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.
* The meth being sold in Arizona is stronger--and more poisonous--than ever.
* Meth is not just a "white-trash biker" drug anymore. Professionals use it, housewives use it and lots of white, suburban teens use it.
Arizona is trying to cope with the crisis in unprecedented ways--including the nation's first "meth czar" and first multiagency unit devoted solely to busting meth labs. Yet, as is the case with most drug epidemics, authorities remain behind the curve. Despite meth's explosion, little solid empirical evidence of the drug's proliferation is available.
"A key issue in this war is that we started out with a garbled set of statistics about where we are and where we're going," says Alex Mahon, the director of the Governor's Methamphetamine Control Strategy--also known as the czar.
"Some of the stats we're working with right now are old and misleading. I think methamphetamine caught us unaware. All we can say for sure is that we know we have an exploding problem out there."
I'm having trouble trying to sleep
I'm counting sheep but running out
As time ticks by
And still I try
My eyes feel like they're going to bleed
Dried up and bulging from my skull
My mouth is dry
My face is numb
Fucked up and spun out in my room
On my own, here we go . . .
--Green Day, "Brain Stew," 1995
Black Widow Drug
In its pure form, methamphetamine is a crystalline, sparkling white powder. But most street meth isn't pure. Far from it. Clandestine meth labs aren't known for their stringent quality control. As a result, street meth comes in assorted colors, each because of a different type and level of toxic contamination.
Most Valley street meth is off-white or pale yellow. Light pink and brown also are common. Exotic strains include violet, black, maroon and bright green. Some polluted strains are assigned slang names--Lemon Drop, Candy Apple, Rocky Mountain Red--by users who don't know or care that color means poison.
Ten milligrams of meth--1U100th of a gram--is enough to get a first-time user high. A typical line, or recreational dose of meth, is usually 30 to 50 milligrams. Tolerance builds quickly: Meth addicts often ingest one, or even two grams a day.
The street price of meth in the Valley is $20 to $25 for a quarter-gram, and $100 to $125 for a "teener," or about 1.75 grams.
Like cocaine, there are four ways to get high on meth: snort it, swallow it, smoke it or inject it. Also like coke, meth comes in two forms: powder and rock.
What's the difference? Not much.
Technically, the term "crystal meth" refers only to rock meth. As use of the drug has exploded, that street-level distinction has been lost. "Crystal" now means anything from a fat, white rock to a pinch of colored powder.
Meth users prefer to buy rock, because dealers usually "cut" meth powder with look-alike substances like caffeine or B-12 vitamin crystals to increase profit.
Also, meth rocks aren't only for smoking. Users may easily crush a small "pebble" into powder or shave a line off a larger rock using a razor blade, credit card or even the side of a matchbook.
Unlike cocaine, which quickly numbs the nasal passage, snorting meth burns. No wonder, considering two common ingredients in street meth are Red Devil lye and drain cleaner.
The dirtier the meth, the worse your pain. Your face turns red. Your eyes tear. If you're lucky, the speed will kick in before acrid chemicals ooze down your throat. You'll still taste them if you're high, but you probably won't care as much.
Once in the body, meth artificially triggers a massive release of two chemicals in the central and peripheral nervous systems:
* Dopamine, associated with pain suppression, appetite control and the brain's self-reward center.
* Norepinephrine, which activates a body's fight-or-flight response in emergencies.
Basically, meth's a trickster. It fools your body and mind into behaving like you're in danger, that you've just eaten a full meal, and that you should feel satisfied with life.
Methamphetamine takes effect about five minutes after snorted, or less than half-hour after eaten. The effects from smoking or injecting meth are instantaneous.
However you cut it, the drug's short-term results include a sudden boost in energy, alertness and self-esteem, along with a feeling of euphoria and increased sexuality. Your pupils dilate and your heart rate increases, along with blood pressure, body temperature and lung capacity. Time flies. Overall athletic performance may improve notably.
But methamphetamine is a black widow drug. The honeymoon is wonderful.
What follows is nasty.
Three to four hours after their first dose, users will experience a gradual decline in mood and energy, followed by a nose dive. How hard you crash depends on how high you were flying.
If the meth you took was dirty--quite likely in Arizona these days--you've been poisoned, and once the speed starts to wear off, you'll know it.
All negative symptoms can be reversed with another dose. But the more meth you take, the worse you'll feel once you finally do stop.
Veteran tweakers consider two- and three-day runs to be bush league. Five days are common. Nine days seems to be the outer limit for most, but some meth users say they never catch more than snatches of sleep.
