20 August 2005
SAN FRANCISCO - Their scarred and pockmarked faces tell their stories - young lives of promise wrecked by the scourge of America’s fastest-spreading drug.
The drug is methamphetamine, otherwise known as speed, crystal, crank and by numerous other street names. In a few short years, it has gone from the vice of a few to the drug of choice for millions of Americans.
More than 12 million Americans have tried methamphetamine and 1.5 million are regular users, the US Drug Enforcement Agency says.
They snort, smoke injected the crystalline white powder, which releases a burst of dopamine in the brain. This triggers a euphoric rush of confidence, hyperalertness and sexiness that lasts for hours.
“It makes you feel like you can do anything - and initially you are quicker, smarter and more focused,” says Guy P., a former tilesetter, who is struggling to break his addiction. “But when that first rush wears off you’ll do anything to get it back. Of course you never can.”
The basic ingredient of the drug is as close as the local pharmacy. Pseudoephedrine is a chemical derivative of amphetamine, which is found in many cold and cough medicines. It is brewed with alcohol, lithium and ammonia in thousands of mostly primitive labs that dot the country. Labs have been uncovered in all 50 states; Missouri tops the list, with more than 8,000 labs, equipment caches and toxic dumps seized between 2002 and 2004.
This helps to explain why police nationwide rank the methamphetamine the No. 1 drug they battle today, popular among all socio-economic ranks - from suburban housewives who need a boost to get their chores done to gay men who use it as a stimulant at all- night sex parties.
Policy makers are only now starting to battle the danger. For decades after it was first popularised by motorcycle gangs in the 1960’s, methamphetamine was regarded as “poor-man’s cocaine” popular only in poverty-stricken rural communities.
On Thursday, President George W. Bush’s administration acknowledged that a new initiative was needed. Officials said they were starting a comprehensive approach to battle methamphetamine by devoting more of the country’s 12.4 billion dollar drug control programme to meth and starting the construction of a chain of new substance abuse treatment centres.
“Faces of Meth”
A string of high profile articles in the news media had focused government attention recently. The single most telling effort came from sheriff’s deputy Bret King in Portland, Oregon.
He was struck at how noticeably worse meth users looked every time they were arrested - the pretty mother turned into an old hag within 30 months, her teeth fallen out, her skin already grey with death. The bright-eyed teenager turned sallow and bitter with defeat.
“There were a few cases where the changes that had taken place due to the methamphetamine use were so extreme, that we didn’t realize the person was who they were,” says King.
King launched a programme called “Faces of Meth” to chronicle the ravaged faces of meth users. He took it to schools and it became a media sensation featured in major newspapers and TV shows.
Publication of the photos in The Oregonian newspaper prompted the state to pass legislation in mid-August limiting the cold medicines to prescription sale.
One of the most harrowing images was of Teresa Baxter, 42, a woman now in a drug recovery programme. When she started using the drug two and a half years ago, she was an attractive mother with a sunny smile and neat hair-do. Now her face is so gaunt and wrinkled she can’t even bear to look in the mirror.
“This stuff is powerful, makes people do crazy things,” Baxter said. “I do hate the drug and I wish I had never used it, but I can’t be away from it. It’s hard. It’s really hard for me.”
“My life and my work pretty much fell apart,” said another Faces of Meth graduate, Matthew Cooper. “They all took a back seat to the meth. It may be a matter of months. It may be a matter of years. But it’ll destroy your life.”
Photo courtesy: ecstasyaddiction.com