Thought crystal meth disappeared last decade? Think again. These tiny white crystals kill more than 5,000 people every year.
Methamphetamine doesn’t get nearly as much attention as opioids. When we talk about the drug crisis in America, we often go straight to heroin, fentanyl, and oxycodone.
In some sense, opioids are a reasonable place to start. After all, they take the lives of more than 40,000 Americans every year.
But, opioids aren’t the only drugs that kill people. Combined, other drugs account for nearly 30,000 deaths annually.
One of the biggest culprits in this group is methamphetamine, or “crystal meth”. While we don’t hear as much about it, this drug is wreaking havoc on American lives.
Crystal Meth Addiction: The Opioid Crisis Isn’t Our Only Drug Problem
To many folks, methamphetamine is a completely foreign concept. It reigns supreme mostly in the middle of the country, so people who live on the coasts may have never encountered a “tweaker”, or a meth user.
And, unlike opioids, it has no known medical purposes. Therefore, we don’t see it in pharmacies and hospitals. Doctors don’t prescribe it. Unless you personally know someone who is addicted to meth, the most exposure you’ve probably had to it is while watching Breaking Bad.
But, just because it’s not as common as heroin or fentanyl, doesn’t mean that methamphetamine isn’t an issue. In fact, it’s a much bigger issue than most people think.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug was responsible for nearly 5,000 overdose deaths in 2015. This was a big jump from the previous year. In 2014, the drug killed less than 4,000 people.
By 2017, however, the overdose rate was vastly higher. Last year, methamphetamine was responsible for more than 10,000 overdose deaths. This is far higher than the early 2000s which, until recently, was considered the peak of the meth epidemic.
Unfortunately, it appears that the real peak is right now. And while meth clearly isn’t as deadly as heroin and other opioids, the drug is certainly a problem. It still kills thousands of people every year, ruining the lives of addicts and their families. And, unfortunately, if nothing is done about it, the problem is likely to get worse.
One Addict’s Story
We spoke to a number of recovering and active meth addicts who told us that they can’t remember a time when the drug was so readily available. Oliver, 39, was a user in the early 2000s. At that time, speed was considered one of the deadliest drugs available. But, as Oliver explains, it wasn’t nearly as easy to find as it is today.
“I’m from the midwest, so it was around a lot during that time,” he says, talking about how he first became addicted. “It was pretty easy to find if you went to a lot of parties or knew someone who used it, but I never encountered it outside of the meth scene.”
These days, however, Oliver tells us that it’s far more common to bump into meth in a situation where it wouldn’t have appeared in the past. He says that it was his marijuana dealer who actually got him back into the drug. “I was shocked when my pot guy told me he had some meth,” he says, “He just threw it out there like, ‘Hey, I have some Tina, too, if you’re interested.”
“I was shocked when my pot guy told me he had some meth. He just there it out there like, ‘Hey, I have some Tina, too, if you’re interested.”
Oliver says that he was able to resist the urge to buy it for several days. But, after the thought of buying meth entered his mind, cravings began to take hold. “At that point, I’d been ‘sober’ for around five years,” he explains, “I’d been clean off meth at least. And, I thought I’d be fine because I wasn’t around the stuff anymore.”
But, as he says, the encounter led him right back into a life of addiction. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought I was over crank and I’d be fine just smoking weed. Turns out that that wasn’t the case.”
Meth in the Gay Party Community
Throughout our conversation, Oliver brings up the fact that meth is particularly popular within the gay party scene. “It’s not everywhere, but you see it a lot,” he explains, “Like, I didn’t know gay people who used when I was sober. But, once I started using again, I’d find it at parties all the time.”
Oliver, who is a gay man, explains that many people use the online-dating app Grindr to find drug dealers. “I couldn’t believe it. Once I found out that it was readily available on the app, it was like a whole new world,” he says, “It was way easier to buy than it used to be.”
He explains that certain Grindr users write “codes” into their profile to let others know that they sell meth. Others put codes in their profile to signal that they’re seeking meth. For example, the word “parTy”, written with a capital “T”, signifies that the user is carrying Tina (one of the drug’s street names. “It became like second nature, looking for capitalized letters,” he says, “I even knew straight people who would use the app just to find drugs.”
At the time of our conversation, Oliver was clean for nearly two years. During that time, Grindr has taken measures to eliminate all mentions of the drug from the platform. We’ll have to wait to see if their efforts are successful.
“It’s definitely an epidemic,” Oliver says, “We have to do more than just ban certain words from an app.”
But…What About the Methamphetamine Epidemic Act?
The increase in meth overdoses may come as a surprise those who follow the ongoing war on drugs. In the early 2000s, the federal government and some state legislatures took action against the meth epidemic.
