“We can’t treat meth the same way — it’s too highly potent and it can be made at home. Other drugs don’t cause this kind of extensive damage. We have to focus on the risk factors of drug behavior and we might get a better handle on meth than we do now.” –Mike Marinoff, Marion County Drug Court Coordinator
Walt Beglau, Marion County District Attorney has been working in the eye of a storm that has crippled the northwest and is rapidly spreading across the U.S.
“I don’t think we’ve hit bottom yet,” Beglau said. “We’ve seen improvements but I’m a little cautious. Just about everything I do is connected with methamphetamine.”
A Japanese chemist first synthesizes amphetamine in a lab.
Amphetamine, popularly known as speed or uppers, becomes known as a drug used by athletes, college students, motorcycle gangs and truck drivers.
Discovery that ephedrine — an ingredient found in over-the-counter cold remedies — produces methamphetamine, better known as crystal meth, and it is twice as potent. Unlike other hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, crystal meth can be made from household products.
Mexican drug runners begin supplying ephedrine to the biker gangs’ cooks. Home meth labs also begin spreading throughout the West Coast.
The DEA proposes legislation requiring companies making 14 kinds of chemicals used in making illegal drugs — including ephedrine and pseudoephedrine — to keep sales and import records. The pharmaceutical industry mounts a strong lobby against the proposed regulation.
The pharmaceutical industry and the DEA agree on a compromise version of the DEA’s proposed regulation two years earlier, and the bill is passed. However, it exempts from regulation any chemical — such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine — turned into a legal drug product.
The meth cooks switch to using pills, since pill form cold medications containing ephedrine/pseudoephedrine remain unregulated. Meth’s purity doubles, and a flood of meth spreads eastward from the West Coast. Large meth labs spring up in California’s Central Valley.
Meth cooks switch to using the unregulated pseudoephedrine pills, but the pills need to be broken down to remove the key ingredient. The cooks add flammable chemicals to the process, making their already toxic labs more susceptible to explosion.
After the DEA reaches a new compromise with the pharmaceutical industry, Congress passes a law regulating pseudoephedrine sales. Wholesale distributors of over-the-counter cold medicines would have to register for a DEA license. However, the law exempts from regulation cold remedies sold in foil “blister packs,” which are considered harder for meth cooks to open in volume.
By the time the new DEA licensing law goes into effect in late 1997, meth traffickers have completed their switch to using pseudoephedrine. And the DEA is swamped by thousands of bogus companies applying for licenses and, short on staff, it begins issuing temporary permits. Before long, companies licensed by the government are making millions selling pseudoephedrine to the super labs.
The federal government designates Marion County as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking area.
A 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates 12 million Americans over the age of 12 have tried methamphetamine in their lifetimes.
In April 2004, Oklahoma becomes the first state to pass a law placing limits on sales of pseudoephedrine to pharmacies and requiring retailers to sell pseudoephedrine products from behind the counter and to ask purchasers to show I.D. and sign a register.
Congress passes the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005. This legislation mandates that pseudoephedrine be put under lock and key in stores nationwide and that buyers register at the store counter.
The U.N. World Drug Report calls meth the most abused hard drug on earth, and the world’s 26 million meth addicts equals the combined number for cocaine and heroin users. America alone has 1.4 million users.
Meth use has exploded despite the almost 40-year “War on Drugs.” The modern drug war began when the Nixon administration ushered the Controlled Substances Act through Congress in 1970. The CSA is the legal basis by which the manufacture, importation, possession, and distribution of certain drugs are regulated by the federal government. This legislation is the foundation on which the modern drug war exists. The emphasis of the war on drugs has been on cutting off the supply of drugs and criminalizing drug users. Drug abuse has been seen as a criminal activity rather than as a health issue involving addiction.
Costing taxpayers billions of dollars, the War on Drugs incarcerates approximately 1 million Americans a year. Of the 1 million drug arrests each year, about 225,000 are for possession of marijuana, the fourth most common cause of arrest in the United States.
