Drug infiltrates America#039;s heartland

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 26, 2006

You can swallow it, snort it, smoke it or inject it directly into your veins.

Many say it can give you the highest of highs. And the lowest of lows.

It's cheap, about $25 a hit, and relatively easy to make.

Known by many slang terms, chalk, crank, crystal, X-Tina, poor-man's cocaine, ice and glass, it has also been called &#8220hell on earth.”

&#8220It” is methamphetamine, commonly referred to as &#8220meth,” a highly addictive drug that can damage users both mentally and physically.

Experts say an individual can become addicted to the drug after just a single use.

And it just might already be on your street.

A growing problem

In the 1990s, the manufacture and use of meth swept from Hawaii to the west and southwest of the continental US.

The potent manmade drug has become solidly entrenched in America's heartland, including the Heart of Dixie.

&#8220Alabama is in the midst of a man-made epidemicŠripping apart our communities and small towns, destroying lives,” Governor Bob Riley said last May during a news conference.

Statistics show meth use in Alabama has risen more than 200 percent in the last five years.

Greg Borland of the Drug Enforcement Agency office in Montgomery considers meth to be Alabama's biggest and most dangerous drug threat right now, one that is &#8220spreading at a faster rate than cocaine.”

Today, meth is particularly prevalent in north Alabama and the Wiregrass Region of south Alabama.

Butler County Sheriff Diane Harris says meth is also a growing problem close to home.

&#8220(Meth use) started off really slow a few years ago. Then it really escalated. Yes, it is definitely a problem in the county. Not as bad as in some other counties, like Creek and Coosa, but it's a problem,” Harris said. &#8220We are seeing more young people getting involved in it now. I blame the Internet and TV for some of thatŠthey practically tell them how to make it.”

In 1999, the first reporting on record, there were only 30 meth labs in the state.

By 2002, that number had jumped to 207, then to 280 in 2003. 297 labs were seized in 2004.

The number of those addicted to the drug is on the rise.

&#8220We are seeing an increase in meth addicts in our area,” Teresa Stinson, intensive outpatient coordinator for the South Central Alabama Mental Health Center, said.

The Luverne-based center deals with substance abuse cases in Crenshaw, Butler and Covington counties.

&#8220This is a different kind of drug than crack or marijuana. A lot of meth addicts have a very, very difficult time kicking it,” Stinson said.

&#8220It's not impossible to kick…but it is very, very hard,” she added

Meth: a brief history

More potent and easier to make than its &#8220cousin,” amphetamine, methamphetamine was first synthesized by Japanese scientists in 1919.

For a long time, meth was a drug &#8220in search of a disease.” Physicians experimented with meth to treat everything from depression to decongestion.

One thing was certain: it gave people an extra &#8220boost.”

During World War II, soldiers, needing to stay alert and energized, used meth.

In the 1950s, meth was legally manufactured under the name &#8220Methedrine,” and used non-medically by college students, athletes, and truck drivers who needed to burn the midnight oil.

Seen as a cure-all for everything from weight loss to mild depression, the use and abuse of the drug spread.

In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act severely limited the legal production of injectable meth, causing a gradual decrease in the drug's use.

While meth has been prescribed in recent years to treat attention deficit disorder and obesity, its illegal abuse far outweighs legitimate usage.

Choosing to use

Why do people choose to indulge in meth?

&#8220Sometimes it's due to increased responsibilities. Trying to juggle work, home, school. If you never have enough time in the day, then meth may be an appealing idea,” Stinson said.

&#8220People using meth can stay up days at a time without sleep. Some people also use it for weight control, as it affects the appetite.”

Additionally, some use the drug for a sexual high.

Meth releases high levels of dopamine; a neurotransmitter that stimulates brain cells, enhancing moods and body movement.

According to Stinson, meth gives the user a very intense, immediate feeling of euphoria, especially when smoked or injected. Because it has such a strong affect on the central nervous system, meth gives users a much greater and longer high than cocaine.

And, unlike cocaine and other drugs, meth is a neurotoxin.

&#8220It affects your neural tissue. In some cases, permanent brain damage is done and the user never fully recovers,” Stinson said.

Body and brain

Physical effects of meth include increased heart rate, irregular heartbeat, rise in body temperature, convulsions, nausea, uncontrollable movements, insomnia and impaired speech.

