‘Butteants’ and ‘methamphibians': a horror story

The crippling devastation methamphetamine brings to the people of Butte County

METHEMATICS <br>District Attorney Mike Ramsey says the explosion of methamphetamine in Butte County is in part attributable to the passage in 1978 of Proposition 13.

District Attorney Mike Ramsey says the explosion of methamphetamine in Butte County is in part attributable to the passage in 1978 of Proposition 13.

Photo By Tom Angel

I made my decision
Lead a path of self-destruction
A slow progression
Killing my complexion
And it’s rotting out my teeth
I’m on a roll
No self-control
I’m blowing off steam
With methamphetamine

—Green Day, “Geek Stink Breath”

Here’s a story Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey tells: A 9-year-old girl goes into a neighborhood grocery store with her 5-year-old brother in tow. The little girl has her mother’s checkbook, and she tries to write a check to buy food. The children are hungry and filthy.

The store owner calls the Sheriff’s Department. A deputy responds to the call and is directed to a trailer near the store. The mother answers the door and lets him in.

The place is foul-smelling and littered with dirty clothes and empty bottles. The mother is spun on meth, and, under questioning, immediately gets paranoid, loud and abusive. She comes at the deputy, and as he backs away from her the floor in the living room gives way under him, rotted out by urine and long decay, and the deputy finds himself up to his chest in the collapsed flooring of the trailer.

And then there was the time the D.A. went along on a night raid to a house that served as a meth lab. Electricity to the place had been shut off long since. With deputies at his side, the D.A. proceeded into the darkness guided by the beam of a flashlight.

“The smell,” he says, “was godawful, and when I opened the refrigerator door, that smell of rotting food became so physically overpowering that I ducked my head. I caught a glimpse of the floor. ‘Why is the floor moving?’ I wondered, until I figured out that the floor was a wriggling mass of cockroaches. Children had been living in that place.”

DAMAGE DONE<br>A collection of syringes found in the bathroom sink during a methamphetamine bust.

Photo By Butte County District Attorney Office

Meth users swallow, snort, smoke and inject the stuff. From 1984 to 1993, methamphetamine use in California rose 366 percent. It first showed up in Butte County in the early 1980s, coming in on the back of a Harley-Davidson, drawn here by an article in a national biker magazine extolling the area as a place where outlaws could “do their own thing.”

The opportunity those bikers seized upon was an opportunity partially created by the passage of Proposition 13, in 1978. “Butte County has been dancing around bankruptcy ever since then,” says the district attorney. It took a few years, but Proposition 13 (which capped property taxes) caused tax revenues to shrivel, and with the shriveling of those revenues came a corresponding shriveling of monies for county agencies. The budget for law enforcement in Butte County was cut in half.

The reduction in law enforcement personnel, combined with cheap land and lots of places out in the country or up in the pines without nosy neighbors nearby, provided an environment ripe for the production and distribution of methamphetamine, the poor man’s cocaine. Manufacturing, trafficking and use of methamphetamines is now a serious national problem, and California is considered the hub of methamphetamine activity.

And Butte County, with an underfunded law enforcement presence and lots of open space, is a significant player in the methamphetamine trade. “What Bolivia is to the cocaine trade in the U.S.,” Ramsey says, “is what Butte County is to the meth trade in the Bay Area.”

It is arguably the biggest social problem the county faces, and a late-night cruise through one of Oroville’s Indian casinos would convince the casual observer that there is little to argue about. Meth abusers are just about the only people still up and about, and they are everywhere—at the slots and at the blackjack tables or simply broke and loitering, still joining at 2 a.m., all amped up with nowhere to go.

It looks like a casting call for The Jerry Springer Showpeople in dingy T-shirts that hang on haggard frames, smoking generic cigarettes, the fluorescent lighting making them look even more jaundiced and unhealthy. They’re over at the penny slot machines, and if they bother to sit on the stools, they are in constant motion, but mostly they stand, and they jiggle, switching from foot to foot, and making mojo with their hands on the glass faces of the machines they are playing. They are poverty cases, addicted people growing poorer in one of California’s poorest and most addicted counties.

In 2003 Butte had a per-capita personal income of $23,799, placing the county 44th among the 58 counties in the state. Per-capita personal income in the county was 71 percent of the state average of $33,415 and 76 percent of the national average of $31,472.

Methamphetamine use and production take root in poverty-ridden areas because meth is a poor person’s drug of choice. Relatively speaking, it’s cheap, and it can provide an illusory feeling of energy and well-being to people who have absolutely no reason to feel good about much of anything. According to the D.A., the current street price for a gram of meth is about $80, and a gram will give the user anywhere from 10 to 20 hits. Since each hit can keep a user high for up to 24 hours, that means the hopeless can buy temporary respite from despair for less than $8 a day.