Meth isn't a psychedelic, but sleep deprivation causes delusions that rival anything that LSD may induce. Experts say sleep deprivation often works with methamphetamine to produce profoundly disturbing hallucinations--including the oft-mentioned "shadow people," a typical meth-induced delusion.
"You don't see shadow dogs or shadow birds or shadow cars," a Tempe bartender says. "You see shadow people. Standing in doorways, walking behind you, coming at you on the sidewalk. It's freaky, scary shit, man, because it doesn't feel like you're hallucinating."
Explains psychiatrist Jack Potts: "You can hallucinate because of sleep deprivation alone, but the hallucinatory phenomenon that comes with methamphetamine has a conspiratorial component."
And it's most often unpleasant, Potts adds.
"I stayed up so long one time that I saw eight giant chickens jump out in the road," he notes. "I braked for them, and no drugs were involved. If I'd been on meth, those eight chickens would not only have been there, they would have been out to get me."
Many tweakers lock into what mental-health types term "stereotypic behavior."
Obsessive cleaning is big.
So is organizing, rearranging and dismantling things.
Putting them back together again often is another story.
Tweakers say that you can tell a meth-head's house because the kitchen is spotless, while the yard is littered with half-finished projects.
A Tempe guitarist in his 20s says he did meth for the first, and only, time last summer.
While he was high, he recalls sheepishly, he dismantled his stove. Then he took apart his dishwasher. Then the toaster oven. Then he labeled 26 moving boxes with a letter of the alphabet--jeans in the "J" box, spoons in the "S" box, and so on--intent on boxing up everything he owned.
His wife came up in the middle of that project, the man recalls, and threw a fit. He managed to get the dishwasher back together. The stove, however, was a total loss.
Another popular meth pastime is wild, marathon sex.
But the drug's aphrodisiac effect has a dark side. Health officials in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego attribute an increase in HIV-infection rates to methamphetaine use--especially in the gay club scene, where it's called "Tina."
Don Walsh, director of the Phoenix-based agency HIV Care Directions, says there's a direct correlation between meth and HIV infection in the Valley.
"Part one is people on meth tend to be loose about safe sex," Walsh says. "Part two is people who are infected with HIV and are getting sick . . . do meth because it makes them feel good again physically and takes away the depression . . . but it also makes them get sick faster. Meth seems to fuel the virus.
"I lost five clients in September, and every one of them was a crystal-meth user. One of them was so sick he couldn't get out bed, and he still asked his home-health aide to drive him to his dealer."
Tweakers sleep like the dead when the time finally comes, often for a day or more, as their bodies recover.
Meth users occasionally suffer heart attacks, strokes and other maladies while binging. But compared to heroin and cocaine, methamphetamine poses little danger of overdose. Valley hospitals report meth-related emergency-room admissions are almost all psychiatric.
Medical journals indicate meth is more likely than crack cocaine to cause brain damage. If you have a substantial fissure in your psyche, chronic meth use is likely to crack it open and let out the demons.
Heavy users may lose their teeth to poor nutrition and incessant grinding. Users are pale, because meth raises blood pressure and constricts blood vessels at the skin's surface. They sweat profusely because their body temperature runs hot, and they neglect to bathe, so body odor becomes an issue. They may have scabs or sores from picking at themselves. Their kidneys may falter. Because they don't eat much, and meth sends the body's metabolism into overdrive, they're usually rail-thin.
Tweakers have a name for this condition--"meth rot."
Not all tweakers, however, let the rot take hold.
The Valley's meth-using population includes many functional addicts, able to maintain jobs and relationships, even a healthy appearance. Exercising on meth isn't a problem. Although the appetite is nil, many longtime users train themselves to eat while high, and to remind themselves to complete basic hygiene tasks. If the user learns not to fidget and ramble in public--no small task--the unknowing will often have no clue.
One giveaway are the eyes. Tweakers can't control their pupil dilation and how their eyes rapidly track even slight movements.
Says a Tempe man who has dabbled in the drug: "The peepers always give them away."
Dan doesn't tweak anymore. For one thing, his employer at a Valley manufacturing firm--where he's an engineer--does random drug testing these days. And, after snorting meth a half-dozen times, he knew he couldn't keep using and hope to stay in one piece.
"I'm a big fan of the fun, but there's a downside," says the 27-year-old Tempe man. "You take a pummeling."
