Pubdate: Sat, 22 Apr 2006
Source: Hamilton Spectator (CN ON)
Copyright: 2006 The Hamilton Spectator
Author: Andrew Buncombe, The Independent (UK)
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


Across The Mountains And Prairies Of America, A Generation Of Young 
People Is Falling Victim To Methamphetamine Addiction And State 
Authorities Are Struggling To Cope

Even when she was stealing money from her nine-year-old niece to fund 
her habit, Sarah Bright was certain she did not have a problem with 
methamphetamine. When she got up in the middle of the night and 
paranoically wandered around her garden, convinced that FBI agents 
were stalking her, she thought she was in control. She did not have a 
problem with drugs, she told herself. Everything was cool.

Today, two years after she first experimented with the drug and four 
months since she last indulged in a habit that had taken over her 
life, the teenager thinks differently. "Once you start taking drugs 
you turn into a nasty, horrible person," she said. "I treated people 
like crap. My only goal was to get money to get meth."

If Sarah sounds like the poster child in a drug prevention campaign 
that's because she is. The 17-year-old from Missoula in Montana is 
among a handful of young people featured in a series of anti-meth 
advertisements launched this week by state authorities struggling to 
deal with the highly addictive and destructive drug that has become 
the scourge of rural America.

Much more so than cocaine, crack, heroin or marijuana, smalltown 
U.S.A. is steadily falling prey to a drug more commonly known as 
crank, glass or crystal. It was originally produced using 
over-the-counter medication containing ephedrine bought from "mom and 
pop" drug stores. The use of the drug has steadily increased, with 
production taken over by "super-labs" in Mexico and trafficked by 
Hispanic gangs.

The Big Sky state of Montana, famed for its mountains and sweeping 
prairies, is one of the front lines in the effort to combat the drug. 
In the 10 years from 1992, the number of people admitted for meth 
addiction in the state jumped by 520 per cent.

Today, in places such as Missoula, where Norman MacLean set his 
haunting novella A River Runs Through It, later made into a movie, 
9.3 per cent of teenagers say they have tried the drug, compared to a 
national average of 6.3 per cent.

Easy to make, cheap to buy and with an initial soaring energizing 
"high" some users have likened to "having 10 orgasms at once," meth 
has found ready users among teenagers as well as young mothers with 
children looking to get through a busy day.

Its ability to suppress appetite and help weight-loss has lured many 
young women to experiment. Meth can cost as little as $25 US for 
quarter-gram and unlike any other drug, it is estimated that 50 per 
cent of meth users are women.

"I was 15. It was lunchtime and a friend asked if I had ever done 
dope," says Caitlin Moe, 22, another former addict featured in the campaign.

"I asked what it would make me do and she said it would help me study 
really hard and give me energy. It sounded great. We snorted it and 
it did all those things. It made me feel on top of the world. I 
studied hard for the rest of the day. (But) from then on I had to 
have it all of the time."

Caitlin struggled with meth addiction for three years, lying to her 
parents, failing at school, losing friends. Having once quit and 
joined an outpatient drugs prevention program, she started smoking 
meth the day the program ended.

She eventually gave up after attending a boot camp in Utah, but even 
now feels tempted to try it again. "You became an excellent 
manipulator and liar, just so you can continue to use it," she said. 
"I did not think I had a problem. I could justify everything I did."

In Montana, the impact of meth on crime and health care is vast and 
is getting worse; 85 per cent of women inmates in the state prison 
are there because of meth-related crime, 70 per cent of the state's 
drug crimes are meth-related, and the number of people admitted for 
treatment has risen by 70 per cent over the past six years.

Indeed, the scale of meth-related crime is such that the state's 
Department of Corrections has approved the building of two new "meth prisons".

There will be an 80-inmate unit for men and a 40-inmate unit for 
women. Some of the worst problems have been seen in the state's 
Native American reservations where authorities say fewer police, the 
wide dispersal of residents and higher than usual poverty levels have 
helped create a meth crisis.

The Montana Governor, Brian Schweitzer, told The New York Times: 
"It's destroying families, it's destroying our schools, it's 
destroying our budgets for corrections, social services (and) health 
care. We're losing a generation of productive people."

Montana's efforts to tackle meth have been funded by Thomas Siebel, a 
Silicon Valley billionaire, who spent much of his youth in the state 
and owns ranches there. He was told of the impact of the drug on law 
and order resources by the state's attorney general and decided to 
donate $5.6 million to fund a prevention campaign. The Montana Meth 
Project was born.

