The New Boss

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• Meth is putting children in danger.

State officials estimate that more than 90 percent of Arizona Child Protective Services cases are associated with meth use. Between 2000 and 2002, about a third of children removed from homes with meth labs tested positive for meth, according to the Arizona Attorney General's Office. The AG also reports that children from homes where meth is used are at a greater risk for developmental delays and are more likely to have been abused or neglected than other children.

• 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.

• 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.

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Robert Nelson
Joe Watson