SLEEPLESS IN OROVILLE<br>A child’s bedroom turned-meth lab.

Photo By Tom Angel

But that $8 isn’t the only cost, of course. Back in the ‘60s, the street wisdom had it that “speed kills,” and the D.A. says that wisdom still holds: “It doesn’t just kill you. It kills all around you. And finally it kills hope.”

Hope is nearly as hard to come by for the people who treat people who have the addiction. Don Primer works for the Butte County Behavioral Health Department as a certified drug and alcohol counselor. He’s been doing that job for six years, but when asked for a story of successful rehabilitation from meth addiction, he says he’ll have to think about it.

“Meth goes directly to the dopamine centers in the brain, the pleasure centers,” he says. “I’ve seen lots of kids 14 to 18 who said they were just going to try it once, but they often wind up joining the revolving-door cases I see so often. They wake up to the fact that they have a problem when they’re 17 or 18, just because the brain is becoming fully formed at that age, but they’ve already created changes in their brain chemistry, and they’re addicted.”

After an extended period of use, addicts develop a look known as “sucked up.” They lose weight, get skinny and are often covered with sores from the toxicity of the drug and from scratching themselves to relieve the accompanying itch. Some will binge for up to 20 days, going without sleep through that entire period before crashing, then sleeping for two or three days before beginning the cycle over again.

With the grim humor of people trying to maintain sanity while dealing with ugliness on a regular basis, Butte County law enforcement personnel refer to meth users as “methamphibians,” a phrase descriptive of a lizard-like subspecies, or as “Butteants,” a pun on the word “mutants.”

You know you’re a Butteant, they joke, if you hold your family reunions in the Butte County Jail exercise yard. You know you’re a Butteant if you name your first-born daughter after your favorite drug—Crystal. You know you’re a Butteant if your urine can cut steel.

It’s also likely that you’re a Butteant if you have bad teeth and a sickly pallor. One of the side effects of chronic methamphetamine abuse is a condition known as “meth mouth.” When smoked, the caustic chemicals in methamphetamine attack the teeth, the gums and the throat. Heavy users can be detected by the darkness of their dentition or by their bad breath. They suffer constant dry mouth, and they are often seen consuming those mega-soft drinks sold in convenience stores, a sugar spike that accessorizes their meth high.

They’re also likely to lose interest in dental hygiene, giving up the habit of brushing their teeth entirely. They also tend to grind their teeth obsessively, a direct effect of the high. A crank addict’s smile isn’t likely to brighten anyone’s day.

PRIME DIRECTIVE <br>Don Primer, counselor for Butte County Behavioral Health.

Courtesy Of Butte County District Attorney Office

Dentistry is just one indication of the growth of Butte County’s meth problem. Cases of “meth mouth” in the Butte County Jail are double the number seen in nearby Solano County. Why should drug offenders be treated to dental care while incarcerated? “These people are our sons, our daughters, our brothers,” says Ramsey. “There’s hardly anyone in Butte County who doesn’t have some line of connection to this problem. Eighty out of a 100 people probably know someone with this problem. That’s just how pervasive it is.”

None of the dental care provided to inmates is elective, in any case. Dental care is provided only for relief of pain, the repair of injured teeth or removal of irritations that may lead to malignancies, reports Capt. Jerry Jones, commander of the Butte County Jail.

The jail houses 500 to 555 inmates at any one time, and it is not possible to ascertain just how many of those inmates are in jail for crimes related to meth addiction, but the number is certainly significant. “I’d estimate that 80 percent of the county’s crime is traceable to substance abuse,” says Ramsey, “but that includes alcohol, of course.”

Meth breeds paranoia and irrationality, which in turn breeds violence. Robberies and burglaries are often side-effects of meth addiction. The methamphetamine trade is responsible for an alarming number of domestic-abuse crimes, ranging from child neglect to homicide. And, increasingly, meth users are turning to identity theft as a source of income.

As Mark Lundquist, team unit chief of a drug unit in Tacoma, Wash., recently told ABC News, “The thing that is somewhat unique to identity theft is that it requires an almost absurd amount of hours and focus, which meth users have in abundance. We’ve seen meth users putting together papers that have been through shredders.”

The paranoia that accompanies methamphetamine abuse has caused many users to assault and even kill family members. Adding to the domestic dangers are the deplorable living conditions in homes that have been turned into laboratories. Dangers of sexually transmitted diseases are also increased among meth users.

Amphetamine use has been associated with stronger sexual excitement, longer duration of intercourse and intensified orgasms. Male amphetamine injectors report more female sex partners than non-drug users and they are less inclined to use condoms, leading to a higher incidence of HIV infection among methamphetamine addicts.

