One scorching afternoon in June, a cadre of Phoenix New Times writers and editors gathered at a small, dark bar in downtown Phoenix. What better way for journalists to plan a drug series than over cocktails?
We knew crystal methamphetamine was a tremendous problem in our community, overwhelming law enforcement and social service agencies, on the tip of the tongues of our leaders, always in the headlines of the daily papers. But we didn't know how to tell the story -- or, it turns out, just what that story was.
But before we learned, we drank and tossed out ideas and perceptions.
Seven years earlier, two New Times writers had put together a groundbreaking series on meth ("Methology," December 18, 1997) -- the grip it had on the community, the emerging dilemma of meth labs, the power of a crystal addiction.
Someone asked, Is there even anything new to say?
There was something new: the recent, failed effort in the Arizona Legislature to combat meth labs by putting restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine, the ingredient in cold medicine that's a staple in any meth cook's pantry. Around the table, there was fury over the idiocy of state leaders to resist such a simple solution. After all, someone commented, it's all but eliminated the problem in Oklahoma.
Okay, that was something to get us started. What else?
We talked about the burden on the child welfare system, about how kids are victimized by meth and should be kept away from their meth-addicted parents at all costs.
Someone brought up the point that the meth habit is basically impossible to kick -- that once you're hooked, you're gone.
There was some interest expressed in the contention that meth is a gay party drug; someone vaguely recalled that it might be linked to rising AIDS rates. But someone else at the table had heard that meth inhibits sexual performance.
We discussed some interesting statistics about meth-related deaths -- someone had read somewhere that meth use rarely leads to death, as compared with drugs like cocaine and heroin. Hmmm. One sarcastic member of our group suggested that we could explore the angle that it would be way better if more people did die from using meth -- then there would be less identity theft.
In the end, the notion that meth and identity theft are tightly intertwined was one of the only things we were right about that day.
When the reporting began, almost every preconceived notion went up in smoke.
At every turn, the story was much more complicated than we'd originally thought -- the problems trickier to identify, the solutions tougher to stomach. The series grew from three stories to eight.
The problem, we learned, is not local meth labs. Not so much, at least. The Phoenix Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies have devoted tremendous resources over the past several years to shutting down meth labs, with remarkable success. Since 2001, when almost 170 labs in Phoenix were shut down in that year alone, the number of seizures has dropped by nearly 80 percent.
But meth's grip on metropolitan Phoenix has only tightened as the number of meth labs has declined, and that's because the preferred version of the drug is cheaper, stronger and easier to get -- from Mexico. And in sharp contrast to the meth lab situation, authorities do not have any sort of handle on the Mexican meth conundrum.
That was the first revelation.
We also discovered -- through an analysis of local death records -- that meth is much more deadly than we'd been told. People in metropolitan Phoenix are dying because of meth in record numbers, either through related violence or because their bodies are giving out.
We found out that meth is a powerful aphrodisiac, and that it's affecting all sorts of people -- gay and straight, men and women. It's driving up the abortion rate as well as the AIDS rate.
We confirmed that, yes, meth is endangering the lives of children, but we had to uncover layers of hysteria to get to the truth. Our state attorney general packs his Web site with false information, including the idea that babies born to "meth moms" are often deformed -- a concept whose science is shaky at best.
Because meth addiction is not impossible to overcome, some of the better results have come through treatment rather than incarceration -- particularly when meth moms are allowed to be near their babies.
And as for pseudoephedrine? By the time we neared the end of the series, the Phoenix City Council had debated, passed and implemented an ordinance requiring that all cold and allergy medications containing pseudoephedrine (even those rarely, if ever, used in meth production) be put behind pharmacy counters, that purchases be dramatically limited and that buyers be required to sign log books.
By then we'd learned that, because of Mexican meth, pseudoephedrine was not as big a part of the problem as we'd originally assumed. Sure, it's nice to keep it out of the hands of would-be meth cooks, but our leaders are touting the pseudoephedrine controls as the greatest public policy decision since the WPA.
At the same time, politicians are ignoring the problems that are harder to address, like treatment.
As it turns out, meth addiction is not impossible to treat. But like most issues politicians like to ignore, treatment for meth addiction is difficult and costly.
And there has been almost no public education campaign. Instead of billboards plastered with ugly meth mouths and warnings about the dire consequences of meth use (à la the state's incredibly successful anti-tobacco campaign, "Smelly, Puking Habit"), anti-meth crusaders have given us a few grocery bags printed with anti-meth messages, but little else.
There is little effective drug education in our schools. Remember, back in the day, when Officer Dan came to school to talk about the horrors of pot? Research has found that those DARE days were just as likely to start a drug habit as they were to prevent one from starting.
Bottom line: No one is driving the train.
Attorney General Terry Goddard's heart is in the right place, even if his statistics are sloppy. And certainly city and state leaders who want to limit access to cold medicine mean well.
