofmann, the former addict from North Minneapolis, used to do so much meth, he said at one point he saw it come out of his skin.
"I've seen crystals on myself, like a little snowflake that comes through my pores," he said. He remembers thinking, "Whoa! Dope's coming out of my skin!"
A health department official said such stories likely result from skin loss due to damaged blood vessels.
Hofmann sees life differently these days. He has been drug-free for more than three years, and eagerly showed a visitor pictures of the affordable homes built through the state prison system's Institution Community Work Crew program.
"Look at all these houses we built," Hofmann said. "I'm damned proud of that."
FINDING RESOURCES TO FIGHT METH
Because addicts are paranoid and labs are often booby-trapped, arresting addicts is dangerous, and a lack of funding makes it harder for police to do their jobs safely.
Cops trained to bust meth labs have stopped at a central Minnesota McDonald's for free straws because they lacked money for pipettes to collect samples, said Paul Stevens, the BCA special agent.
Pine County Sheriff Mark Mansavage combs for grants to boost his budget, a practice he says is increasingly important in "the war on meth." His office received a $20,000 grant for homeland security and drug inquiries that will mean more masks, vests, weapons and barricades for his emergency response team.
"The ones we go up against will match up or outdo us for weapons," Mansavage said. "They're getting more professional, bringing in body guards, booby traps."
Authorities say there are far more labs than there are resources to bust them.
Stevens, co-director of the Midwest Governors Conference on Methamphetamine, begged a state lawmaker last January for $600,000 to outfit officers short-term. There are no funding streams for safety clothes, filters, gloves, boots and chemical suits, he said.
"Some of these guys are using (single-use) suits three or four times," he said. "It's like sending a fireman to a fire without a helmet, jacket or gloves."
Even when materials are available, manpower can be scarce. Cooperation among agencies is high, many in law enforcement said, but tough decisions must be made about using those resources.
Schulz, the Kanabec County sheriff, has six patrol officers and one investigator, so he is pragmatic about the 30 labs believed to operate in his county. He relies on a dangerous but effective tactic: He grabs Investigator Brian Smith and they head out for "knock-and-talks." The two show up at suspected labs and warn people to shut down, leave or prepare to be arrested.
Stevens called the "knock-and-talk" method dangerous, but added: "It works. These people are so paranoid it's one way to drive them out. The trouble is, all it does is move them on to another town."
Preventive action can ease more than the drug caseload, Smith said.
Meth use is linked to other crimes, from identity theft and check forgeries to burglaries, which further strains agencies. Smith said that 75 percent of his overall caseload is related to meth use, as are 95 percent of his burglaries.
As tactics to fight methamphetamine evolve, so do the tactics to create the drug.
Mansavage, the Pine County sheriff, learned this month that cookers are using two new products to obtain meth ingredients: salt blocks with ephedrine intended for sick farm animals, and power pole transformers, which can be cannibalized for a chemical replacement for anhydrous ammonia.
"Power outages are going to have to be investigated as possible meth activity," Mansavage said. "There's no end to it."
Actually: If you can make a burrito or salsa you can make meth.
Plus-ce-que ca change, plus-ce-que c'est la meme chose
People have a right to own poison, if they misuse it, it is their choice. Bug spray is poison, should it also be illegal?
People who want a government to tell them what they can and can not own are the scary ones to me.
This whole "Meth" problem is just the result of the government employment program aka the War on Drugs.
Actually,until the war on drugs in the early 80's, methamphetamine used to be legal, and available through a doctor. Meth was usually prescribed as a diet pill.
Meth was given to truckdrivers, fighter pilots(still is), and I had a WW2 vet tell me they were given doses of meth before being dropped out of planes onto the French countryside.
Legal Meth is one of the drugs thought to have killed Elvis. It still was a lot less dangerous when made in labs legally than it is now, and there were a lot less addicts.