Taking its cue from professional advertising, the campaign 
commissioned focus-group studies of young people and discovered 43 
per cent believed there were "benefits" associated with meth use, be 
it weight loss, additional energy or enhanced concentration. The 
result has been a television, radio and billboard and print campaign 
featuring a striking images and films.

One billboard advert in the state capital, Helena, shows a filthy 
public toilet with the message, "No one thinks they'll lose their 
virginity here. Meth will change that."

One of the television adverts, which all feature actors, show a young 
woman plucking out all of her eyebrows, apparently unaware of what 
she is doing and oblivious to the pain.

Perhaps most striking are the 30-second radio clips by former addicts 
such as Sarah and Caitlin talking of their experiences. In her clip, 
Caitlin tells of the after-effects of one meth binge. "I felt like if 
I even moved an inch I would have a heart attack. My heart was 
beating so fast."

The campaign, the only state-wide prevention campaign in the nation, 
is being closely monitored by local authorities across the United 
States also struggling to confront the problem. It has become the 
biggest advertiser in the state and an estimated 90 per cent of 
children between the ages of 12 and 17 see the adverts three times a week.

Montana is home to just 900,000 residents, the third most sparsely 
populated U.S. state after Alaska and Wyoming. Peg Shea, executive 
director of the Montana Meth Project, said isolation and ignorance of 
the drug's dangers contributed to the problem.

"Also this is the West," she said, as she drove to a public meeting 
in the Salish-Kootenai reservation town of Polsen. "The people who 
came here were pioneers. They take risks."

Did she think part of the problem with Montana's youth was boredom?

"That's what the children tell us," she said. "Our campaign aims to 
have a knee-jerk reaction among kids so they don't even want to try 
it, to try and make it (produce a similar reaction) as heroin."

At the town meeting, the tribal police authority chief, Craig 
Couture, told how his officers devoted much of their time to handling 
meth dealers and addicts. And he spoke from personal experience; his 
younger brother was addicted to methamphetamine for years.

Today he is clean.

"There was a time when I told him I go was going to send him to 
prison. I told every police officer he was an addict. At the time he 
hated me. He told me I was going to find him dead."

Shaden, 28, a member of the Salish-Kootenai tribe, is living in a 
treatment centre for women addicts in Missoula. She has three 
children by different fathers and she had taken meth for more than 
eight years, often injecting it. She stopped a few months ago. Her 
eyes looked dark and her body still twitched, something known among 
treatment experts as "tweaking."

She said she had grown up in a family where most of her relatives 
used meth and other drugs. "The worst thing is that you are so blind 
in your reality. You know in the back of your head not to take it. In 
the end I had no self worth, no self-esteem. I knew nothing was going 
to get better. I had to get away from my family. I was praying and crying."

Methamphetamine, synthesized in 1919 and closely related to the drug 
amphetamine, was given to troops during the Second World War as a 
stimulant. It sharply stimulates the central nervous system in a 
similar way to adrenalin, releasing large quantities of the 
neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for controlling 
movement, thought processes, emotions, and the pleasure centres of the brain.

Aside from the addiction, a downside of long-term meth use is that it 
damages those neuro-transmitters, making it harder for recovering 
addicts to experience pleasure. The cold turkey is very cold indeed.

Dr. John Nautts, a specialist in addictive medicine with the West 
Montana Addiction Services, said users often suffered depression when 
they stop taking meth. "We try and treat this with antidepressants," 
he said. "It also affects memory and word recall."

The drug is also a libido stimulant and several years ago there was 
great concern among sections of the gay community, especially in New 
York and San Francisco, that "crystal" abuse was responsible for a 
spike in HIV infection rates.

But the effects of meth abuse have struck hardest in the American 
heartland. In Oklahoma and Illinois, authorities have had to 
dramatically expand child support services to handle the numbers of 
"meth orphans" created by the arrest or imprisonment of addict parents.

The National Association of Counties says it is the biggest problem 
facing local authorities yet some campaigners say the federal 
government is not sufficiently addressing the issue. Addiction is 
rampant in rural areas considered the bedrock of Republican support, 
but the drug has not yet taken such a hold in East Coast cities.

In Montana the biggest danger may be ignorance. Sarah, the young 
woman from the advertisements, said there had been no education about 
meth in her school. When she first took it, she had no idea what she 
was getting into. She said: "I did not even get told what meth was."
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MAP posted-by: Beth Wehrman