In the 1980s, while the number of arrests for all crimes was rising 28 percent, the number of arrests for drug offenses rose 126 percent. The United States has a higher proportion of its population incarcerated than any other country in the world for which reliable statistics are available — reaching a total of 2.2 million inmates in 2005.
Has the War on Drugs helped or hurt efforts to curb drug use in the United States? Do the policies and strategies developed in the War on Drugs address the devastating impact of methamphetamine use on individuals and communities?
Meth and the children
The greatest cost of methamphetamine abuse and its manufacture in home labs is on the children.
“They grow up in an environment that is frightening and unhealthy. We need to do whatever is possible to protect them. About 2000 kids coming into the system in two years — that is unacceptable. This is not another public safety issue,” Beglau said.
Meth lab operators who produce the drug around children expose them to highly toxic chemicals and gases and an extremely unhealthy environment. Many cookers are users as well and often abuse or neglect their children because of the power of their addiction. Many of the chemicals and drugs are not safely stored and children and toddlers are at an increased risk of exposure and contamination. These homes are usually filthy and unsanitary.
Many of those arrested for meth use or related crimes are also parents and the Oregon Child Welfare system has been overwhelmed by the number of children entering foster care. Oregon officials say the number of foster children has doubled in the past three years due to the impact of methamphetamine use.
“Methamphetamine literally corrodes the natural bonds of parenthood,” Beglau said. “Other drugs don’t always affect families to this extent. There are 1100-1200 children in constant care in Marion County alone.”
One concern is the intergenerational cycle of drug addiction and its impact on children.
“We have tried to focus on the effects of early trauma on kids affected by meth. We look at possible neglect and abuse, especially with those children coming from broken homes,” MaryBeth Beall, Division Director of the Marion County Health Department said. “We should also put more focus on early childhood programs, from toddlers to three years old. It’s all connected — healthy parenting is key.”
According to Beglau, the courts have tried to keep families intact despite incarceration or treatment programs. When the children are removed from their parents the Department of Human Services first tries to keep siblings together and hopefully they are placed with relatives or neighbors. If this fails the children are placed in temporary “receiving homes” and it is hoped the children will be reunited with their parents. “Forever homes” are those homes in which children are placed for the long-term.
There also are programs such as the Children of Incarcerated Parents Initiative which teaches parenting skills to parents who are incarcerated on drug charges, with the goal of successfully reuniting them with their children upon release from jail.
One problem is that federal laws adopted in response to the crack epidemic require states to terminate parental rights if children stay in foster care too long. That works against meth users in recovery who require more lengthy treatment in rehab.
Some programs, such as OnTrack in Medford, keep the children with the parent as they go through the recovery process. Many experts and ex-meth users agree that children can be the single biggest motivator for meth users to become clean.
There are three drug courts for children and families in Marion County. One focuses on toddlers who are wards of the court. Another is called “TOT” and is designed to help pregnant mothers trying to get off meth, and STAR (Supervised Treatment and Recovery) Court is for juveniles and teenagers addicted to drugs.
Mike Marinoff, Juvenile and Family Drug Court Coordinator, said that teenagers are not as politically exciting as adults and young children and are often overlooked by service and treatment programs.
“I’d like to see a focus on adolescent risk factors and how to reintegrate these kids into the community, instead of the revolving door at the jail. The jails are full. The demand far exceeds what’s offered as far as programs.”
Full and consistent family support is vital for a teenaged addict, as well as a couple of sober friends.
“The hardest thing we ask our kids is changing their friends. The kid has been involved in a dark world where illegal drugs are available. They are part of the drug culture.”
Marinoff said that teenagers are often victimized by those in that drug culture.
“It’s easy to exploit a kid without them really understanding they are being victimized. They don’t see it as prostitution. They have just made a deal to get some drugs.”
It is important to address the complexity and chaos of their lives beyond their drug use by focusing on intergenerational family issues such as addiction, neglect and abuse.
