The New Boss

Police have shut down most of the meth labs in Phoenix, but now the drug is a big import from Mexico -- cheap, pure and more plentiful than ever

• Meth is threatening public health and driving up health-care costs.

A study earlier this year of more than 7,000 AIDS patients in metropolitan Phoenix revealed that 30 percent are frequent meth users. Meth is blamed for a spike in HIV/AIDS; it's become a huge club drug, promoting unsafe sex by lifting inhibitions.

An analysis by the Maricopa County Hospital earlier this year showed almost 10 percent of visits to the emergency room were meth-related. National figures show that meth-related emergency room visits in Arizona increased 50 percent between 1995 and 2002, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Smugglers stash pounds of meth in secret compartments, like the insides of a car's electrical system.
Joe Watson
Smugglers stash pounds of meth in secret compartments, like the insides of a car's electrical system.
Phoenix PD meth-lab supervisor Don Sherrard: "In almost every type of crime, we're seeing an increased correlation between meth and the crimes themselves."
Peter Scanlon
Phoenix PD meth-lab supervisor Don Sherrard: "In almost every type of crime, we're seeing an increased correlation between meth and the crimes themselves."

• Meth poses serious environmental hazards.

In the past four years, the state has paid more than $4 million for disposal of contamination associated with meth production, according to the Arizona Attorney General's Office. A pound of meth yields five to seven pounds of waste. Meth labs are now being referred to as "mini-Superfund sites"; even People magazine recently profiled several families around the country who bought houses that had formerly served as meth labs, and got sick or were unable to clean up the mess. A few states have laws requiring sellers to disclose that a house was once a meth lab. Arizona is not one of them.

• Reports are in that meth is not just a white-trash drug anymore.

Meth is in the workplace. Quest Diagnostic, a company that administers workplace drug tests, reports a steady increase in meth use nationally, since 2000. The company publishes a full-color map on its Web site, showing positive tests, by region. Arizona has a very low rate of positive tests for cocaine. For meth, however, big parts of the state, particularly around Phoenix, are bright red -- indicating the highest rates in the country.

Mexican nationals are sampling the wares they're trafficking across the border, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, and local police report an increase in use among the Hispanic population, generally.

Meth is increasingly popular as a club drug, particularly in gay nightclubs, where ripped men dance nonstop for hours, chugging liters of water, looking for a "bump" (an evening's supply of meth). And they'll find it, typically at an after-hours party, where a dozen or more gay men will gather to snort, smoke or inject before finding an empty bedroom to cash in on their increased libido.

And the drug is reaching into a higher economic strata, with the introduction of purer forms, called "ice" or "G."

"We see guys in from Scottsdale now, and they're like, 'Hey, it's not meth, it's G,'" says Jeffrey Taylor of Phoenix Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter that provides comprehensive drug rehabilitation programs. "They want to be snooty about it, but it's the same damn drug."

And it's everywhere.

"It's frightening the extent meth, more than any drug before it, gets so deep into the fabric of society," says Jim Molesa, a DEA agent based in Flagstaff, who is recognized as a leading authority on Mexican meth in Arizona. "And now that the market around it has sort of matured, it's even more dangerous."

Additional stories in this series will explore how current public policy affects children, and how efforts to put pseudoephedrine behind the counter at drugstores and shut down local meth labs are simply not going to solve the problem.

• The Children.

For so many public-policy makers, meth is all about saving the children. But it's not that simple. There is much to be learned from past so-called "drug epidemics," particularly the rise in crack cocaine in the 1980s and 1990s. Public-policy response to crack users has since proven to be grossly wrongheaded and, in the cases of families, very often disastrous.

Now, governments are often taking the same punishment-heavy, short-on-science approach to meth, stigmatizing children with the junk-science label "meth babies" while destroying families with get-tough meth laws in situations where, with smarter legislation or programming, the family might have been saved. For example, while Arizona mothers with meth convictions usually lose their young children to foster care, programs around the country that keep mother and child together while the mother undergoes intensive inpatient rehabilitation have proven to be much more successful in breaking the mother of her habit and, thus, making her a functioning parent again.

• The Solutions.

Despite the fact that meth addiction has been such a scourge in Arizona, state officials have been slow to act -- and their efforts have been far from comprehensive even when they do. There has been no statewide public health campaign that targets the drug, nor has there been a similar effort in Maricopa County for several years. No one seems to be talking about treatment, and it's extremely hard to find an inpatient rehab facility that works with meth addicts -- unless, of course, you can afford the $4,000-per-night tab at Meadows in Wickenburg.

Indeed, police, lawmakers and politicians have been focused on the quick, dramatic fix of closing meth labs instead of the harsh realities of treatment and prevention. And while meth-lab busts make for good headlines, and making it harder to buy pseudoephedrine-laden Claritin-D is a solution almost everyone can get behind, the plan does little to confront the reality of addiction in Arizona: Meth is pouring in from Mexico, and everybody from your boss to your high school kid is trying it. Forget those pictures Attorney General Terry Goddard likes to show of dirty babies standing in the middle of a meth house; think, instead, about your younger brother or sister and the fact that meth, initially, is fun.

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