TOPICS > Health

Drug Trends: Methamphetamine

December 10, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Phoenix police recently raided this house in a middle class neighborhood looking for a methamphetamine production lab inside.

OFFICER: If you cannot afford an attorney, you have the right to have an attorney appointed for you prior to questioning. Do you understand these rights, Deborah?

DEBORAH: Yes, sir.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What they found, instead, were small bags of the drug. They also arrested a 15-year-old runaway and four adults high on the drug. Two young children were also found in the house and had to be placed in foster care.

OFFICER: And you are under arrest for possession of drug paraphernalia–

BETTY ANN BOWSER: On the street methamphetamine is known as speed, crank, crystal, rock, the poor man’s cocaine. It’s the fastest growing drug of choice in the country today. Snorted, smoked, or injected, the drug creates an intense rush and feeling of euphoria.

OFFICER: Do you use needles? You need a lawyer. Do you use needles?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It’s cheap and the high can last up to 10 hours, but it can also cause mental confusion and agitation and violent behavior. Police in Denver say a 25-year-old skinhead was high on speed when he led police on a 100-mile per hour chase, shot and killed a veteran police officer, and then shot and killed himself. But it is in Arizona that for the first time meth addicts now outnumber people addicted to cocaine. In Phoenix alone, emergency room overdose deaths have more than doubled. So drug treatment officials are trying to get an anti-speed message out through a series of public service spots.

PUBLIC SERVICE AD SPOKESMAN: The drug is called meth. It seduced a man into decapitating his child he thought was the devil.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Did that actually happen, what’s portrayed in that spot, a father decapitated his son?

BARBARA ZUGOR, Treatment Assessment Screening Center: Yes, that’s a true story, unfortunately. But there’s a lot of other violent acts and aggressive acts that happen every day with people high on meth.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Barbara Zugor heads TASC, the Treatment Assessment Screening Center, in Phoenix.

BARBARA ZUGOR: They have hallucinations, delusionary thoughts. They’re not really in their right state of mind, and they have not been eating properly, drinking properly. They’re really in a total state of confusion, and so, therefore, their thinking patterns are way off. They have no impulse control, and many times they think people are after them.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When David, a self-employed copier mechanic from Phoenix, was abusing meth, he became paranoid about fires.

DAVID: I have a phobia of fires I’ve had since I was a child from actually being burnt in a fire, and I would start always smelling smoke, so that was my phobia. It would just amplify it. I smell electrical burning, this, that, and of course, that was the phobia.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So you would spend hours and hours and hours–

DAVID: Looking around the house, looking for what this burning smell is, pretty much just looking like a complete idiot.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: This is chemically induced mental illness.

BARBARA ZUGOR: I would say that that’s what we know about it right now, right today. I think it is chemically induced mental illness. I think there’s a lot of people out there. Now, sure, mentally ill people probably use amphetamines, but I think it really, the chemical causes the psychosis. Once you take the chemical away and people are off the drugs, they’re fairly normal.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Sandy has been back to normal for more than a year, but when she was high on speed, Arizona Child Protective officials had to take her young children away from her.

SANDY: It’s something I hate to admit but it took me a long time to decide who I loved the most. I mean, I love my kids–don’t get me wrong–but I didn’t want to give up that either. You know, that was the hardest.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Meth does that to you?


BETTY ANN BOWSER: It makes you make a choice between it and your children?

SANDY: Yes. And it was–you know–I’m still–still to say that bugs me because I let it even be a choice. You know, I should have dropped that a long time ago.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: For more than a year now Sandy has been sober. She also has her children back. National Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey is alarmed when he hears stories like Sandy’s, and he’s concerned about the spread of the drug.