A major step in the efforts was to limit the availability of the ingredients used in meth production. One bill, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, (also known as the Curbing Production of Methamphetamine Bill), targeted all individuals and companies who play a role in the drug’s production.
This piece of legislation aimed to give higher punishments to anyone who was caught making meth. It also aimed to cut down on production by punishing individuals who were caught in possession of meth’s key ingredients, even if they weren’t caught with the finished product.
Some household ingredients in meth
- Cold medicine
- Rubbing alcohol
- Drain cleaner
- Paint thinner
- Starter fluid
- Battery lithium
- Rock salt
- Cat litter
Most of these ingredients are common, over-the-counter medications like ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine. Each of these is found in mild medications like cough suppressants and allergy relievers. When they’re subject to the meth-cooking process, however, they become powerful substances.
So, in order to curtail the production of meth, the federal government set purchase limits on these drugs. Specifically, they said that citizens could only buy 9 grams of each drug. Anyone who was caught buying more would be punished. Ultimately, they aimed to make it difficult for meth producers to manufacture the drug.
The government’s efforts to cut down on meth production weren’t a complete failure. The CME Act had many positive results. For example, it limited the production of “shake and bake” meth. This was a popular way for single users and small dealers to make their own batches with basic ingredients and a few water bottles. The process usually resulted in very dirty batches of meth, but many users enjoyed it nonetheless.
With limited access to pseudoephedrine, however, users and dealers were unable to produce the drug as easily. People had to resort to robbery and other crimes in order to obtain large amounts of cold medicine.
“While the new-and-improved bill helped to limit domestic production, there remained an unstoppable force in the world on meth: foreign cartels.”
Other people exploited mail-order services to obtain the ingredients. They realized that, by ordering Sudafed online, they had access to the big quantities they needed.
The Obama Administration attempted to fix this loophole by adding to the CME Act of 2005. In 2010, five years after the initial bill passed. the federal government altered the bill to regulate the amount of pseudoephedrine online retailers could sell.
While the new-and-improved bill helped to limit domestic production, there remained an unstoppable force in the world on meth: foreign cartels.
Drug Cartels Seize the Opportunity
“With 1.2 million meth users in America, it’s clear why someone would step in to fill the gap.”
Here in the United States, meth manufacturers were hurt by the government’s efforts. But, these very bills left an opening for drug cartels to make some more money. After all, just because it became harder to produce the drug doesn’t mean that the market for it went away. With 1.2 million meth users in America, it’s clear why someone would step in to fill the gap.
In a recent CNN article entitled, “While America Wages War on Opioids, Meth Makes its Comeback,” reporter Drew Kahn unpacks the role of foreign cartels in today’s methamphetamine crisis. He explains that, around 2011, midwestern police departments seized dozens of meth labs. But, the problem didn’t seem to stop.
“[The cartels] came around with much purer, much cheaper meth and just flooded this region of the country,” says Richard Salter, a DEA agent working primarily in Oklahoma who is interviewed in the article.
The agent goes on to explain the low cost and high quality are responsible for the recent surge in meth use. He cites that earlier in the decade, an ounce of meth cost more than $1,000. But, today, it goes for less than $500. Sometimes, agents are able to purchase for as low as $250.
“The’s as cheap as I’ve ever seen methamphetamine in my entire career,” Salter is quoted.
Unfortunately, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act didn’t work out as expected…
Ongoing Efforts to Stop the Cartels
Although meth is more prevalent than ever, the DEA is working hard to limit how much enters the country. As Kahn writes in his piece, the organization does stop a lot of meth at the border. In fact, he points out that more of this drug is seized at the border than any other illicit substance.
“The other hard narcotics like cocaine, heroin, and fentanyl, we see them—they’re prevalent at our border crossing, but nowhere near the quantity that we see of meth,” says Anne Maricich, a deputy for US Customs and Border Protection.
“We’re definitely targeting the right folks that are taking advantage of our city and citizens, but the addiction is strong and it’s difficult.” Capt. Mark Wollmershauser, Tulsa Police Department
On a statewide level, local agencies are also fighting to eliminate the drug from their communities. In Tulsa, for example, Captain Mark Wollmershauser Jr and his team on the Tulsa Police Department, are fighting to lock up dealers.”We’re definitely targeting the right folks that are taking advantage of our city and citizens, but the addiction is strong and it’s difficult,” he says.
And, even though Wollmershauser’s team has seized a large of amount of meth over the past few years, he emphasizes that it’s addiction, not cartels, that is the real problem. As Kahn explains, the department is using more ‘front-end diversion’ techniques to help addicts find treatment and avoid prison. However, they continue to aggressively pursue cartels and big-time dealers.
Where is Meth Most Prevalent?