But they're all focusing on the one part of Arizona's meth problem that's already being handled successfully --shutting down meth labs -- and ignoring the others, which aren't.
Someone needs to step up and take charge. We were surprised to learn that Governor Janet Napolitano -- a leader who generally does the right thing, even if there are sometimes apparent political motivations -- has all but ignored the stranglehold meth has on Arizona.
We were bemused to get an e-mail from Napolitano's press office last week, the very same day we published a story criticizing her lack of involvement on the issue.
Our headline was, "Bad Medicine: Locking up cold medicine makes the politicians feel good -- but it won't put a dent in Arizona's meth habit."
Napolitano's headline was, "Governor urges tough anti-meth policies." In it, Napolitano praised the cities that are passing ordinances to restrict the sale of cold medicine. She cited the work she did while attorney general to clean up meth labs and help remove the children living in them. She complimented the various meth task forces that law enforcement agencies have created.
And that was pretty much it.
Yes, she mentioned one other thing. In July, her release noted, Napolitano asked her staff to work with the attorney general to create a "statewide and community-based anti-meth initiative." They now plan to kick off the project in February.
So what have they been doing for the past five months? Hard to say.
We spent several weeks swapping phone calls with one of Napolitano's spokeswomen, Pati Urias, asking for information about anything and everything the governor is doing to take on meth. We also attempted to contact Rob Evans, chief of the governor's substance abuse policy division.
We weren't looking for smoking guns. We didn't have an agenda. We truly wanted to know what the governor was doing to fight meth. That's it. Even a generic press release would do.
But all Urias was willing (or able) to do was confirm that the state has received a federal grant to survey use of all illicit drugs -- and that only after we faxed her a press release about the grant from the feds.
At least Urias was talking. Evans, supposedly the state's top aide on drug issues, wouldn't even take our call. (Urias explained that Evans is "media shy.")
The press release confirmed our suspicions.
If meth really is an important issue to Napolitano, she's going to have to do more than send out generic, feel-good press releases. She's going to have to pass on her message to her top aides.
And then she's going to have to do something. Something beyond pseudoephedrine.
The governor might do well to look across her state's eastern border to New Mexico.
This past summer, that state convened a methamphetamine task force. The group was co-chaired by what might seem like strange bedfellows: Herman Silva, the state's drug czar, and Reena Szczepanski, director of the state's Drug Policy Alliance, a group devoted to stopping the war on drugs and helping addicts through treatment.
Even better, they moved quickly.
In less time than it took the Phoenix City Council Meth Task Force to enact tighter pseudoephedrine controls, and in less time than it took Napolitano's office to announce the kickoff of its meth initiative, the New Mexico group delivered a seven-page roster of specific "strategy recommendations."
They looked at everything: Who was using. Where they got the stuff. How to stop people from starting. How to minimize the damage once they started.
How to help treatment providers handle the heavy load.
"In the past, we'd seen a Band-Aid approach," Szczepanski says. "You can put your finger on one leak and say, 'Okay, we're going to pseudoephedrine control.' But then the problem pops up in another area. Unless you've got a comprehensive strategy, you're always going to be doing that."
Unfortunately, Szczepanski might as well be describing Arizona. And unless someone pulls together a group of people working on the front lines -- treatment experts, veterans from the state's anti-smoking campaign and police officers -- it's hard to imagine that's going to change.
There are some simple things that our leaders could focus on:
Assessing who in Arizona is using meth and how they're getting it. A good start: Making sure that the state's drug questionnaire for high school students asks about meth directly, as the Partnership for a Drug-Free America has suggested.
Compiling information about treatment options for people who want it.
Developing recommendations for probation officers, who are often saddled with determining how long those in the justice system must stay in treatment. Some counselors suggest that longer time in treatment is essential for success; if that's true, probation officers should be told that.
Developing an effective public health campaign focused on meth and its dangers.
Addressing the link between meth use and unsafe sex that leads to AIDS and pregnancy.
Looking at alternatives to incarceration, particularly for meth moms.
Creating effective drug education programs.
These are not tasks that the cops can shoulder by themselves, and they're not within the scope of the Phoenix City Council. For Arizona to get anywhere, the governor is going to have to get involved, rather than just spouting rhetoric suggesting she's been on top of the problem.
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It was seven years ago that New Times writers first took an in-depth look at the state's meth habit. Back then, we were describing the beginnings of a new problem sweeping metropolitan Phoenix and Arizona.
Today, that problem is taking more lives (and ruining countless others) than ever.
Which leads to our final notion: If our policymakers continue down the wrong path in fighting this drug, we will be writing another meth series in seven years, maybe sooner. If Arizona's leaders fail to invest public money in the right treatment and education, the financial burden to law enforcement and social service agencies will be tremendous, far greater than the original investment.
And that's just the economic story. The human story will be a heartbreaker, about a still greater swath of murder, mayhem and broken lives left in the path of the perfect drug, methamphetamine.