“These kids often have experienced some kind of trauma or sexual abuse in their lives. The drugs are a symptom of something else rather than the cause,” Marinoff said.
Besides dealing with personal issues and addictive behavior, STAR Court emphasizes goal setting and reintegration back into the community under strict supervision.
According to Marinoff, the drug court system is a response to the failures of the War on Drugs, which he feels criminalizes people who should not be.
“We can’t treat meth the same way — it’s too highly potent and it can be made at home. Other drugs don’t cause this kind of extensive damage. We have to focus on the risk factors of drug behavior and we might get a better handle on meth than we do now.”
Paige Merrill, Program Coordinator for NO METH — Not in My Neighborhood, a community-based organization whose aim is to educate the public about the impact of meth use, said there are three components to a successful recovery: you have to admit your addiction; you have to want to quit; and you need a support system.
“We need to understand that people who want to quit need the support of the community. We need to rebuild strength in our families, get to know our neighbors. Traditional treatment is not adequate. The support system has to be there,” Merrill said.
Because most meth users don’t have access to healthcare, Merrill said that “you practically have to get into the criminal justice system to even have a chance for treatment.”
One successful approach to treatment has been the “Matrix Model” of recovery and treatment which includes a minimum of six months of intensive interventions involving training in abstinence maintenance and relapse prevention during the recovery process. The model also emphasizes the critical importance of using 12-Step programs.
According to experts and ex-Meth users, relapse in meth addiction is a common occurrence and is now recognized as part of the recovery process.
“Relapse is acknowledged and is now built into treatment programs,” Merrill said. “It’s an overpowering situation. It’s such an insidious drug — you take it once and you can be hooked. People think it’s like marijuana and you can quit, but you can’t.”
Treatment for meth addiction is lengthy and often involves addressing mental health issues that led to the drug abuse or that has been caused by brain damage associated with meth use.
Besides initial detox, the meth user enters a medication management program to address the symptoms of depression and many need residential care for several weeks. Several more months of outpatient treatment and aftercare are also vitally necessary.
“Wraparound” services are part of treatment and they include access to healthcare, counseling, and nutrition and exercise programs.
Walt Beglau wants to see continued support for enforcement and is enthusiastic about the recently established DART (Drug Abuse Reduction Task Force) Team, a part of the Salem Police force that operates on the street rescuing teenagers from drugs by targeting those who appear to be abusing meth and other drugs and by monitoring street-level drug dealing. But he also favors more treatment options.
“You treat the demand and choke out supply in a balanced approach,” Beglau said. “We can’t arrest our way out of this.”
The rise of meth
In 1980 amphetamine’s key chemical, Phenyl-2-propanone, was put under federal control. But the cooks making the drug for West Coast motorcycle gangs discovered that ephedrine, an ingredient found in over-the-counter cold remedies, produces methamphetamine which is twice as potent as traditional amphetamine.
Unlike other hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin, meth can be made from household products. The only essential ingredient is ephedrine, or its cousin, pseudoephedrine, also found in many cold medicines.
Methamphetamine, referred to on the street as meth, speed, crank, crystal, ice, crank, go-fast, chalk and zip, among other names, can be snorted, smoked, injected or orally ingested. Moods are altered in different ways, depending on how the drug is taken. It usually results in an intense high caused by the release of very high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine into areas of the brain that regulate feelings of pleasure.
Lisa Jennings, a former user, describes the high as “an instant orgasm — only ten times more orgasmic.”
What makes meth use different from abuse of other drugs is the physical devastation it causes in the individual and its impact on the community. Users are said to be “tweaking” when they experience muscle shakes, jerks and spasms while high. Prolonged use of meth causes serious brain damage resulting in severe mental health issues and it destroys many of the body’s physical systems. Frequent users often lose their teeth and can suffer skin aliments, decreased function of their organs and immune systems, cardiovascular problems, and degenerative disorders. Deep depression and anxiety also results from meth use.