In the past, the “ice” problem was mostly relegated to certain areas of the country. The midwestern and southern regions of the US saw the most meth-related activity. The northwest (i.e Oregon and Washington) as well as parts of California also heavy meth use, as well.
The east coast, on the other hand, did not see a lot of meth traffic until recently. Lately, though, the drug has started to appear in New York, Massachusetts, and other regions that formerly saw very little of it.
One article published in The Wall Street Journal credits this to the cartels’ marketing efforts. In the words of the article’s author, Corinne Ramsey, the dealers are “attempting to create new clients in what has historically been a weak market for the drug.”
James Hunt, a DEA agent working in NY, claims, “The Mexican cartels have been sending loads up to New York and telling traffickers, ‘See if you can get customers.” Ultimately, he believes that the cartels want to facilitate addiction in the northeast to expand their market.
Although the drug is appearing in the northeast more than ever before, they’re not the places where it’s most widespread.
Here are some of the states where meth is the biggest problem:
Hawaii: One of the meth-heaviest states, Hawaii is more than just a vacation spot. The state actually ranks #1 in the US for treatment of meth overdoses. More than 100 people die of a meth overdose in the Aloha State every year.
Montana: Montana used to be home to hundreds of meth labs. Today, 99% of the meth that enters the state comes from foreign cartels. But, that hasn’t weakened the crank problem in this state. According to the state government, meth overdoses account for nearly 20% of all drug overdose deaths that occur in Montana.
Nebraska: According to an article published in The Omaha World-Herald, the meth problem in Nebraska is as bad as ever. Although the number of lab seizures last year significantly decreased, twice as many people sought treatment for meth addiction than they ever have in the past.
North Dakota: The meth problem in North Dakota has grown much worse in the past decade. According to the Attorney General, there’s been a 400% increase in the number of arrests. In 2010, ND police departments only arrested 246 people for meth possession. But, in 2015, they arrested more than 1,600.
Idaho: According to state and local officials, methamphetamine is the biggest drug problem in the Gem State. It’s so bad that the federal government considers Idaho a “high-intensity drug trafficking area”. Dozens of people die from meth addiction in this state each year. And, even more, are people are arrested or face other negative consequences related to the drug.
Iowa: While Iowa has been successful in bringing down the number of meth labs, the state still has a huge problem on its hands. 15% of Iowans name the drug as their drug of choice. On this list, it’s third behind alcohol and marijuana. Unfortunately, the consequences are deadly. Crank overdoses account for 25% of all fatal drug overdoses in the state.
Oklahoma: Oklahoma has taken great measures to eliminate meth. They seized more than 420 labs during 2013. Since then, the number of meth labs has been drastically reduced. But, because cartels are shipping the drug into the state, it still remains prevalent. In 2016 alone, 335 Oklahoma residents lost their lives to the drug.
Utah: We don’t typically associate Utah with drug addiction. That’s probably because more than 50% of the population belongs to the Mormon religion. But, just because Mormons abstain from drugs doesn’t mean that Utah is a drug-free region. In fact, their meth addiction rates are quite high. A recent article on Good4Utah.com explains that more than 140 residents die from an overdose every year. And, Utah State Police confiscate more than 500 pounds of the drug.
Wyoming: Wyoming was one of the earliest states to take action against the meth epidemic. In some senses, their 2001 Methamphetamine Initiative was ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it didn’t eliminate the problem. The state continues to have one of the highest overdose rates in the country.
What About Washington State?
Washington, Evergreen Recovery’s home state, is not exempt from the current epidemic. In fact, meth overdoses in WA are at an all-time high. It’s actually scary how rapidly they’re increasing.
According to research from the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington, 476 people died of a methamphetamine overdose during 2017. This is 100 more people than the previous year.
In some cases, these overdoses involved opioids, as well. Nearly 50% of autopsies showed that the individual had both methamphetamine and an opioid in their system at the time of death.
Washington isn’t the only northwestern state with a meth issue. Oregon, our neighbor, has a bad problem as well. Like Idaho, it is recognized as a high-intensity drug trafficking area by the federal government. State officials say that the drug kills nearly as many residents as prescription opioids.
A Washington Lawyer’s Battle with Meth Addiction
“From the very first time I tried meth, I loved it. Nothing has ever made me feel as happy or alive or confident.”
In a recent article entitled “Life After Meth”, lawyer Wil Miller describes his journey from addiction to recovery. The piece, which was originally published in NWLawyer Magazine, shows just how dire the meth crisis in America really is.
Miller’s story also dispels of the myth that crystal is a poor person’s drug. When he started using the drug, Miller was a prosecutor in Seattle, WA. Before that, he’d served in New York City.
“From the very first time I tried meth, I loved it,” the lawyer says, “Nothing has ever made me feel as happy or alive or confident as meth did.”