Dan spins an entertaining but cautionary tale of a weekend meth dabbler. He says he first used the drug in mid-1994, between engineering jobs.
It started when a friend told him he knew two girls who wanted to score meth. Dan was game. The four drove from Tempe to a mobile-home park in Apache Junction, where they bought $50 worth of meth--enough to last a weekend--and snorted on the spot.
After the requisite burning, crying and gagging, Dan says, "My breathing seemed suddenly very clear and strong. I decided that felt pretty good, so I did another line. Then I felt my whole body sort of lurch forward, and I broke out in a sweat, and I just started talking shit."
Dan and company went party-hopping for hours.
"At this point, I still felt like Superman. We killed a half-ounce of pot and we were slamming beers, and I didn't feel anything but the speed. I said to myself, 'Why didn't I ever do this before?' and I started wondering what I could actually accomplish."
He lost track of time. "It was night, then it was day."
By Saturday afternoon, Dan "started feeling a little rubbery. I noticed my pee was orange. My pupils were extremely dilated, and my vision was weird."
It didn't stop Dan from doing more meth early that Sunday morning. He spent much of the day watching sports on television, wired.
On Monday morning, one of the young women went to work.
"She worked at Motorola, assembling modems. She didn't even blink an eye. It was like seven in the morning. She did a line and said, 'Gotta go.'"
Dan says he did his last line of his inaugural binge that Monday morning. "By now, I'm really tired. My vision is distorted. My skin is very dry. I kept grinding my teeth, and realized I'd probably been grinding them all along."
His friend took him home that afternoon.
"I stayed up all night. I just chilled out with my dog. I took a shower, and it was awesome. And then I finally went to sleep about four [Tuesday] morning."
Dan says he slept for 14 hours, then slept some more. He estimates he repeated his meth binging about six more times before quitting.
"I got some bad-quality stuff. It was fun for three or four hours, then you'd start feeling crappy. Your gumlines itch. [I said], 'I'm never going to do it again because it makes my body feel too bad.'"
And, he says, he hasn't.
Note From the Underground
Of all the separate realities, legal landscapes and metabolic metropolis that thrive beneath the surface of the Cleaver's USA, no subculture seems as pervasive or uniform as the nation's wide-eyed, high-dosage methamphetamine club. . . . This group is a tribute to the idea that some things stay the same across time and space. The members come and go, some leave quietly, to go snitch, croak or disappear, some hang in there after their lights have gone out, and quite a few are dragged off at 6 a.m. Friday morning by blue Windbreakers with yellow writing.
--Speed Phreak magazine, 1995
My first use of chemicals was 21 years of age. The drug was cocaine. I used it on weekends for five or six years. . . . Since moving to Phoenix--the methamphetamine capital of the world--I have used meth.
--a 35-year-old electrician's "autobiography," completed earlier this month for county drug court
The Maricopa County Attorney's Office has filed felony methamphetamine charges against about 2,500 people this year, a record.
On one mid-November afternoon, the docket for the county's "drug court" lists 74 defendants. They cram into Superior Court Commissioner Carey Hyatt's courtroom, filling the gallery, jury box and available floor space. Some wait in the lobby.
The court was established to give certain drug offenders a chance to erase their felonies, provided stern conditions are met. Those who've sold drugs or been violent don't qualify for drug court; they're lumped in with the rest of the felons.
The drug court offenders enter into "contracts" with the court, vowing to complete drug testing, community service, counseling and other requirements. Those who complete the program are awarded "diplomas" in front of their peers and, more crucial, have their felonies erased.
Commissioner Hyatt and her drug court counterpart, Judge Susan Bolton, heap praise on those who do well and chide those who fall short. Sometimes, the jurists do more than chide.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I don't want to go there," begs an emaciated methamphetamine user from Glendale after the commissioner orders her to jail for the weekend. A sheriff's detention officer slaps handcuffs on the woman, who broke her contract by missing drug tests.
New Times perused the files of the 74 defendants scheduled to appear. Of that number, 27 have pleaded guilty to meth-related offenses. That's about 36 percent, a ratio drug court officials estimate is the norm since 1996. All but a handful of the meth users are white, and most are employed.
Among those on today's docket:
* A 21-year-old Camp Verde resident busted after police stopped her vehicle because of a broken taillight. The unemployed woman turned over a plastic bag containing meth. "Do it every day," she told police.
* A 44-year-old west Phoenix father of four on whom police found meth during a traffic stop. The housepainter said it was his wife's, but admitted he also uses the drug heavily.