Meth is highly addictive and tolerance for the drug can develop, driving users to take higher doses of the drug to maintain their high. Despite the fact that it is inexpensive and relatively easy to make, it has caused millions of dollars in property damage, theft, identity theft, and other crimes. Of those incarcerated in Marion County Jail, 80 percent are there for meth-related offenses or are meth users.
Community and business leaders such as Dick Withnell, owner of Withnell car dealerships in Salem, have responded to the meth epidemic because of the costs to his business.
“I was concerned about the criminal activity,” Withnell said. “I was losing close to 12 cars a day in 2002. Identity theft has also been a liability for us in financing car loans.”
Four years ago Withnell helped create NO METH — Not in Our Neighborhood. “The law enforcement approach is working. The community needs to rally around the police and the work they’re doing,” Withnell said. “But treatment is under-funded and short-sighted. If we don’t address this now – it’s pay me now or pay me later.”
Experts agree that there are particular drivers that can lead to meth addiction, including a lack of education and educational opportunities. Marion County Sheriff Paul Ramirez said that 66 percent of inmates incarcerated in jail and prison do not have a high school diploma and they have severely limited options.
Poverty and unemployment is another critical factor. Many of those who are unemployed turn to meth or they lose their jobs because of meth use.
Paige Merrill said that people always think that once a person is a meth addict they will always be a meth addict.
“People are reluctant to hire them. They need a fair chance. It’s hard to get a job — most have been in jail, some have felonies. Worker’s Comp and unemployment insurance are too high and people aren’t willing to stick their necks out.”
Many meth users are also homeless or they lose their homes as a result of their drug abuse. Sheriff Ramirez said that 25 percent of those released from jail, approximately 20,000 people a year, are homeless.
Most meth users lack access to sufficient healthcare and many who suffer mental health issues ranging from depression and anxiety to psychotic behavior self-medicate with meth. Meth use often exacerbates these problems and there is a lack of funding for programs that would address them more productively.
“Many of the mentally ill on the Oregon Health Plan were dropped,” Sheriff Ramirez said. “They are no longer receiving assistance and they end up medicating themselves with meth and becoming meth-addicted.”
MaryBeth Beall agrees.
“The big rise in meth in the last five years is not surprising. When we experienced severe budget cuts to the Oregon Health Plan a few years ago there were over 60,000 people who lost primary care coverage, including drug treatment. It is a healthcare system problem overall.”
‘Meth Capital of the World’
In 1999 the federal government designated Marion County as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking area.
Congresswoman Darlene Hooley has tried to focus attention on the problem in the halls of Congress and has supported sweeping anti-meth legislation.
“Oregon is among the worst states for meth trafficking and Marion County is one of the hardest hit spots in the state,” Hooley said. “Oregon, California and Washington had more meth use than all other states combined. I had a hard time getting people interested because they weren’t impacted by meth.”
In 1992, methamphetamine use in Oregon, as measured by the number of people entering rehab centers, was more than 40 per 100,000 residents — more than any other state. By 2002 most western states had achieved similar numbers. Methamphetamine has spread slowly across the U.S. and the east coast is just beginning to experience problems related to its use. In 2002 Oregon’s rate was 324 per 100,000 residents, ranking it as highest for drug abuse treatment admissions.
Why did methamphetamine explode in Marion County?
One key factor is the I-5 corridor which allowed easy transport of meth manufactured in labs in California and Oregon to various locations across the western U.S. Mexican drug cartels also started moving meth manufactured in Mexico north and west along this corridor.
The county’s rural areas provided secluded locations for manufacturing the drug in home-based meth labs.
Salem is uniquely situated along the I-5 corridor with a complex of state and county hospitals and prisons filled with people more vulnerable and susceptible to meth use and addiction than the general population. Funding cutbacks left many of these people without resources or support networks that might have mitigated the attraction of meth.
Other drivers to addiction such as rural poverty and a lack of educational opportunities also played a role in the rise of meth in Marion County.
