February 2005

A ticking time bomb

Meth use explodes, but treatment options remain limited

By David Grant Long

Along with the mantra, “Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll,” the ’60s counterculture offered this warning: “Speed kills.”

SGT. DENNIS SPRUELLAnd prophetically, the abuse of speed — which back then came largely in the form of pills — contributed greatly to the death of that hazy, idealistic period of flower power, pot and protest.

Speed has never disappeared, but over the past decade it’s returned with a vengeance that’s taking a horrific toll on addicted users, their families and society as a whole.

Today, the most popular type of speed is methamphetamine (meth, crank, crystal, ice, glass), a cheap, powerful drug easily produced in clan-destine labs.

Children of meth addicts are commonly neglected and abused, often living in an enviroment saturated with toxic chemical byproducts of the crude, dangerous process involved in “cooking” the drug.

And crimes related to the use, sale and manufacture of meth have, of course, grown right along with its waxing popularity, filling prisons and creating a horde of felons who will be haunted by criminal records for the rest of their lives.

The plague involves people of all ages across the socioeconomic spectrum (although truly dedicated meth freaks usually don’t live to collect Social Security). Meth is one of the hardest drug habits to kick, and at present the prospects of successful treatment are dicey.

The Four Corners is no exception to meth’s siren call.

Cortez Police Sgt. Dennis Spruell, assigned to this area’s multi-agency drug task force, said although the task force has slowed the growth of the problem, meth use and manufacture continue at an unacceptable level.

“I would say that 90 percent of our work deals with methamphetamine,” Spruell said. “(The meth problem) is not declining or increasing — it’s just staying the same.” Last year the task force averaged 1.75 arrests weekly, mostly for meth sales by addicts supporting their habit.

In 2003, more than half of the admissions to drug-treatment programs in San Diego and Hawaii were for meth abuse, according to a study sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which also found nearly half of the meth labs busted that year were located in nine states across middle America.

Pleasure and euphoria

Meth produces an intense high. It causes the brain to become flooded with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that triggers feelings of pleasure, thereby producing a euphoric state that can last for many hours. It also induces feelings of strength and alertness. Meth freaks often stay awake and physically active for several days before “crashing” into a prolonged sleep.

At the same time, meth damages the brain's ability to produce and use dopamine, so that when users quit, they no longer experience even normal levels of pleasure. This often contributes to depression that can last for a year or more.

Some research suggests the brain can eventually repair the neurons and receptors involved in dopamine production, but reliable information about the physical and mental impacts of long-term meth use is limited.

What has been established is that chronic use can result in intense paranoia, hallucinations and acts of extreme violence. Meth can also cause strokes, heart attacks, irreversible damage to the cardiovascular system and sudden death. But obviously, these risks alone are not a sufficient deterrent to the millions of meth freaks who continue to tweak, sell and cook their destructive drug of choice.

Tied to major thefts

Battling a cheap, popular, pleasurable drug is difficult. Some experts believe in stricter law enforcement; others advocate drug-law reform and an emphasis on treatment. But it’s unclear what treatment works best for meth addicts — inpatient or outpatient? group therapy, or individual? medical help? nutrition supplements? faith in God? Spruell believes more options are needed locally.

“We need a decent rehabilitation system in Montezuma County,” he said.

This would involve an “intense, in-house” program that would isolate addicts from the drug scene, a treatment protocol that “seems to work better than others.”

Educating the public on the magnitude of the problem is also essential, he said, and nearly half of the task force’s time is dedicated to this effort. A program entitled “Meth: The Toxic Time Bomb” has been presented at numerous schools locally. A recent presentation in Towaoc drew more than 250 people.

“I think the community has to become aware of what’s going on — the fallout crime that results from methamphetamine use, the burglaries, the vandalism, the thefts.”

Spruell estimated that 80 percent of major thefts occurring in this area are directly or indirectly related to meth use.

For example, he said, a man recently arrested in Montezuma County had been doing a “landslide business” in trading meth for stolen property, with over $200,000 worth of purloined goods recovered by law enforcement. Spruell believes stiffer sentencing of meth users and producers would greatly help.