* A 39-year-old Avondale man, stopped on yet another traffic violation. A search revealed meth. He's been on welfare for three years, since hurting his back at work. In lieu of prosecution, the man agreed to be a snitch for Avondale police. He then failed to contact his handlers, which led to the charges against him. Married for 15 years, the man has a 12-year-old daughter.
* A 26-year-old man nabbed by Phoenix police in a church parking lot. He had meth and drug paraphernalia in a pants pocket. He claimed he'd found the items in a Dumpster. The man described his mode of employment as "skippin' by." Now, he's a construction laborer, and seems to be doing well.
* A 38-year-old northwest Phoenix sheet-metal worker who police stopped after seeing his car lacked license plates. A search produced two vials of meth and a glass pipe.
* A 41-year-old diesel mechanic arrested near a west Phoenix park. He told police he used speed about once monthly, but considers himself a boozer, not a druggie.
* A 32-year-old west Phoenix single mother stopped because she'd forgotten to turn on her car lights. Police found 1.3 grams in her fanny pack, which she claimed belonged to an ex-boyfriend.
* A 28-year-old Tolleson construction worker stopped on a traffic violation. The man admitted spending up to $200 a week on meth in 1996, but claimed he'd never been addicted.
* A 20-year-old Phoenix man who is an assistant manager for a large retailer. Police seized four grams of meth during a raid of the man's home, and arrested him. His employers have written glowing letters of support to the court: "He is very industrious, a real 'go-getter,'" one letter noted.
* A 26-year-old Glendale factory worker who hired a prostitute and drove her to a desert location. Sheriff's deputies happened upon the pair near the Agua Fria River. A search uncovered meth, which the man claimed wasn't his.
"I know the number of meth cases in front of me are exploding," Commissioner Hyatt says. "This hasn't been gradual--it's been boom! Something is obviously happening out there."
The Tweaking Life
"I'm a 50-year-old grandmother, and I been doing speed--rocket fuel--on and off for 25 years," says a Phoenix woman we'll call Janie. "I can do an awful lot of the stuff, but I never saw things like some people do. The mailbox was always a mailbox, even when people around me said it was a cop."
Janie smiles. There are gaping holes where teeth used to be. There is little flesh on her bones, her face is craggy and her forearms are pocked with needle scars. She looks much older than 50, but says she's healthier now than since she last quit using October 1 (court-ordered drug tests confirm this).
She and four men, all between the ages of 35 and 43, sit around a table at the Maricopa County probation offices on North Central Avenue. It's 5 p.m. on December 11. Two of the men have arrived in their work clothes--one's a welder, the other works at a car wash.
They are friendly, well-spoken, and not prone to using buzz words--"enabling," "co-dependent," "issues"--when referring to themselves. They seem haunted, to varying degrees, by what they've done to themselves and those around them.
"I feel most guilty about the good times I have lost with my wife and family--not caring about nothing but getting drugs," says the welder, a burly 43-year-old named Kirk who once had a two-gram-a-day habit. "I've always had a job and made good money. But I've been an addict pretty much since I was a kid in Ohio stealing Mom's diet pills. They tell me I'll need a liver transplant someday from the speed I've done. But I'm still alive. No AIDS, even with all those needles."
Kirk knocks on wood, or, rather, on the metal table. His attitude is, what he's done, he's done, ugly though it may be.
All five people are here for mandatory group counseling, which is part of their contract with Maricopa County's drug court. Each previously pleaded guilty to methamphetamine-related felonies.
Each has been an addict for years.
Some are doing better than others: Kirk, for example, says he's been straight since May 1996--with one glaring exception earlier this year, when he scored and smoked a $20 rock of crack cocaine. Jimmy, on the other hand, says he failed his most recent drug test less than a week ago.
"I twiddled my thumbs and did a lot of nothing--as usual," he says. He's a laconic, 35-year-old father of one who lives in Phoenix's Sunnyslope neighborhood. "It just took me away from wherever my head was. I was bummed because someone took my truck. So I got high. Whoopee."
Bobby nods in agreement. Also 35, he's an aspiring electronics technicican who's wearing a black-leather tassled jacket and a large crucifix. He says he first used "chemicals" when he was about 21, and was a cocaine addict for much of the 1980s in his native Pennsylvania.
Bobby says he got into methamphetamine when he moved here a few years ago--"You can't escape meth in the Valley of the Sun," he pronounces.