Meth labs & precursor chemicals
Besides a successful crackdown by law enforcement on meth labs in Marion County in the last few years, the single most effective strategy for eliminating home-based meth labs was passage of the federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which restricted the placement of cold medicines and other medications containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine behind the counters in stores and pharmacies. In previous years, the pharmaceutical industry had opposed similar legislation in Oregon, and it was defeated. Some pharmacies in Oregon already had begun moving these medications behind the counters voluntarily in 2004.
“We virtually eliminated bathtub production when we moved the precursor chemicals behind the counter,” Walt Beglau said. “Prior to these controls we had closed around 60 or 70 meth labs, but once the core ingredients were restricted, we stopped or eliminated 500-600 labs.”
Mega-labs and super labs in Mexico and Asia are still operating and exporting the drug, but local manufacture of meth has substantially decreased.
This has been significant in dealing with the environmental threat meth labs pose. For every pound of methamphetamine produced, approximately six pounds of toxic waste remains to contaminate the environment. Fires and explosions are common occurrences with meth labs and they further the impact on the environment.
Congresswoman Hooley was once County Commissioner and worked to clean up local meth labs.
“Meth cookers pollute their houses and produce a ton of waste. They don’t care what they do with the waste,” Hooley said.
Lab operators often pour leftover chemicals down household drains, storm drains or directly onto the ground. These toxic chemicals remain in the soil and groundwater for years posing long-term hazards. The costs of cleaning up this material are enormous.
Hooley was lead sponsor of an amendment requiring international tracking of pseudoephedrine and has been pushing her Methamphetamine Precursor Control Act which would put even stricter restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine.
However, an estimated 80 percent of the meth supply now comes from Mexico and Asia.
The future of the war on meth
What will help win the war on meth?
Walt Beglau favors reaching children early and trying to get them out of the intergenerational cycle of addiction, and investing in comprehensive and measured approaches to treatment.
“This might sound funny coming from a DA, but we’ve got to do something different. The community must invest in treatment and prevention as well as effective law enforcement. That is different than the way we’ve done things in the past in the Drug War. We can’t just imprison people who use meth. We must do something meaningful.”
The problem is the lack of political will to adequately fund treatment and prevention programs. Even law enforcement officials recognize the unique threat posed by methamphetamine.
“This is a serious medical issue and we have to resort to treatment and intervention programs,” Sheriff Ramirez said. “Are there enough resources to treat all drug addicts? No. We have to favor a systemic viewpoint that looks at all the social drivers such as poverty and lack of access to healthcare. If our approach is not inclusive of all those elements, it’s not a complete war on meth.”
Meanwhile, the numbers of meth users are growing exponentially around the country, meth-related crimes are on the rise, and more and more children are being affected by this devastating epidemic. Even in jails and prisons there are long waiting lists for inmates to enter some kind of treatment program.
“It’s not solely a drug problem,” MaryBeth Beall said. “You have to look at a person holistically and if we did a better job as a society to meet our physical and mental health needs, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in now.”
Name: Veronica Ball
Off Meth: 3 months
I used to smoke weed and I tried coke a few times. I was nineteen and I wanted to try meth because it seemed like a fun party drug. I also used it to lose weight — it was a great dietary kind of thing. It was cool at first — it wasn’t like coke. You actually feel the high — it’s very strong. But it got out of control very quickly. I wanted to do it every day and it got so I was spending $50 to $100 a week. I was using about a gram a week. I used my student loan money to pay for it and now I’m deep in debt.
Like I said, it was cool at first but then I saw friends go to jail — some of my friends died. One of my friends got shot and he died and it was obvious it was over drugs.
For a while it was six months on — six months off. I’d use for a while and then I’d stop. When you’re not using you go into deep depression. I finally stopped and got into treatment because I wanted to kill myself. You keep doing more drugs so you don’t feel that way. I’ve been in treatment since November and this month I’ve been clean for three months. I was in in-patient care at Portland Adventist Hospital and now I’m an out-patient with Kaiser. My insurance covers it.