Children suffer disproportionately from their parents’ meth addiction. Methamphetamine addiction is a major reason why foster care caseloads have increased 25 percent in Northern California since 1998. Admissions to treatment centers for methamphetamine addiction from 2001-02 to 2002-03 jumped in Butte County by 43 percent, and the data for Sutter and Yuba counties combined showed that admissions more than doubled in just that one year.

KID’S PLAY <br>Children caught in the squalor of a meth house.

Courtesy Of Butte County District Attorney Office

Butte County ranks third statewide in the number of children being detained from methamphetamine laboratories. The Butte County Interagency Narcotics Task Force (BINTF) reports that in 2003, there was a total of 96 drug-endangered-children investigations in which 223 children were rescued.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects associated with meth labs. They have immature organ systems, faster metabolic rates and weaker immune systems than adults. When they can get it, they eat more food per pound of body weight, and they drink more fluids and breathe more air per pound of body weight. They are less able to protect themselves, and their behaviors (crawling on grimy floors, eating dirt and putting their hands in their mouths) expose them to more hazards.

Drug enforcement agents don’t go into meth labs without wearing HazMat suits, but children live in those environments. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) data show that 30 percent of labs nationwide had children living in them at the time of seizure. Children are exposed to toxic chemicals. They are at risk of explosion, fire and chemical burns and are often neglected and abused by drug-using parents.

Filth is an integral part of the meth environment. Rooms become little more than mounds of dirty clothes, carpets are burned with acid, and kitchen countertops overflow with encrusted dishes and beakers of half-cooked meth. Toilets often sit full of feces, the plumbing long eroded by the flushing of chemical waste.

“You wouldn’t believe some of these places,” Mike Ramsey says. “The parents are either so lethargic or so hyper they can’t function. Children are left to fend for themselves.” But, when Child Protective Services sends deputies to remove the children from these dangerous environments, the parents put on elaborate displays of parental love and concern.

“I’ve seen them many times,” Ramsey says, “'Oh, no, no, no,’ they say, don’t take away my children; they’re my life.’ But these parents have imploded.”

The nationally recognized Butte County Drug-Endangered Children Program began in 1993, and a statistic produced in 2001 showed 105 at-risk children were taken out of what Ramsey refers to as “hell holes,” homes in the county where families had “just disintegrated due to meth use.” Parents were put in treatment programs and told they could get their kids back if they could test clean, but 18 months later only 15 of those 105 children were back with their parents.

“That’s just how monstrous this drug is,” says Ramsey. “If you don’t have a lot going in your life, taking meth is like becoming Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic—'I’m on top of the world,’ is their feeling, and they’re always chasing that desire to feel good.”

STICK IT TO THE RAT <br>This weapon, devised by kids in a meth house to kill rats, was uncovered in a recent bust.

Courtesy Of Butte County District Attorney Office

An anti-crime organization that calls itself Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California, led by more than 300 sheriffs, police chiefs, district attorneys and crime victims, cites research that shows what common sense would suggest: Kids who come from dangerous homes where they face continuing abuse and neglect are considerably more likely to become violent criminals when they reach adulthood. And so the cycle, once begun, continues.

In an attempt to break that cycle, Butte County is leading the nation in the effort to protect kids exposed to meth and other drugs. Over a four-year period, the number of drug-exposed children rescued in the county increased five-fold, from 45 children in 1999 to 223 in 2003, a statistic that speaks not only to child protection efforts, but also to the rise in methamphetamine use.

Cathi Grams, director of Butte County Employment and Social Services, has estimated that, county-wide, an average of 700 children are cared for in foster homes or similar arrangements on any given month, a number that has risen about 35 percent since 1998. More than a third of all children placed in foster or alternative-care facilities in Butte County are a result of meth-related incidents. Currently, the need for foster parents in Butte County is greater than the number of people available to serve that need.

If children suffer disproportionately due to the sins of their meth-addicted parents, so, too, does the environment. Pollution from methamphetamine production is not limited to the homes of cookers and users alone. Production of one pound of methamphetamine yields approximately five pounds of waste chemicals such as lye, red phosphorus, hydriodic acid and iodine that contaminate land, streams and rivers, public sewer systems and the walls and furnishings of homes and businesses.

Ramsey tells of people who have rented homes, apartments, or even motel rooms that had once been used as meth labs. “The chemicals infuse themselves into the floor, into the drywall, and the new tenants get sick. Headaches, nausea. It’s really powerful stuff.”

The cookers dump waste in back yards, along roadways and in local creeks. Cleanup costs have risen dramatically, draining the budgets of county, state, and federal governments as well as those of private owners. Authorities have found barrels, glassware, hoses, and other waste from methamphetamine laboratories in irrigation canals. The damage done to local agriculture is unknown but believed to be substantial.

Mexican nationals who come to work as “cookers” in Butte County meth labs have a life expectancy of four to five years, says Don Primer, and that death rate is directly traceable to the cancer-causing substances used to produce the drug, as well as other hazards that come with handling the chemicals needed to make the drug.