Then a mechanic, he recalls his workmates would "chip a little bit"--snort a small line of meth--in the morning, as though it were coffee. He, too, started chipping, and beyond.
Earlier this year, Bobby says, he started injecting the drug. It was a stressful time, he explains, with his wife in a difficult pregnancy with her first child, and money pressures.
"The needle took over my entire life," he says. "My wife was bedridden, and I had to take care of everything. Our relationship sort of distanced itself a lot."
His wife, whom Bobby says doesn't use drugs, watched from her bed as he deteriorated.
"I had all the regular stuff that meth addicts have," he says. "I thought people were coming into my room. The shadow people were running around in my head. I had a window cardboarded up to keep them away, just in case."
She left Bobby shortly before their daughter was born last June 7.
"She didn't want me around a baby when I was like I was," he says. "I had basically lost my mind. I would talk for hours straight, about nothing. One reason I'm here is because I want my wife back, my kid, my life."
Another reason is that police busted Bobby for meth possession. He spent eight days in jail, and, later, was accepted into drug court. He says he slipped about a month ago--"Got some stuff and shot it up"--but insists he can kick his habit.
"I have to," Bobby says.
Kirk, the welder, says he's tried any number of times to quit drugs. Kirk is in drug court with his wife, whom he says he introduced to methamphetamine.
"We've been around a bunch of people in drug court who are young enough to be our kids," he says, "but I don't get preachy with them. I remember how I was at that age. I remember how I am at this age."
Kirk announces to the others that he and his wife are scheduled to collect their "diploma" on December 19 from Judge Susan Bolton.
"Being in drug court saved my life, saved my ass, saved my marriage," he says. "Now comes the hard part, the staying straight part."
No one adds anything to that.
Dr. Charles Shaw has finished processing a new patient into a chemical dependency unit of St. Luke's Hospital. Friends brought the man into the East Van Buren Street clinic a half-hour ago. He's strung out on methamphetamine, and his frenzied eyes and constricted arm muscles provide a clue to the mayhem inside.
The middle-aged man is wearing a tee shirt that says, "Set the Night on Fire."
For Shaw, the unit's chief physician, it's business as usual.
"Two and a half, three years ago, there was all this fuss about heroin making a comeback, and it was very frustrating," he says. "I remember thinking to myself, 'You've got it all wrong. It's not heroin we should be worried about. It's crystal.'"
By 1995, Shaw says, meth overtook cocaine as the most popular drug of addiction reported by those seeking treatment at St. Luke's--a report echoed by the directors of other Valley drug-treatment centers.
Meth, he adds, still rules.
"We're seeing more and more of it. We're starting to see a lot of women who began using meth for weight problems. I expect that to get worse, now that phen-fen's off the market. We see a lot of single, working moms, who were taking care of the kids and working a job or two, and meth lets them get it all done. For a while. We see all kinds."
To illustrate his point, Shaw jabs a thumb over his shoulder: "I've got a 40-year-old accountant [patient] next door who's psychotic as hell."
The word "psychotic" means a difficult treatment problem.
"A lot of the time, when these people come in, it takes three or four days before we can even talk to them," says Jim Corrington, director of the Valley's Charter Hospitals. "You've got to get them on some antipsychotics and tranquilizers to stabilize them, so they don't run through a plate-glass window, thinking all the staff members are FBI agents."
About 20 percent of those who suffer from methamphetamine-induced psychosis don't recover, studies indicate.
"Most come back to reality," says Charles Shaw. "Sometimes it takes two to three days, sometimes it takes a year, sometimes they never come back."
That comports with the experience of counselor Leslie Roth, who works at Maricopa Medical Center's crisis-care unit.
"It's much more crystal coming through here now, and much more in the way of meth-induced psychoses," says Roth. "They hear things, see things, they swear there are cameras in the air vents--all induced by chemicals. A brain is a brain is a brain, and can only take so much substance abuse."
Roth's unit--run by Southwest Behavioral Health Services--may keep patients only up to 23 hours before deciding to send them home, to a rehab clinic or to a mental hospital.
"We see people who have been selling their bodies for dope," she says, "people selling dope for dope, people who have money, families. People who have ruined their lives and are desperate. People who are either going to die or find a new way to live."
Hard-core tweakers won't die if they quit cold turkey, and withdrawal from meth isn't as perilous as, say, heroin or alcohol.
But most experts say methamphetamine is one of the most psychologically addictive drugs around: A 1992 study rated only nicotine and crack cocaine with more addictive potential than meth. Meth was deemed more addictive than heroin, powdered cocaine, alcohol and marijuana.
