Youve seen the pictures: cratered teeth rotting off at the gum line; the teen girl whose meth cook burst into flames and melted her face; middle-age tweakers who look skinny and old with a bad case of acne.
But is methamphetamine really rampant here in Northern Michigan?
The short answer is no. It is not rampant, but it is growing and the toll is already quite gruesome (see related article).
To no ones surprise, marijuana is Northern Michigans most popular drug followed by powder cocaine, said Det. Lt. Kip Belcher, who oversees the regional effort for the Traverse Narcotics Team.
In fact, meth users are extremely rare at the Dakoske Phoenix Addiction Treatment Services, said Becky Lelito, Director
Only one meth addict has sought out treatment, while users of oxycotin basically synthetic heroin and methadone, a serious narcotic, are showing up in a startling increase of numbers, she said.
Meth first took a foothold in California before moving eastward. It hit Michigan in the late 1990s in 1999, police found 19 labs in the state. The vast majority of meth is still sold in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. Here in Grand Traverse County, the prosecutors office is handling on average a meth-related case every one to two weeks.
Belcher said that meth spreads like a bad virus once the drug has taken hold unless its aggressively addressed.
The Traverse Narcotics Team has put intense resources into undercover operations, as well as working with retailers in Northern Michigan. In fact, the team has effectively shut meth sales down in Osceola County since they began work there in January of this year, said the countys Undersheriff David Fowler.
We had up to 12 meth labs last year it was pretty bad. Now prisoners are telling me its hard to buy meth in Osceola County because TNT stings are so effective, he said.
Meth is just so cheap and accessible to make. Just $100 can buy everything you need to outfit a lab, which isnt what you might picture. It contains such ordinary items as an electric skillet, cold tablets and plastic pop bottles. A portable meth lab, for example, can fit into a cooler or a backpack, Belcher said.
Its a drug people can make themselves and sell with high profit margins. It is gaining popularity, said James Pappas, chief assistant Grand Traverse County prosecuting attorney.
BEWARE METH HEADS
TNT is far more focused on stamping out meth, than say marijuana, because its such a nasty drug, not only for people taking it, but also the toll it takes on innocent bystanders.
You could hit and explode the back of a car carrying a mobile meth lab in a cooler. Or you might inadvertently anger a meth head, who tends to walk around with intense paranoia, a short fuse and super-human strength. People who take meth are still able to work and go to school, said Grand Traverse County Sheriff Scott Fewins.
And its your tax money that is used to pay for the clean up of the environmental mess. For each pound of meth, about five pounds of toxic waste are left behind. Throughout the area, kids and adults have stumbled upon deadly chemicals dumped along streams and in the woods. If these chemicals were dumped into the river, they could potentially kill a lot, Fewins said.
Fewins said meth is pricey for law enforcement. Police require moon suits to enter meth labs so the fumes dont kill them and special training to handle a meth addicts unbelievable strength and fearlessness. Tweakers are known to break their arms in a struggle and not even know it, he said.
They do not feel pain, especially a baton strike, Fewins said. I have seen a shoot-out in California; there were two bank robbers who came out, and they were all methed up. You could not believe it. They kept shooting and shooting and shooting. They had rifles. (law enforcement) kept shooting and shooting them, they could not bring them down. It was almost like something out of the movies.
Of course, people closest to the addict pay the most tragic, enduring price. Meth users are edgy, quick to anger, and can turn violent. Some even believe theyre possessed by demons.
A guy was traveling with his son in the Southwest. His son thought his dad was the devil incarnate and cut off his head with a pocket knife. Its terrible, it really is, Belcher said.
MEADOWS & MOTELS
There was once a time when people could comfortably believe that meth labs mostly operated in the country to conceal the telltale odors. But the fact is that meth labs have been found in all kinds of places a house near the Grawn post office, a rented room at a Super 8 Motel in Petoskey, even the inside of a young mans backpack at the Horizon Outlet mall. One of the areas earliest meth lab was in a subdivision within throwing distance of an elementary school in Cadillac.
Making meth is very profitable and recipes are easy to find. A Google search on how to make meth delivered 5,050,000 hits in .11 seconds. All the ingredients can be purchased from a drugstore, a hardware store, and a pool supply store, although retailers working in conjunction with law enforcement are increasingly on the alert for people buying odd ingredients, such as bottles of red iodine or boxes of cold tablets.
Almost all the people who make meth, take meth, said Belcher, but he said that there is a cultural qualifier on that. African Americans who sell meth hardly ever take it because they fear addiction.
Despite the ease and low cost of getting into this business, mistakes are quite deadly and most meth makers know it. They apprentice with a practiced manufacturer before venturing out on their own. Those who make meth are unusually resourceful in obtaining their ingredients and their understanding of chemical reactions is impressive, Belcher said.
If they used this creativity legally, theyd make one amazingly productive citizen, he said.
There are several ways to make meth, but the method involving red phosphorous is perhaps the most dangerous.
If you make a mistake, it will produce phosgene gas that instantly incinerates your lungs and kills you dead, Belcher said.
Some ingredients, in fact, are so touchy they have exploded or burst into flames just from getting carried across a room, which happened in a Cadillac lab (see related article).
Exposure to chemicals used to make meth can lead to liver disease, lung scarring, skin boils, profound anemia, and a weakened immune system.
Meth addicts pay a terrible price physically for their addiction (Belcher believes meth trumps even crack cocaine in the severity of addiction).
Meth which can be smoked, injected, or snorted can lead to high blood pressure, sleeplessness, anxiety, violent behavior, paranoia, a rapid heart rate, convulsions and heart attacks. Even low levels of meth can permanently damage the brain, killing as many as half the brain cells that make dopamine.
Why would you ever put something in your mouth made from ingredients that usually bear skull & bones on the label acetone, anhydrous ammonia, red iodine, and Red Devils Lye?
Why would you risk your life and good looks trying to make it?
The website escapemeth.com seemed to get it in a nutshell: Meth makes you hate the people you love, and love the life you hate.
When youre on meth, youre no longer watching the commercial with the sexy blonde. You are the sexy blonde.
The stereotypical user is the strung-out man or woman who has nothing left to lose, cooking up the poor mans cocaine in a trailer home. But it has also slipped into the homes of middle-class types, who like how the drug makes them feel smarter, stronger, and more alert. They have tremendous energy and can operate on very little sleep.
In fact, stay-at-home moms were frequent clients at a substance abuse treatment facility near Toledo, said Traverse City resident Amelia Siders, Ph.D., who served there as clinical director.
Primarily, it was a way for these moms to get all their work done. They had two or three kids at home, not old enough to go to school. They were tired all the time, and really had trouble getting laundry done, housework, errands, meals. They started using meth after talking to their friends it was something to keep them up longer and able to go on. Eventually the addiction got out of control.
In some urban areas, people take meth for sex parties. With meth, your senses are hyper-aroused and sex can go on for hours even days at a time. In fact, health experts are warning that people using meth for sex romps are spreading AIDS.
If there is a bright side to this story, its this. Meth has already wreaked so much damage in other regions that law enforcement here has its hackles up. Along with conducting stings, they are coaching retailers who sell items that meth makers need. Meanwhile, the media have amply educated people of its fatal side effects. Time will tell.