I’m a student at Western Oregon University and I major in health. I want to go into naturopathic or holistic medicine.
The allure is big — the payoff isn’t. I still feel cravings. I will always feel cravings — it never really goes away. Treatment helps you cope with that — how to distract yourself. But they never go away.
Name: Lisa Jennings
Off Meth: 3 years
I started using meth when I was 19. I started smoking pot and using speed, LSD, free-basing cocaine when I was 15 or 16. I quit for four years but started using cocaine again and that led me back to pot and drinking. In 1993 I was arrested for drug trafficking. I served 19 months of a three-year sentence.
I was clean for nine years after that; life was good. But when I found out my husband was cheating on me I started taking tranquilizers and that led to smoking and drinking again. Within seven months I was using meth again.
Meth is my drug of choice. I use it to not feel emotions — so I don’t feel bad. In the long run, you don’t feel better. After I inject it there is a rush and then an intense high. You just want to lay down for a couple of hours.
I completely destroyed my life in nine months. I lost my house, it was raided and foreclosed on. I had $10,000 in the bank, which I spent on drugs. I went bankrupt and wound up back in jail.
I was charged with child endangerment and my kids were taken away. When you’re using it seems OK. I never abused or neglected my kids. I still cooked dinner every night.
For about six months I jumped through hoops going to drug treatment, 12-step meetings, a lot of service work so I could get my kids back. I would have done anything to get my kids back. I relapsed when my father died because I was dealing with a lot of emotions, but I’ve been off meth for three years. I’ve bought two houses. I attend Umpqua Community College full-time and I have a 4.0 GPA. I want to be a drug and alcohol counselor.
The problem is you get stuck in that drug culture. You want out but they leave and come back. They don’t go away. They’re like vultures that hang around you. It’s not easy to get out.
I was never offered any treatment while I was incarcerated. I didn’t know anything about recovery. If I had been taught skills, I would have been able to deal with it. Prison is not the answer. The focus should be on treatment rather than putting people in jail.
Because of my treatment program, I know who I am. I’m a better person that before I used.
Name: Rick Cross
Off Meth: 5 years
I used meth for over 30 years. It started when I walked into a biker party and one of the guys shot me with a load of meth. I started working and selling for him.
It’s the devil’s drug. A couple of times using it and it gets hold of you. I’ve done cocaine, acid, heroin — there’s nothing like meth. You get an extreme euphoria even while it’s robbing you of everything in your life. At that point, you’ll do anything to get it. You don’t stop and rationalize things out.
It doesn’t matter what upbringing you come from.
I was arrested 47 times in seven years. I was on probation for 10 years. It didn’t stop me a bit. I’ve been in and out of jail. Even jail was comfortable. There were friends I hadn’t seen in a while. I had a roof over my head and food in my belly.
You’re not done with meth until you’re done. Things have to get really, really bad.
Meth treatment is too short — 30 days. The average should be no less than six months to a year. When you’re coming down it takes a while for it all to go through your system. A lot of group counseling helps. And ya gotta realize that you will relapse. You need accountability. Tweakers are self-centered people but they’re highly intelligent and can play head games. If I can BS you, I will manipulate you to get what I want.
A little over a year ago, Paige [Merrill, with NO METH — Not in My Neighborhood] came to my church and gave a presentation. I was sitting in the front pew. She gave us a questionnaire with 20 questions about meth. I answered all 20 before anyone else had a chance. I started working here after that. I’m in treatment 24 hours a day. I can see the horror all the time — it keeps me off. I don’t want my kids to say, “Daddy died shooting junk.”
I’ve had three heart attacks, two strokes, my eyesight is 50 percent gone, and I have missing teeth, osteomyelitis and blood clots in my legs. I get bronchitis and pneumonia all the time. I have almost no short-term memory. It’s all from the dope.
I may die — it’s matter of when.