“With methamphetamine, it’s a mindset — an addiction more mental than physical, I think — so you have to take them away from the drug,” he said. “Giving them 60 days in jail is not going to do any good, because on the 61st day they’re out trying to score some methamphetamine.”

Longer sentences could also discourage others from becoming involved, Spruell maintained.

“Right now, there is no deterrent because the judges and the court system are plea-bargaining everything out,” he said. “They’re getting 90 days for manufacturing methamphetamine.

“That doesn’t send a message to anybody other than it’s easy to get away with,” he added. “If those people had gotten five or six years, other guys might have said, ‘You know, maybe I don’t want to risk that’.”

But the court system is so over-loaded, there isn’t time to try all offenders, he said, so plea bargains are struck.

Stronger than love

Rod Gantt, a La Plata County Human Services caseworker who deals exclusively with child-protection issues, said it’s his perception that meth use is burgeoning here.

“I don't know if ‘epidemic’ is too strong a word, but it’s a very serious problem in La Plata County right now,” he said. “It's really started to hit us in the last two years, and seems to be getting worse.

“My caseload tends to average about 15 cases and I would say about one-third of those have some connection with meth. I know that Judge (David) Dickinson, who hears most of our cases, has expressed the same feeling that it really is a huge problem.”

Gant said most of those cases involve neglect on the part of parents rather than intentional physical abuse.

“The parents become so focused on their need to maintain their drug habit that they lose sight of their children's needs and cease being appropriate parents, leaving the kids unsupervised and bored — just not adequately cared for.”

An even more serious situation arises when the parents become involved in manufacturing the drug.

“It’s really a dangerous process for kids to be around — for anyone to be around — and it can be lethal, espe-cially for children (because) it doesn't take much exposure to these chemicals . . . to kill them.”

It’s rare for parents deeply involved with meth to rehabilitate themselves and regain custody of their children.

“My personal experience says it’s nearly never that they can turn this around,” he said. “In other words, the drug is stronger than their love for or need to have their children.

“I’m not saying they don’t love their children, I’m saying the drug is so powerful that it takes priority over everything in their lives,” he said.

Under Colorado law, parents of kids under 6 have only a year to get their problems resolved, Gantt explained, or Social Services can file for termination of their parental rights and put the kids up for adoption. In one case last year in which a baby was born with meth in its system, the parents made almost no effort to regain custody, and an aunt and uncle have since been granted guardianship.

A success story

Difficult as it is to kick meth, some users do succeed.

One former addict, a young mother who used meth for four years and agreed to talk to the Free Press on the condition of anonymity, said the drug helped her cope with sexual abuse she’d experienced as a child.

“Every cloud has a silver lining, and the silver lining for me was that meth made me mean enough to get the per-son who sexually molested me for most of my childhood out of my life and not feel guilty about it. That’s not an excuse, but one good thing did come out of it.”

She said she first took meth in 2001 when a friend offered her some to help her finish some projects faster. “I was 26 and had never used drugs like that because I was scared of them,” she recalled. “It was kind of like a peer-pressure thing, even though I was an adult.”

Her addiction developed over several months, she said, with her use escalating from weekly to daily.

Her weight dropped from 145 pounds to 90, a fact she variously explained to co-workers and family as resulting from being on the Atkins diet or having a thyroid problem.

“When I did make it to work, I did my job very well,” she said, “but I started calling in sick — I made up excuses so I could stay home and do my dope.” Still, she said, she maintained a front of being a responsible mother.

“Luckily, thank God, my son never got taken away from me,” she said. “In my head I was telling myself, ‘Well, I’m still a good mom,’ because I was on the PTA and did Little League, but . . . I never had time for him because I was always too busy scrubbing my kitchen floor or something.”

The drug was also affecting her mind in more insidious ways. “I was paranoid — accusing people I love of spying on me,” she said. She and her meth-using friends would tear out phone lines and take apart TVs and VCRs because they believed listening devices had been implanted in them. Last year, after several unsuccessful attempts, she managed to quit.