&#8220Long term, it can cause kidney and lung disorders, depression and brain damage that mimics diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or damage from a stroke,” Stinson said. &#8220It can cause an actual stroke or heart failure. You can die from this.”

While meth is not physically addictive, it is very mentally addictive, the counselor said.

&#8220Users become very anxious, irritable, panicky. Their coping skills are almost non-existent. There is a lot of depression and confusion,” Stinson said.

A meth user's brain eventually reaches a point where it does not think it needs to naturally produce neurotransmitters. The brain becomes totally dependent on the drug.

&#8220The more meth they use, the stronger the cravings, but they get less and less satisfaction from the drug. It's a continuing downward spiral.”

Meth can drive a user over the edge psychologically.

&#8220They may show a false sense of confidence and power, then swing into depression, paranoia, even violence. Psychotic behavior is common,” Stinson said.

Such psychotic behavior can persist for months and even years after meth use has ended.

When meth users are in the worst stage of addiction, they may not sleep for up to 15 days at a time before an eventual &#8220crash,” in which the body simply shuts down for three days.

Nothing becomes more important in their lives than meth.

&#8220They don't care about anything. Home, family, job. As much as they care about getting more meth,” Stinson said.

Meth use increases crime in the community, including assault, domestic violence and theft, Harris said.

&#8220Folks will spend their last dime to get it,” she said. &#8220And when they run out of money, they will turn around and break into people's homes and steal things to pawn. It's that addictive.”

Homemade poison

Many clandestine meth labs have sprung up in rural areas of the nation.

The noxious smell created when making the meth is a big reason why its manufacturers use out-of-the-way spots. Having a place to dispose of the toxic waste created by manufacturing meth is another reason rural areas are popular.

Meth's widespread use and abuse has been largely due to the easy availability of ingredients.

&#8220Meth is not that hard to make and you can use everyday household items…and it doesn't take up much room, either. There are rolling meth labs in cars and vans,” Stinson said.

Some of the commonly found ingredients used to manufacture meth include anhydrous ammonia, lye, cold tablets and decongestants containing ephedrine or pseudophedrine, iodine, aluminum foil, lithium batteries, Coleman lamp fuel and red phosphorus from matchbooks and flares.

When mixed, these ingredients are highly volatile.

With many untrained, amateur chemists using old microwaves and coffee makers to cook meth in makeshift labs, the strong possibility of a deadly fire or explosion is all too real.

Some labs have even been booby-trapped to deliberately hurt law enforcement.

&#8220These people are getting smarter and smarter and they don't care who they hurt. As long as they can get rid of what they make and keep making that money, they just don't care,” Harris said.

This is your mouth on meth

The story of drug abuse is written on the faces and bodies of regular meth users.

&#8220There is a fairly rapid physical deterioration with frequent use of meth. You lose your appetite, so you lose weight and you get hollow-eyed.

Your skin dries out. Open sores, acne and ulcerations appear,” Stinson said.

As the craving for the drug intensifies, users become disinterested in virtually everything else, including personal hygiene.

That fact is amply demonstrated when a user opens his mouth.

Meth has an extremely detrimental effect on the teeth and gums of users, resulting in a condition known as &#8220meth mouth.”

&#8220It's not unlike the effect you see with some cancer patients, or those with other medical conditions, where the production of saliva is stopped. The corrosive effect automatically intensifies when that happens,” Greenville dentist Dr. Bob Martin said.

&#8220When you add the ingredients in the meth to the mix, you've got problems,” he said.

Martin said the effects of meth use on the teeth are not unlike what occurs when a baby is put to bed repeatedly with a bottle of sugar-sweetened liquid.

&#8220Because that sugary solution pools up around the teeth for hours, you end up with a child who has blackened, rotting teeth. That's what meth mouth looks like,” he said.

Brushing and flossing are one of the last things on the mind of a meth addict, Martin said, while their craving for sugary carbonated drinks only increases.

&#8220With the corrosive ingredients in meth – things like hydrogen peroxide and fertilizer – just think what that does to your teeth,” said Martin.

In some cases, young people in their 20s and 30s are having their teeth pulled and replaced with dentures due to meth use.