The meth menace

So you think meth doesn’t affect you? Think again.

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The Meth Community Response Alliance is hosting town-hall style meetings in various high schools this month to address meth and ways to fight it:

- Methamphetamines, Children and Youth, March 9, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Hug High School, 2880 Sutro Street. Guest speakers from Quest Counseling, Washoe County Department of Social Services, and Washoe County Department of Juvenile Services.

- Physical and Mental Effects of Methamphetamines, March 14, 6:30-8:30 p.m., Galena High School, 3600 Butch Cassidy Way. Guest speaker Dr. Carol Chervenak.

- Methamphetamines and the Environment, March 23, 6:30-8:30 p.m., North Valleys High School, 1470 East Golden Valley. Guest speaker Mark Snyder of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

It’s a hot August day in 2004, and some police officers approach a quiet, middle-class home in Sparks. The officers walk past the manicured lawn to do a routine “knock and talk.” The man who answers the door is dripping in sweat, yet the home is cool, with central air conditioning. The officers become suspicious.

They walk through the kitchen, past a box of Life cereal sitting on a white-tiled counter. They peer into the room of the man’s son, a 12-year-old boy who has carefully hung posters of Jurassic Park and his favorite bands on his walls. The boy’s bed is neatly made, with blankets tucked into its side corners.

They enter the man’s room. Blue and purple paint is streaked fantastically against the wall, creating the image of a woman. Pills are strewn in handfuls on the floor.

Upon entering the attic, they find a meth lab with nearly 100 containers of chemicals—some of them mysterious brews requiring identification by the Washoe County Health Department. There are coffee filters stained with red iodine, green-tinted Coleman fuel, digital scales for packaging, portable burners, dozens of matchbooks and empty blister packs of cold medicine. Chemicals are in flower vases, baby food jars, a Gatorade bottle. An oscillating fan has turned brown and yellow from iodine stains.

Who has to clean it all up? Not the meth maker; he’s just renting the place. The owners spend tens of thousands of dollars stripping the walls and carpets, sealing off the attic and making the home legally habitable. The meth maker does, however, go to jail. The young son is caught in the middle, just trying to be normal.

Maybe you don’t use meth or know anyone who does. But if you use public healthcare, have children in school, live in or own any type of residence, pay taxes or care about safety, kids and the environment, then meth affects you.

What does that do to our quality of life? A look at six indicators begins to show meth’s toll on the community at large, whether you use the stuff or not.

1) Public Safety
While the federal government calls marijuana our biggest national drug problem, local law enforcement officers say meth holds that distinction for them. Sgt. Brent Teasley of Reno’s Regional Street Enforcement Team says, “It is our biggest problem and probably has been for 10 years.”

Drug Enforcement Agency investigators in Reno spent 65 percent of their time on meth cases in 2005, and 70 percent of their drug investigations involved meth. The DEA seized 81 kilograms of meth (mostly from traffickers) in Nevada last year, an increase of 80 percent over 2002.

More than half of the drug-related federal sentences in Nevada in 2002 involved meth.

“The increase in methamphetamine abuse has caused a problem for everybody,” says Teasley of RSET. “It’s just a trickle-down effect. There are more victims of crime, we take more crime reports, more property is stolen and pawned for meth users to support their drug habit.”

There were 928 meth-related arrests in the Truckee Meadows in 2005. That’s a 36-percent increase over 2004. Local police didn’t know whether the spike was due to more users or to expanded enforcement. But Deputy Darrin Rice of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office says, “There is an increase of users, sellers and manufacturers.”

2) Health
Meth can kill the teeth, resulting in a rotting mess dentists call “meth mouth.” It can cause stroke, heart attack, brain damage, skin abscesses, depression, paranoia, psychosis and insomnia. It creates dead spots in the brain. Burns from meth lab explosions, malnutrition, and overdosing can also send users to the emergency room.

Paul Donald, a hazardous materials specialist with the Washoe County Health Department, demonstrates how the Smiths Detection System uses an infrared spectrometer to identify meth lab chemials.

Photo By David Robert

St. Mary’s Medical Center Nurse and ER unit supervisor Caren Jaggers sees meth cases daily. She says most users don’t have insurance, so they use the ER for their primary care, and the hospital passes increased overhead to patients. In 2005, 56 percent of hospitals surveyed by the National Association of Counties had to increase costs because of meth.

Jaggers says younger people are seeking medical help for old people’s problems. Local dental assistant Joy Souza has seen a 15-year-old girl need dentures from smoking meth. “It’s like an acid bath,” says Souza. “There’s an acute, necrotic, almost metallic smell because it’s rotting the flesh. … If the teeth look like that, imagine the liver or brains.”

Equally disturbing is an increasing number of pregnant users. It was the primary drug for 66 percent of pregnant women in drug treatment centers funded by Nevada’s Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Abuse(BADA). Meth can cause deformities, extreme irritability and abnormal reflexes in the baby. Children born to meth-using mothers often turn up in special education classes.

Meth was also the drug of choice for 30 percent of all adults and 26 percent of teens admitted to BADA-funded centers in Nevada last year.