“I would quit for a month and then I would have another binge,” she said, “but it never worked until I started going to church. I surrounded myself with people who really loved me and found a place to belong that was good.”

She got through her withdrawal by taking nutritional supplements, she said, as well as praying for help. “It sounds corny, but I couldn't have done it without God helping me.”

She also “burned my bridges” with meth dealers by becoming involved in anti-drug activities.

“Socializing with those types of people would tend to make my drug contacts think that I’m a snitch,” she explained, “which was fine with me — I wanted them to think that so they would leave me alone.

“It’s not an option for me to step back into that way of life any more.”

‘An act of God’

Cortez resident Leila Parga, the mother of a meth user, is currently helping raise her grandchildren while her daughter struggles with addiction.

Parga’s frustration with the lack of information about the problem led her to establish a faith-based web site last fall.

“I have a place where people can submit stories, whether they’re an addict or someone like me,” she said.

“I literally realized it would take an act of God to do anything about this, it’s such an enormous problem, so I’ve also established a prayer group in Cortez.” Another prayer group meets in Dolores, she said. Contact information is listed on the web site, www.meth-b-gone. com.

Parga said her daughter has been involved with meth for at least two years and is not doing well, even after six months in a drug-rehab program. “Unfortunately, she relapsed and is running amok somewhere,” she said.

“It’s a nasty drug — it just astounds me that it can make a mother walk away from her children. I believe there are an enormous amount of grandparents raising their grandchildren because of meth.”

Parga said some users are incapable of quitting on their own. The problem is there are no “locked-down” treatment facilties to keep them away from the drug, only programs where clients have the choice to walk out.

“There are no good answers to the addiction problem,” she said. “My daughter had been clean over nine months and still couldn’t stay away from it.”

Parga said everything she’s read suggests that meth addiction is more difficult to kick than any other drug, including heroin and alcohol.

Not an insurmountable challenge

But Donna Sue Spear, a substance-abuse counselor who was herself once addicted to meth, believes the habit is no more difficult to kick than alcohol, hero-in or other substances. Now the clinical director of Clarity Counseling in Dolores, Spear has been clean for 17 years.

“I know that some treatment pro-grams have emphasized that their success rate is lower with methamphetamine addicts,” she said.

“With any addiction you have to address multiple issues and meth has sort of a constellation of issues, so if you address those issues, then you can have success. I don’t believe that methamphetamine addiction is untreatable.”

She cited The Matrix Program, a California rehab center with 20 years’ experience with meth users, as a fairly-successful approach. The program includes an intensive outpatient model along with family therapy, she said.

Mental-health issues also must be considered, she said. “A lot of times methamphetamine withdrawal is very similar to clinical depression,” she said, "There’s been some research that shows antidepressants are very helpful for the early stages of withdrawal.”

Spear has developed a substance-abuse treatment program for women called “Recovering Together,” and the majority of clients over the past two years have been meth addicts — 17, compared to 10 being treated for alcohol and marijuana abuse. She said she is still compiling data on the success of her clients.

“I’ve had some methamphetamine addicts in my program who are doing great. I know many recovering meth addicts, and they have successfully got off it when they were ready to.”

Spear said she has no problem with jailing users when it’s a matter of public safety, but stressed that even then, treatment should be available. “I think (arrest) is the primary leverage to get people into treatment,” she said.

“But the problem with incarcerating people is a lot of times they don’t get treatment and they go right back to what they were doing.”

Finding the money

Of course, treatment costs money, and with public funding for such pro-grams dwindling, that option remains unavailable to those who have exhausted their own resources and the support of their friends and family.

So there remains a large group of desperately sick tweakers who live outside the mainstream, precariously perched on the edge of an abyss. Parga believes that’s where the community must step in. “We can’t depend on the government to save us.”

She would like to become more active in developing better treatment options, such a one nutrition-based withdrawal program run by volunteers in California.

“It’s just getting the money to do some of those programs,” she said. “I have big things in mind.

“I truly believe God’s leading me to do this — it’s certainly not something I would have chosen as a career. It’s just a passion.”