Scientists have discovered that chronic methamphetamine use burns up the brain's supply of dopamine--the all-important natural mood elevator that meth stimulates the body to overproduce.
Recently publicized studies suggest that once a meth freak does quit using, the dopamine doesn't replenish itself for a few years. The lack of dopamine can send the addict reeling emotionally.
"They go into a deep, black hole of depression," Charles Shaw says, "and they know that just one hit of meth will bring them out. That's the challenge."
Mercifully, this first stage of withdrawal also is characterized by long periods of heavy sleep.
Many recovering meth addicts report that, once they stop using, they've felt sluggish and mildly depressed for months. Many have vivid nightmares about using meth.
Almost all heroin addicts eventually relapse, Shaw says, but he estimates a meth addict's chances at about 50-50 once they endure the first few days. That's why he argues for inpatient treatment for newly recovering meth addicts. But most insurance companies won't cover that expense, Shaw adds, since meth withdrawal specifically requires no medical attention.
Shaw says some of the hardest meth addicts to treat successfully have been those using the drug for hyperactivity--just as Ritalin (an amphetamine) is prescribed to hyperactive children: "Those people, they try crystal and, for the first time in their life, they feel normal, so they keep using."
Laurie Gossard, the director of New Horizons--a Phoenix-based outpatient treatment center--says about 25 percent of the meth addicts she sees began using the drug for depression.
"If they pay close attention to controlling their [meth] dosage," she says, "it works for a while. But it's a tightrope walk without a net, and, eventually, they fall into addiction."
Like her peers, Gossard says her clinic treats more meth addicts than any other drug:
"The typical profile for someone seeking treatment is . . . they've been a user for about two, two and a half years. The first year was recreational, with occasional use leading to binges. Sometime in the second year, they sink into daily use, and go hard-core for about a year, during which time they try to quit by themselves several times and fail. By the time they come to us, they're really sick of themselves. They're tortured, and they're still using."
Gossard says her meth clients span all walks of life.
"I work with a lot of attorneys on meth, and a lot of nurses," she says. "We get a lot of blue collar, too, but executives have walked through our door. Meth makes no class distinction."
Rich is a 33-year-old luxury-car salesman for a Valley dealership with money to burn. He looks like a pro volleyball player, a tall, sturdy blond who wears choice threads.
The Scottsdale native and college graduate says he's been selling cars for more than five years, and loves his job.
He loves meth, too, and says he works and plays better when he's on it.
Rich's relationship with meth started, by his account, in early 1996.
"It gave me everything coke had . . . for less money, and no trips to the men's room every 30 minutes."
On the night he first tried meth, he hit the Scottsdale clubs, then went home and played chess on his computer for hours. The next morning, he asked a girlfriend for some Valium so he could sleep.
"Things started to get a little jagged when the sun came up, but I'd suffered through much worse crashes from coke. When I woke up the next day, I'd pretty much decided the stuff was way, way better than coke."
He did more meth the following weekend, buying "clean" white meth from a trusted source. He says his sole brush with bad meth came earlier this year.
"When the rush started to wear off, I felt like someone had removed my brain from my skull, stuck it in a boiling vat of glowing, green goo, then put it back. That scared me off the stuff for a few weeks."
Until several months ago, Rich says, he was a sporadic user. Then, last spring, he decided to snort some meth before work.
"It was totally spontaneous. I just woke up one Friday morning and, instead of eating breakfast, taking a shower and going to work, I dug out the bindle, cut up a line, snorted it, took a shower, then went to work. I just decided to have meth for breakfast instead of Cheerios."
Rich says he sold two cars that day and hooked a third customer.
"I was on point. I was absolutely at the top of my game. It didn't even really feel like I was on anything. I just felt really sharp, really confident, smooth, everything I needed to be."
Rich says he works under the influence at least one day per week: "Not all of my best [selling] days are meth days, but more are than not."
He says he's using about half again as much meth as a year ago. But Rich seems convinced that, because he buys the drug in small quantities, he still has things under control.
Rich has a new girlfriend, and says he hides his habit from her. He explains that she might think it was "low class," even though she'll occasionally get high on cocaine herself.
Lately, Rich says, he's snorted a line of meth before even going to the bathroom in the morning.
"That's a little scary. But so far, I wouldn't say I have a problem. I wouldn't recommend meth to anyone I didn't know. But for me, it's only done good things."