By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"Better Than Hawaii"
It's 3:43 in the morning and Cyndi and Shana are coloring.
They're dressed for comfort in sweat pants and tee shirts; long hair pulled into ponytails. Markers and crayons are scattered about them on the living-room carpet, and it's easy to imagine them as little girls, playing. Except little girls don't often grind their teeth when they color. They don't sweat, and their eyes don't twitch.
Cyndi and Shana aren't little girls.
The East Valley housemates, both 20, have been high on crystal methamphetamine--and wide awake--for 106 hours and counting. All they've eaten is baby food and high-protein diet drinks.
Both took the week off--Cyndi's an office assistant, Shana a retail clerk and waitress. They planned this speed binge for months. It's their idea of vacation.
"This is better than Hawaii," Cyndi says. "It's better than water skiing, or Space Mountain. It's better than anyplace I've gone."
Her speech is soft, slow and solemn. She never looks up from the color-by-numbers poster--an intricate fantasy scene of a warrior battling a dragon. Shana makes a tiny mistake, and Cyndi blots it out with Liquid Paper.
The friends have been working on the picture for three hours. Eighteen others, all impeccably done, hang in precise rows on the living-room walls.
All the window blinds are closed. Cyndi explains that's so the shadow people can't see inside. The shadow people usually go away at night, Shana adds, but why take chances?
A stereo plays a techno CD at low volume. A singer's voice pierces the electronic beat. "Everybody thinks I'm high, and I am," the singer whisper-screams. "I don't think I can come down. I really don't."
The poster is done.
Cyndi and Shana tack it up next to a car-race scene and disappear into a bedroom, where the last of their meth--six lines of coarse, off-white powder--awaits on the glass top of a dresser.
Cyndi returns several minutes later. Shana won't be coming out for a while, she says. Shana's dry-heaving over the toilet.
"I pretty much wish I never tried crystal," Cyndi says suddenly. "It's bad for me, I think."
She's reminded that minutes ago, she said the drug was better than Hawaii.
"Yeah," Cyndi says. "That's pretty much the problem."
A Quiet Epidemic
Crystal methamphetamine is a drug straight from science fiction of the apocalypse. It's a cheap mega-stimulant, often made with drain cleaner, that jacks you up for days, not hours, and is addictive as hell.
Authorities say Arizona is one of the nation's meth capitals. It's been the hard drug of choice in the Valley for about three years, during which time untold thousands have quietly descended into its netherworld.
Many have gotten hooked on the stuff, and their lives have suffered accordingly. Others continue to use it in relative moderation, considering it a terrific party drug and a tool to allow them to work harder, longer and faster at their jobs.
A few have committed horrific crimes while under its influence.
A truth about meth is that the high is fantastic.
Twenty dollars' worth of meth makes 20 dollars of cocaine feel like a double latte. Meth makes the timid bold, the lazy motivated, the weak strong, the tired alert, the fat thin, the sad happy, and the mundane profound. Meth markets itself. It has something to offer anyone.
But it's a devil's bargain: What meth gives, it takes away--eventually. Sometimes more. Sometimes everything.
"Crystal steals time," says a 19-year-old Mesa woman who lost four years. "You're not really alive when you're on it. What it does to you, inside you, you just age faster. The only thing I learned from crystal is not to do crystal."
Methamphetamine is a cruel teacher in that respect. It can take its sweet time with you. Some tweakers take a year or more before meth sets the hook. Others go down fast.
Most tweakers don't behead their children or gun down co-workers. They just wither in miserable anonymity. Some land in jail. Some go crazy. Many keep on tweaking, long after the fun is gone.
They may join the Valley's night tribe of grotesque speed freaks, or they may manage to maintain a façade. The nature of meth is such that savvy users can fool the uninitiated.
Either way, those who work the front lines--cops, prosecutors, doctors, counselors, judges--agree that the use and production of meth in Arizona is at crisis levels, and it hasn't peaked.
"We're just starting to get a feel for the impact this drug has on families and society," says Otis Thrasher, a recently retired Arizona Department of Public Safety officer. "I worked drugs for 27 years, and nothing is worse than meth."
New Times interviewed more than 40 people, traveled the state and read thousands of pages of public records in preparing this special report. Among the findings:
* Methamphetamine overtook cocaine in 1995 as the No. 1 drug of addiction reported by Valley treatment centers. Those numbers continue to increase.
* More meth "labs" are popping up in the Phoenix area. Local police have busted 27 labs since October 1, one every three days.
* Meth is as commonplace in rural Arizona as it is in the cities.
* Mexican drug lords have taken over the bulk of the meth business in Arizona, and are funneling unprecedented amounts of the drug into this state.