But, as the story goes, the drug only made him happy for so long. His habit quickly developed into “periods of use followed by debilitating withdrawal”. Within a matter of months, he was hooked on the drug. He experienced all of the drug’s side effects including paranoia and psychosis.
During this time, Miller continued to practice law. However, the drug took a toll on his performance. “For the first time in my career, I started showing up late to work,” he says, “I couldn’t stay organized anymore. I was losing my temper for no reason and being really rude to some of the defense attorneys.”
Even in the grip of addiction, Wil knew that he had a problem. But, as he explains, he felt that he couldn’t seek help because he’d ruin his career.
“I really didn’t want to lose my job,” he says, “Being a prosecutor was all I had ever done. I was really good at it.”
A Rough Road to Recovery
Eventually, Miller was caught with meth. Even worse, it happened at work. A security guard found the drug in his briefcase during a routine courthouse check-in. The state ordered an investigation and he eventually resigned. Unfortunately, he didn’t quit using, though.
After several months of trying to support a drug habit, Miller found himself in the center of a SWAT team raid. The team broke down the door of his home. His arrest was televised live on KOMO 4 news.
Discussing the raid, Miller says, “That was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. It was the only intervention I was ever going to get. It started the chain reaction of events that eventually saved my life.”
His legal knowledge allowed him to delay his own trial. He was able to put it off for several months while he attended drug rehab and attempted sobriety. He relapsed a few times but got sober in the end. However, Miller was eventually forced to turn himself in and carry out a two-year prison sentence.
“I will always value the time I spent in prison,” he says, “In prison, I was safe from temptation during the early fragile years of my recovery.”
After he was released from prison, it took five years for him to regain his status as a lawyer in Washington state. But with focus, effort, and 12-step support, Miller has stayed clean. He continues to practice law today.
A Drug That Ends Lives Early
Unfortunately, not all stories end as happily as Wil Miller’s. Many people met their fate after overdosing on crystal meth. Just last month, Overtones singer Timmy Matley died in a meth-related accident. The singer was 36 years old and under the influence of the drug when he fell out a 13th-floor window.
His family and friends have yet to comment on whether or not addiction was an ongoing problem in his life. But, the drug definitely played a key role in his demise.
Whatever the case, Matley’s story isn’t an uncommon one. Meth-related deaths occur frequently. These deaths aren’t just overdoses, either. In fact, overdoses only account for 43% of meth-related deaths. But, the drug leads to many other causes of death.
According to Addiction Journal, the drug is a key factor in many accidents and suicides. It also contributes to early death via cardiac arrest and heart disease. The drug greatly increases the heart’s speed, which can be fatal if left untreated.
Of course, the biggest meth-related threat is overdosing. This alone kills thousands of Americans every year.
How (And Where) to Get Help
As we’ve learned, initiatives like the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act can only do so much. They can try to cut down on the availability of a drug. But, they’ll never stop an epidemic entirely. When a population is addicted, they’ll find a way to get it.
So, the best thing that we can do to fight the meth problem is to help addicts get clean. Our friends, family members, and neighbors are struggling with drug dependency. If you know someone who is currently addicted to meth, it’s important to connect them with resources that can help them kick their habit.
Do You Know a Meth Addict? Here are Some Resources That Might Be Useful for Them:
Drug Detox Facilities: Detox is the first step toward quitting any drug. After all, in order to quit, the addict has to get the drug out of their system. Professional detox facilities offer addicts the opportunity to flush themselves out in a clean, safe environment. These facilities are staffed with medical professionals who can work to eliminate withdrawal symptoms.
Meth is a hard drug to detox from. Cold turkey detox is not recommended.
Crystal Meth Rehab: Once the addict detoxes, the best thing for them to do is to check into drug rehab. There, they’ll spend a few weeks learning how to live a sober life. They’ll go through therapy and attend group support sessions. They’ll address the psychological roots of their addiction and develop tactics for staying off drugs.
Rehab works for a lot of meth addicts. It worked for Fergie (yes, THAT Fergie). So, it could work for you or your loved one, too.
12-Step Meetings: Narcotics Anonymous is an organization that holds free meetings for anyone who has been addicted to drugs. During the early days of sobriety, many recovering meth addicts find that this is the best resource for them. NA is a welcoming group who just wants to see other people get sober. All meetings are free. Most meetings are open to the public.
Looking for a Narcotics Anonymous Meeting near you? Find one here!
Meth is Back, But it Doesn’t Have to Stay
Northpoint Evergreen Bellevue is committed to helping drug addicts and their families overcome addiction. We want nothing more than to see meth addicts turn their lives around.
If you or a loved one is currently addicted to methamphetamine, it’s important to remember that help is available.
Please reach out if you want to talk to someone. A member of our team will be happy to listen, offer advice, and get you started on the road to recovery.