KLAMATH FALLS, Ore. — It’s cheap and provides a high that lasts for hours, even days. It pumps up the sex drive and makes users feel super-human. Methamphetamine is also extremely addictive and is plowing through the nation, from coast to coast and from city to countryside, leaving behind a trail of broken families and destroyed lives.
The disastrous effects of methamphetamine addiction have been well documented in the decade since the drug first became widely popular.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate stepped in, introducing a bill — modeled after several state laws — that would lock up the cold medicines that provide meth’s most common ingredient, pseudoephedrine, into cabinets or behind pharmacy counters in drugstores and require customers to show ID before purchasing the medications.
But despite the efforts of the government and the heartwrenching tales of the destruction and pain that result from meth addiction, more and more people are abusing the drug. About 5 percent of the population, or 12 million people, said they had used the drug, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy report published in 2002.
For the fiscal year ending September 2004, the Drug Enforcement Administration counted more than 16,800 methamphetamine-related seizures across the country, up from 15,300 in 2002.
Why do people continue to use meth, even while watching their families, investments and dreams erode into nothing more than memories? What makes meth so addictive, and what has drug counselors and law enforcement officials alike so scared of its power?
Lured into 20-year addiction
Tracy, 39, is an auto mechanic in Klamath Falls, Ore., a cattle-and-lumber town with a distinctly rural feel, located about 20 miles north of the Oregon-California border. He started using meth when he was 18 years old, drawn into it, he says, partly due to growing up in an unstable home and partly due to a desire to escape emotions he didn’t want to face.
His father left his family when he was 10, and he was sexually abused by an uncle for several years during his adolescence. The euphoria induced by meth, coupled with its ability to help him ignore uncomfortable emotions he didn’t want to acknowledge, beguiled him.
“It made me feel like Superman,” he said.Meth: Danger in the making
Tracy, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, was able to hide the first few years of his 20-year stint with the drug from his wife and two sons.
Even though he tried to limit his use of meth to weekends and special events, he became painfully addicted. He tried several times to give up his habit, but each time he seemed to be pulled deeper and deeper into the drug.
Eventually, after 15 years together, Tracy’s wife left him and took custody of their two boys. Tracy lost his job, then his new truck, boat and his snowmobiles, and said he spent about $30,000 on the drug in 2003.
“I had to have it to survive,” Tracy said. “I really, honestly wanted to quit, but I couldn’t. I needed it to function.”
Shawna, a 31-year-old hairdresser in Klamath Falls, first tried methamphetamine the summer after she finished eighth grade. She was instantly hooked and spent the next 15 years of her life addicted to it.
“I loved it till the end,” she said. “Everyone I knew was doing drugs. When you first start out, it’s a good time.”
Like Tracy, she too grew up in an unstable home, where she watched a series of men parade through, trying to fill a void left by an absent father.
She got pregnant her sophomore year of high school, and quit using meth until after she had the baby. But the emotional devastation caused by the end of her relationship with the father of her child lured her to take up use of the drug again, and she dropped out of school and gave custody of the child to her mother.
Shawna said that among the factors that sucked her into abusing meth were its easy accessibility and low cost. For kids growing up in lower middle-class families who couldn’t afford to enroll in sports or other after-school activities, bumming $10 from a parent and pooling it with money from two other friends could fund an entire weekend of partying with meth.
In October 2004, the Oregon state administration passed a rule that requires customers to show identification and leave personal information at pharmacy registers when purchasing cold medications that contain pseudoephedrine. Law enforcement officials hope that restricting the availability of pseudoephedrine will cut down on the number of meth labs.
Klamath County Sheriff’s Deputy Michael Nork said he believes this step will help the problem temporarily. However, because the people manufacturing meth are constantly finding new, faster, and cheaper ways to produce the drug, this first step won’t be enough, according to Nork. Meth use will keep increasing as the drug continues to become more readily available, he said.
“It’s not going to get better,” he said. “Only worse.”
Catching on in urban areas
Methamphetamine isn’t popular and accessible only in rural Western towns like Klamath Falls. It’s quickly spreading across the nation, making significant inroads into Eastern states that previously had little evidence of meth abuse.
New York and Massachusetts have in the past few years seen huge leaps in the numbers of people seeking treatment for their addictions and for addiction-related health problems.
In 2003, for instance, New York State’s Drug Enforcement Agency office saw a 31 percent increase in confiscations of methamphetamine, and 18 meth labs were seized by law enforcement in 2003, compared with just one in 1999, the first year in which one was seized, according to DEA statistics.
The problem is particularly prevalent in New York City, according to Dr. Perry Halkitis, an associate professor of applied psychology at New York University who researches meth use and its role in the spread of HIV. Meth is the preferred substance for gay men in the city, he said, but it’s now spreading to the heterosexual party scene, as well. He estimates that one in five gay men has used the substance, but the numbers in both gay and straight communities are growing.
“It’s the drug of choice at this moment,” Halkitis said. “Meth makes you feel like you’re on top of the world.”
Besides the euphoric feeling, the convenience and affordability, meth also helps people escape difficult emotions, such as shyness, self-consciousness and stress. Methamphetamine is a more powerful drug than alcohol, cocaine or marijuana, and because the high also hits quicker and lasts so much longer than other drugs, it is more effective at lowering inhibitions, which increases its allure.
Exposure to childhood trauma also greatly increases a person’s risk of abusing drugs, said Halkitis.
“Not every addict is exposed to trauma,” said Halkitis, “but abused kids are more prone to risk-taking like drugs and sex.”
The chemical structure of methamphetamine makes it especially addictive, according to Halkitis. The euphoric rush and larger-than-life feelings that accompany the highs are the product of huge amounts of dopamine being released in the brain.
The higher the high, though, the harder the fall, and meth addicts frequently become severely depressed by the resulting chemical imbalance. To shake off the depression, they take more of the drug, alleviating the negativity — but only temporarily, only to have it return even worse than before.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said Halkitis, worse with meth than with any other drug. “This drug makes people feel so good for days on end that they don’t want to feel normal again.”
“Coming down hurt so bad,” Tracy said. “I had to have it all day and all night just to feel normal.”
Controlled studies show that frequent or prolonged use of methamphetamine rewires neural circuitry, specifically the parts of the brain associated with decision-making and motor and memory function.
Recovery from the structural and functional changes that occur in a meth user’s head can take up to two years, Halkitis said. Some people, however, never recover, and scientists are finding that the duration of use seems to affect the ability of the brain to recover.
Both Shawna and Tracy are trying to put their lives back together, staying sober and employed.
Shawna’s been free of her addiction to meth for four years, and Tracy marked one year of sobriety on Jan. 12. But both say they know things will never be quite what they could have been.
K.C. Johnston is a researcher on the NBC News Assignment Desk.