Methology Redux

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.

We learned.

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.

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