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Signs of Meth Abuse are Crystal Clear

Fairfax county gives the CAC a lesson on spotting methamphetamine in their community.

A methamphetamine user’s first experience is “euphoric,” a narcotics officer with the Fairfax County Police told members of the Mount Vernon Police Station Citizen’s Advisory Council on October 10. The officer, who did not want to be named because of his undercover work, was presenting “Meth 360” an educational program co-sponsored by The Partnership For A Drug Free America. “It basically hits your system like a storm and you’re just running,” he told the group.

A meth addict’s first hit is a revelation that transforms the purpose of their lives. “It’s like other drugs,” the narcotics officer said, “you’re basically chasing the high.” Along with the initial euphoria, meth, which usually comes as crystalline powder or a rock-like chunk, eliminates the need for sleep, increases energy and confidence, and decreases social inhibitions and appetite.

But the brain reacts by desensitizing itself to the chemical. This can happen extremely fast. As the brain loses sensitivity, meth users often respond by taking another hit. A typical session of methamphetamine abuse can last for three, four of five sleepless days on end. The user may never leave the house, growing increasingly paranoid and obsessive. The term for this is “tweaking.”

The officer told CAC members that it’s common for meth addicts to painstakingly dismantle televisions, toasters and other electronic equipment they find in their days-long confinement inside. Many meth addicts have scars and sores across their bodies. These are self-inflicted. The meth high often produces hallucinations of subcutaneous insects slithering within the body. The natural response is to try to pluck them out — the combination of obsessive-compulsive behavior, hallucinations and prolonged sleeplessness means that meth users can pick, pick, pick with their fingernails through skin, through fat, and sometimes through muscle until they hit bone. When a meth binge ends, users typically sleep for days.

THE NARCOTICS OFFICER presented the estimate that 12 million people have tried methamphetamines. He said that in the west and Midwest it is considered by most police stations to be their number one problem drug. It has crept east, and is now produced in many rural areas on the east coast. In Virginia, meth has been most problematic in the Shenandoah Valley and Winchester, the officer said. It is popular among ravers and club-goers in D.C. and the metro area. But in Mount Vernon, meth does not seem to have caught on as a major drug. “We do not have an identified meth problem on Route 1,” wrote Captain Michael Kline, commander of the Mount Vernon Station, in an email. He added that the station has made only two arrests for possession of methamphetamine thus far in 2006, an insignificant number compared to the nearly 1,200 drug arrests it makes on average each year.

Most meth found in the D.C. metro area was imported from elsewhere, because there is not enough privacy to produce it locally.There are many recipes for meth, most involve readily-available household substances, like ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in cold medications, drain cleaner, battery acid, lye, lantern fuel and antifreeze. The officer said meth “labs” are more likely to contain mason jars than glass beakers. They are usually little more than a jumble of cans, containers and tubing.

The officer showed pictures of labs stowed in the backs of pick-up trucks. “If you can bake a cake you can make meth,” he said. “We’re not dealing with rocket scientists here and that’s the scariest part of it.”

Most of the methamphetamine in the U.S. is now produced in Mexican and Californian “superlabs” capable of producing more than ten pounds of methamphetamine at a time. This is a valuable yield. In response to a question from a CAC member, the officer said that crystal meth, the most highly refined form of the drug, typically costs about $4,000 an ounce.

When the police bust a meth lab, their problems are only beginning. Cooking one pound of meth produces five or six pounds of toxic waste. And the toxic chemicals released in meth production endanger the life of anyone who comes in contact with them. After clearing out the immediate area, the narcotics officer said, local police may evacuate the neighborhood as well. Then they call in the DEA. “It’s incredible how much the cleanup can cost,” the officer said. It is so expensive that the federal government now does the work and foots the bill. Cleaning up the toxic waste from a meth lab can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $600,000. Sometimes the buildings that house them must be demolished completely.

In Virginia, drugs containing ephedrine, like Sudafed have been taken off pharmacy shelves and put behind the counter. This has made it more difficult for meth makers to shoplift the drug and has cut down on the rate of meth production in the state, the officer said. “The best thing they did for us is get it off the shelves and get it behind the counter.”

The officer said most meth users are between the ages of 18 and 25. Truck drivers, working mothers, students and people with high-pressure jobs may start taking the drug to increase energy and wakefulness. But although they might begin taking meth because they want to function at a higher level, prolonged use of the drug makes it difficult to maintain even basic functionality.

Besides the wounds that result from “tweaking,” meth abuse often causes dental deterioration, dilated pupils, abnormal sweating, long periods of sleeplessness, long periods of sleep, incessant talking, twitching, aggression, secrecy, paranoia, depression and hallucinations, among other symptoms, according to the Partnership for a Drug Free America. Meth addicts need money, but it is difficult to maintain a normal job.

But Clara Marshall, with the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Service Board, told the CAC that meth addicts can recover. She said the county offers inpatient and outpatient service for addicts. “We can begin to treat them and help them learn new coping skills.”

Marshall urged people to look for signs of meth addiction and to help people seek treatment. “As the community, it’s everybody’s job to stop it,” she said.