3) Environment
The chemicals involved in making meth are cheap and can be found over-the-counter at grocery or hardware stores and even online.

For every pound of meth produced, these chemicals generate 5-6 pounds of hazardous waste. Lab operators may dump them into water sources, backyards and the desert. If allowed to get into the soil or groundwater, the waste can stay there for years. Cleanup can cost thousands of dollars and can range from a wipedown to gutting a house.

These containers of chemicals were confiscated at a meth lab in the Reno-Sparks area. For every pound of meth made, 5-6 pounds of hazardous waste is generated.

Photo By David Robert

Police call in the Washoe County Health Department when they find a lab. They suit up in white protective clothing and often have to identify chemicals and determine safety levels.

“We’ve had [meth labs] in everything from hotels on Fourth Street to just about every major casino in the area and from mobile homes to houses in high-rent districts,” says Paul Donald, a hazardous materials specialist with the Health Department.

Donald says pouring meth chemicals down the drain can pose problems in areas with septic systems. The chemicals can shut down microbial activity. He recalls one lab in which someone dumped chemicals down the toilet. A break in the plumbing caused chemicals to spill on the ground near a stream. The owner was ordered to hire an environmental company to do the cleanup, which required expensive soil excavation.

4) Housing
A house may have been inundated with meth-lab chemicals, but new tenants or owners wouldn’t necessarily know it.

“The way Nevada reporting laws are, if a house has been, quote, ‘cleaned up,’ the owners are not required to make notice on the sale,” says Donald.

But how clean is clean? The owner can strip the carpet and walls and seal off areas where meth was cooked, but Donald says more research is needed about meth’s residual effects and low-level contamination. For example, what amount of toxic vapors reached the room next door? How much stays in the air and for how long? “The chemicals left behind can be more dangerous than the meth,” says Donald.

Possible signs include orange-yellow and brownish stains on sinks, stoves, walls and other hard surfaces; ventilation systems added in attics or basements; yellow stains on a screen where acid gas may have been vented; white residue on the floor, cabinets or cupboards; and cold tablet packaging, large amounts of matchbook covers or plastic containers fitted with tubing around the property.

If you suspect your new home, apartment or hotel room may be a former meth lab, you can call the Health Department, DEA or a law enforcement agency for any possible files regarding clean ups there.

5) Children
When meth labs are found in a home, children are often found there, too. Take, for instance, the father of three who stored his meth chemicals beneath his children’s bunkbed in their Linden Street apartment. Meth was cooked on the same kitchen stove used to make mac ‘n’ cheese.

Nationally, 66 percent of children present at seized meth lab sites in 2003 tested positive for chemicals, according to the National Clandestine Laboratory Seizure System.

“There’s a range of impact to children depending on the strength of addiction of the parents,” says Valerie Santos, social services supervisor for the Washoe County Family Drug Court. Those impacts can include neglect, malnourishment and a greater likelihood of physical, sexual and mental abuse. Children with meth-addicted parents often suffer attachment and behavioral problems. Kids take in more toxins per body weight than adults, so they’re especially susceptible to respiratory damage from chemical exposure. Chemical burns and skin lesions are also common, and children have overdosed on meth left out by parents.

Forty percent of child welfare officials responding to a 2005 NACO survey said out-of-home placements for children due to meth had increased in the past year.

Jeanne Marsh, children services division director at Washoe County Social Services, says their numbers for out-of-home care due to meth are consistent with recent years. But she says meth makes it take longer to get children back together with arrested parents.

“Our number-one goal is to reunify that child with their family when we can safely do that,” says Marsh. That’s more difficult with meth users compared to other drug users because of meth’s intensely addictive nature.

6) Schools and teens
Nevada ranked number one for meth use out of 32 states surveying high school students in a 2003 Youth Risk Behavior Study. Of Nevada students, 12.5 percent had tried it at least once in their lifetime. This was 5 percent more than the national average.

State trends held in Washoe County, where 12.4 percent of high school students in 2003 had tried meth. That number fell to 10.5 percent in the 2005 survey. The difference seemed made up by more students trying cocaine. As Teasley notes, “Locally we’re seeing an increase in cocaine use by high schoolers because a lot of kids think meth is a ‘trashy’ drug.”

In 2003, more Washoe County high school girls had tried meth than high school boys, even though those numbers were roughly equal in middle school. This is partly explained by girls attracted to meth’s weight-loss side effects.

Less explicable is why so many American Indians begin using meth between their middle and high school years. Nationwide and here, most meth users are white. But in 2003, 37.8 percent of American Indians in Washoe County high schools reported having used meth, making them the highest user group of teenagers here. Yet only 5.7 percent of them had tried it in middle school.

Overall, use among middle and high school students is slightly down. The most popular drugs among high school students remain the old standbys of alcohol (78.5 percent reported having used it at least once), tobacco (57.6 percent) and pot (48 percent).

“We understand there are still kids drinking and using tobacco and marijuana—it’s not like everything is going away, and meth is the only thing left,” says Kevin Quint, executive director of Join Together Northern Nevada. “But law enforcement, schools, they’re all telling us they’re seeing a real upswing [in meth]. We want to hit this problem before it gets way worse.”