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Meth’s deadly buzz

An old drug with a new twist is sweeping across the Midwest and headed east. It has quietly become America’s first major home-grown drug epidemic: “Meth,” better known as speed, has law enforcement and treatment professionals worried.
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In many ways, meth is the crack cocaine of the new millennium. Much like crack, which swept across the nation in the 1980s and ’90s, methamphetamine use has hit epidemic proportions in the past several years. Crack plagued inner cities and the black community; meth is thriving in cities like San Francisco, sweeping across the Midwest and headed east. It has quietly become America’s first major home-grown drug epidemic.

Why the popularity? Meth is easy and cheap to produce, and unlike drugs such as marijuana and cocaine — much of which must be imported — meth is easily manufactured domestically with common household items such as batteries and cold medicine. There are retail and wholesale operators: Small-time meth cooks stash labs everywhere from mobile homes to car trunks, while Mexican organized crime has streamlined the high end of the industry in the past few years, supplying both finished product and the raw materials required for production, called “cooking” in the drug trade. What was once a regional West Coast problem can now be found in big cities and small towns alike.

“It covers the whole United States, right up into Maine,” says Joe Keefe, chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

In 1999, more than a million Americans used meth in just one year, more than used crack and almost three times as many as used heroin. The allure of the drug — also called crystal, crank and dozens of other names — is energy, the sort of raw, unbridled, jumpy rush that comes from supercharging the brain with a dopamine high similar to a jolt of adrenaline; the same sort of energy that comes from doing cocaine.

But unlike cocaine, or even crack — which provides a high of a couple hours at best — meth users can stay up for eight to 12 hours or more, depending how they ingest the drug: smoking, snorting, swallowing or injecting it.

Though meth has been around for decades, the latest crisis has spread among white, often poor, usually rural Americans. The drug is rampant in small communities with scant health facilities and few assistance options. “The thing that’s scary about this to me is that it’s hitting populations that have been previously unexposed and also have the least resources,” says addiction expert Dr. David Smith, founder of the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in San Francisco.

Meth remains remarkably affordable because the lasting high of the drug — which costs $20 to $60 or so for a quarter-gram, a bit more than cocaine — is achieved with small quantities, which is why it is called “the poor man’s cocaine.”

Traffickers usually move in small circles; cooks often exchange drugs or give them to friends. Because meth can be made in a backyard or a bathroom, families often pass around meth-cooking knowledge in an informal and ever-expanding web of connections.

“If your dad cooks meth in the house, that’s what you’re going to learn to do,” says Lt. Mel Williams of the Sioux City, Iowa, police department, which runs one of the nation’s few local training programs to handle meth.

Search for solutions
Communities across the country are struggling with ways to combat this drug epidemic. Some have opted for a hard-nosed approach — raids of clandestine meth labs, operations that require special equipment and training for police who must handle the toxic chemicals used in the cooking process. Others hope to stem the drug’s social impact and the rising health costs of a deadly addiction.

What remains clear is that officials find themselves frustrated, both with their slow progress and with an often contentious relationship with officials in Washington. Though federal authorities acknowledge the value of what Keefe calls a “holistic” approach, local authorities often feel burdened with the same stringent tactics that led to a prolonged fight against crack.

“Each year, they make more arrests, each year they seize more dope, they seize more guns, execute more search warrants,” says Capt. Peter Groetken, who heads Sioux City’s detective force. “It’s not stopping the flow of drugs.” has gone into communities struggling to cope with the meth crisis to get a first-hand look at the war on this drug. In this special package:

  • We go to a drug clinic in San Francisco that has helped meth addicts since the city’s hippie culture of the 1960s.
  • We follow along as police in Washington state bust meth cooks.
  • We meet officials on the front lines of the meth battle in the Midwest, where the realities of this drug have created a new sort of pragmatism among even hard-nosed police and prosecutors.
  • We introduce you to former addicts who describe how they got hooked on meth — and survived their addictions.
  • We look at the drug’s physical and psychological effects, and how doctors bring users back from their jittery, paranoid trips.

Take a look inside America’s hidden drug epidemic.