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY, National Drug Policy Director: It’s a ferociously addictive and dangerous substance. It’s become the number one drug problem in Southern California, Hawaii, parts of San Francisco, Idaho, Arizona, the Midwest. It spread in a very unpredictable fashion, and it may well be the most destructive, dangerous substance we’ve seen in America–even worse than crack cocaine in the mid 80’s.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Producing methamphetamine can be even more dangerous than taking it and the technology deceptively simple. A meth lab can be set up in an apartment with simple household equipment–glass jars and coffee filters–and the ingredients can include perfectly legal cold remedies like Sudafed and easily-obtained chemicals like red lye, kerosene, and Drano. This grainy video seized by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department shows a meth cook making the drug in a clandestine lab in the attic of a home in Phoenix. The fumes coming out of the top of the glass beaker can not only be lethal; they can also easily explode, making the drug dangerous to more than just the user. Jim Milford is the deputy administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

JIM MILFORD, Drug Enforcement Administration: It’s not uncommon for us to get a report from the PD, for example. An individual manufacturing methamphetamine in his basement or out in the shed, he’s high on methamphetamine, he makes a slip, and the whole place goes up, and he’s dead. That’s one thing. He’s killed himself. But when these individuals really risk the lives of their children and neighbors and people around them, then it really gets in the situation of public safety.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: That’s exactly what happened in Arizona this fall when police believe three-year-old Michael Carnesi died from inhaling poisonous fumes while he was sleeping in his mother’s appointment. His mother’s boyfriend was allegedly cooking meth in the kitchen. As the number of meth labs seized by the DEA in Arizona has skyrocketed from fourteen three years ago to one hundred and thirty-six this year, so have the dangers associated with them.

SPOKESMAN: What hazards could you assume with a reaction vessel if it was running?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The residue chemicals are so volatile that the DEA is training local and state police from all over the country in how to dismantle methamphetamine labs once they are found.

INSTRUCTOR: You plug in, turn on, take your first breath, and screw it down.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In a one-week program near the FBI training facility in Quantico, Virginia, officials are exposed to the realities of a meth lab explosion and taught what to do about it. At the DEA, Agent Guy Hargreaves is known as the “meth king.” He is also the designer of the training program.

GUY HARGREAVES, Special Agent, DEA: It is a law enforcement nightmare because we have thousands of officers across the country who have not been trained in how to handle this, this type of a problem. We have to have self-contained breathing apparatus; we have to have specialized clothing; Nomex fire-resistant uniforms when they go in if they catch on fire, less likely to be injured. They have other types of equipment: air purified respirators; air monitors, which cost hundreds of dollars, to check the atmosphere to see if there are combustibles in the atmosphere.

SPOKESMAN: You rescued the injured agent but at what cost?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: So far the DEA has trained several thousand officers from around the country and continues to train another nine hundred a year. But DEA officials say that’s hardly adequate. Many of the officers come from remote areas of the country like Prescott, Arizona, a town of 30,000 in the central part of the state. The county surrounding Prescott is the size of the state of Massachusetts, with only 100 police officers. Kathy McLaughlin is assistant county sheriff.

LT. KATHY McLAUGHLIN, Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office: If you were going to have a lab, you probably would not want to put it in a busy area; you would want to get remote, in an isolated area, where nobody’s going to bother you, nobody’s going to see your traffic; nobody’s going to smell the smell of all the chemicals. You can get pretty invisible in some areas of Yavapai County.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the biggest law enforcement problem is the recent growth of the Mexican mafia into the meth production business. Last week, federal drug agents arrested 100 people for involvement with the largest Mexican meth gang in the country. Attorney General Janet Reno says the raids are part of a national strategy to crack down on meth labs.

JANET RENO, Attorney General: We are disrupting the methamphetamine trade. We are closing labs. And to the merchants of meth we make this pledge: We will not tolerate your threat to our children or to our neighborhoods. And we are not going to let methamphetamine spread across America the way crack did in the 1980’s.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Law enforcement is also finding more creative ways to arrest meth producers. In October, DEA agents and Phoenix undercover agents busted 19 convenience stores for selling legal over-the-counter cold remedies in bulk to meth producers. Creativity may continue to be an operative word for law enforcement as it tries to stop the spread of a drug that isn’t illegal until it’s made.