Meth Treatment

Meth addiction isn't impossible to beat -- but the treatment's not cheap. And good luck finding it

Pretty, blond, and poised, Jamie doesn't look like a meth addict. But she's been using for four years, since she was 19. She smoked some this morning. She smokes some every day.

She has to.

"I need it every morning to get started, and then on my lunch hour," she confesses. After her shift ends at the Phoenix call center where she works, she sometimes smokes again. "It depends on how much I have."

Connie Irvine (right) worries for her daughter Jamie.
Peter Scanlon
Connie Irvine (right) worries for her daughter Jamie.
Alishia Hight (right), with her husband Joe, turned her life around through treatment.
Peter Scanlon
Alishia Hight (right), with her husband Joe, turned her life around through treatment.

In some ways, Jamie is a meth success story: She has a job. She's never been arrested. She's not hideously pocked. Her teeth are straight and white.

But she knows full well the toll meth has taken on her: the cars repossessed, the jewelry pawned, the jobs lost.

Most of all, she hates that she's still under its power.

This is the most stable she's been in years. When she was with her boyfriend, the guy who got her started, things were crazy. He stole her mother's credit cards to buy meth.

They'd get spun on meth for days on end.

She didn't realize she was pregnant until she was almost six months along. He gave her stolen money orders to pay Planned Parenthood for the abortion. (She later repaid the money.)

A "friend" shot him, right in the gut. Still, they kept using.

She loved the high.

"I felt like I could do anything," she says. And she loved that it made her thin. She'd never been fat -- curvy, maybe. But her mom is a flight attendant, with the model-thin body that goes with the job. Jamie loved being just as skinny.

Her mother, Connie Irvine, was devastated.

She'd been a hands-on mom, even moving from Tempe to Ahwatukee because she thought the old neighborhood was going downhill. She wanted to shield her daughter from gangs and drugs.

Jamie, Irvine recalls, was a good kid who graduated high school a year early. Before she started using, her bedroom had prominently featured a "Tweakers Suck" poster.

"For all this to happen to my girl because of meth -- it was like she was bulletproof," Irvine says. "She was so ambitious. Everything was perfect for her. She was so determined. And then . . ."

There was hope for Jamie. She wanted to quit. With the right program, both mother and daughter are convinced she could have made it.

But both times Jamie packed her bags for rehab, the day ended in disappointment.

She never actually made it through the door.

At the first place, the director said they'd take her, but only if she tried Narcotics Anonymous first, and then outpatient therapy.

Jamie thought that was ridiculous. She knew she needed a total lifestyle change. She was smoking again later that day.

Later, mom and daughter went to the Salvation Army, which runs one of the few inpatient rehab centers for people who can't afford to pay.

But they wanted Jamie to pass a drug test before they'd admit her. And since she'd smoked that morning, she couldn't pass it.

That was on a Thursday. If she could stop using until Tuesday morning, they told her, they'd let her in.

Connie Irvine fretted.

"I'll call in sick," she told her daughter. "I'll be your shadow all weekend."

Jamie vowed she had it under control.

And so she did, through the weekend. She made plans to come to her mother's house Tuesday morning and they'd drive over together.

That morning, Connie Irvine got up and got ready to go.

She waited, and then, as her heart sank, she waited some more.

Jamie never showed up.

She was smoking again.


For the families caught in the middle, meth addiction can be a horrific roller coaster. Every promise to quit seems so sincere -- and maybe it is.

Often, though, it all ends in letdown.

"It's not even so much a matter of fun," says Mark, a construction worker who says he used meth "daily" from 1997 until a year ago. "Over a period of time, it's just impossible to get out of bed without it."

Politicians will tell you the drug is almost impossible to kick. "It's so highly addictive, you use it once, and you could be hooked," says Phoenix Councilman Dave Siebert.

Siebert's not alone. The idea of meth being a "super drug" that traps one-time users for life gets repeated again and again by lawmakers and their spokesmen. One oft-quoted statistic claims that no more than 1 to 5 percent of meth users manage to get clean.

It's one reason, perhaps, that politicians are so willing to ignore the treatment issue and instead focus on easier initiatives, like busting meth labs (see "Bad Medicine"). Treatment, the theory goes, is just a money pit.

The only problem?

It isn't true. Statistics overwhelmingly point to a more complex reality: Meth addiction is hard to treat, but can, in fact, be treated as successfully as drugs like cocaine and pot.

Which means that 5 percent figure is pure bunk.

"When asked about the source of numbers, speakers are uncertain about their origin," Richard Rawson, associate director of the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, writes in a recent report on the topic. "In fact, no such data exist."

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