What began in the 1980s as larger “super labs” run by biker gangs soon devolved into what Ramsey calls “Beavis and Butthead” operations—smaller labs run by people who score the recipes off the Internet for making crystal meth. How easy is it to get recipes for making methamphetamine? Just Google “Recipes for making methamphetamine,” and you’ll get all the information needed, plus attitude aplenty.

WHERE’S THE MAID <br>House cleaning is a low priority in a meth house.

At the first drug maker’s Web site listed in a Google search, the browser is met with the following advice from a guy who calls himself Totse: “WARNING: You will be using dangerous chemicals while producing this shit. This is not a fucking game, this is not something you do for fun, you MUST know what you’re doing.” The advice continues, along with a list of the necessary ingredients and instructions on how to make the batch, and then Totse concludes with the following words: “I have used this formula and made 1/4 pound of some high quality shit. Wear a mask and gloves if you can. Do it someplace remote. Make sure there’s not moisture in or around the bucket or, as Totse says, KA- FUCKING-BOOM!”

These labs are especially dangerous because they are fairly ubiquitous. Meth busts have been made in every municipality and jurisdiction, every nook and cranny, throughout Butte County. Catching the “Beavis and Butthead” operators is made easier for local law enforcement because one in five busts occurs when the labs explode.

Those explosions, of course, increase the fire danger in places like Magalia or Forest Ranch where many smaller labs have been known to operate. A fire on those ridges, started by a meth lab in high fire season, would add incalculable costs to the already high costs of this subterranean trade in homemade drugs.

Now the D.A. says he’s seeing an upsurge of the “super labs” first seen in the county in the 1980s. A “super lab” is defined as an operation that can produce 10 pounds or more of the drug in each manufacturing cycle. There are fewer of the “biker” labs now, and currently, the majority of these labs are overseen by Mexican gangs coming up from Southern California or Mexico, and they are bringing with them new recipes for crystal meth that are producing purer and more powerful product.

Street gangs like La Nuestra Familia are exporting product from this area to markets in the San Joaquin Valley, the Bay Area and as far away as the East Coast. Since the dawn of the new century, Hispanic street gangs have become the fastest-growing type of gang in the country. Many Hispanic gangs have established a multiracial membership, and these gangs are reported to be active in every state in the nation.

For those who would celebrate diversity, the methamphetamine epidemic welcomes all races, colors and creeds, both as users, producers and distributors. Ya-ba is a Thai word meaning “crazy drug,” a name for a powerful and very pure form of meth that is turning up more and more frequently. Drug enforcement agents fear that this drug will become popular among young people at raves and clubs because it does not yet carry the negative image often associated with other forms of meth.

Socio-linguists often measure a society by assessing its use of language. By that measure, we are a society obsessed with drugs, as evidenced by the plethora of words used to discuss them. The Web site for the National Institute for Chemical Dependency provides a vocabulary list of street slang for drugs and drug activity that chalks up some 7,000 words in common usage among drug users.

Someone who is “ate up,” for instance, is someone who is always wasted, and someone who is “amped-out” is suffering from the fatigue of a long meth binge. “Ice,” “Super Ice,” “Batu,” and “Red Phosphorus” are all words for smokeable methamphetamine. If you are “amping,” you are experiencing an accelerated heart rate from the drug, and if you go to buy the stuff, you might request it by asking for crink, pixies, cartwheels, roses, brownies, co-pilot, rhythm, forwards, bumblebees, peaches, chicken powder, Windex, splivins or any of a couple dozen other names.

Good news is hard to find in stories about methamphetamine. Solutions for the problems associated with it—mental, physical, familial, environmental, social, legal and criminal—are not easy to come by. There may, however, be hope for those who seek recovery from the addiction. A recent study by researchers at UC Davis indicates that brain changes caused by long-term methamphetamine use may not be permanent.

Before the brain can repair itself, however, the user must be free of the drug for an extended period of time, and that is no easy task for an addict. Most of those who manage to beat the addiction do so through 12-step programs such as Narcotics Anonymous. Most of the people who find their way to NA do so through the criminal-justice system, ordered into treatment by judges as a part of their sentences.

Don Primer, the Butte County substance abuse counselor who had been asked for a success story, never did manage to come up with one. What keeps him going in the face of such odds? What keeps him from despairing over the difficulties people face who are trying to shed their meth habits?

“That’s a good question,” he says. “I see my job as planting seeds, really. Something I say may stick in their minds, and they may change their habits. I’m just leaving wake-up calls.” He sighs into the phone. “But there’s not a lot of acknowledgment, and there are so many revolving-door cases.”

Meanwhile, in a dark home not far away from your own, children are living in unspeakable circumstances. Those children are in deadly peril.

And so are their neighbors.