By William C. Shelton
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
In November, Somerville Police and DEA officers executed a search warrant in a quiet residence just down the street from the home that former Police Chief Tony Holloway still owns. They found equipment used to produce methamphetamine hydrochloride and ten 35-gallon drums of chemicals.
Up on a scaffold at the time, I wondered why helicopters were circling nearby. When I found out, my heart sank beneath a dark wave of memory.
I did not grow up casually. There was a time in my youth during which I experimented with every psychoactive drug available. I spent much of my time with people who were doing the same. And I came to think of methamphetamine as ingestible evil.
At the beginning of the meth high, you feel omnipotent. You can do anything, know anything, and you enjoy limitless and everlasting energy, or so it seems. In point of fact, you could be highly productive if you remained focused. Gifted author Phillip K. Dick said that he could write 68 completed pages per day when he was running on crank.
But the crash comes 6-to-12 hours later. Your impulse is to do anything that you can to avoid the complete exhaustion, black depression, and bleak despair that it brings. So you get high again.
You run for days. The absence of REM sleep and the overproduction of dopamine eventually produce hallucinations. Because the drug is generating the physical responses associated with anxiety—elevated heartbeat, muscle tension, heightened blood pressure, rapid breathing—the hallucinations are usually paranoid in content. Sometimes you engage in obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
I've seen meth addicts wash their hands until they bleed, or scratch off their skin, trying to remove unseen insects. I've seen them disassemble TVs because they believed that they were being watched. Or not disassemble TVs because they believed that news announcers were sending them secret messages. I came across a meth addict who kept her infant daughter in a cardboard box, in a cabinet under the kitchen sink.
By God's grace, meth never got a strangle hold on me. Its high could never compensate for its crash, and I preferred other highs.
By the mid 1970s, widespread meth addiction seemed to be a thing of the past. But in the 1990s a new kind of methamphetamine entered the market. Rather than being shot up or swallowed, it could be sniffed or smoked. Triple crystallized to remove impurities, it delivers the dopamine of a half-dozen orgasms—in the beginning.
Cocaine and heroin are candy by comparison. Crystal meth takes only a few uses to induce addiction, and only a few weeks to inflict permanent brain damage. It gouges out the neurons that produce and transmit dopamine. It sears one's capacity for sexual arousal. When not on a run, the user enters a bottomless depression that can be suicidal or homicidal.
Only six percent of meth freaks permanently get off it, the lowest proportion by far for any drug. Then, what feels like eternal hell begins. Much of recovering addicts' higher functioning won't come back. They can't understand words, or think abstractly, or remember what they did this morning. The slightest sensation of light, sound, or touch can be excruciating. One recovering addict said that she felt as if her skin had been peeled off.
Crystal meth fuels a plague that reverses the pattern of previous drug epidemics. Cocaine and heroin came from far-off lands. They devastated inner-city communities and then moved into the suburbs.
The made-in-America crystal-meth epidemic began in California's central valley in the 1990s. It spread through rural communities, travelling into the Pacific Northwest, and then across the Midwest and Southern states. It's moved from rural communities to cities, and from middle-class White users to Latinos and Blacks.
Dozens of websites provide instructions on how to cook it. The product is cheaper than cocaine or heroin. DEA officials say that meth-lab incidents in the U.S. now number over 11,000 per year.
The crystal meth plague has devastated rural towns, driving up violent crime, domestic violence, foster home placements, emergency room admissions, and jail populations. It has warped towns' and counties' budgets. And it would seem that now, it has reached New England.
Because of crystal meth's addictive power, relatively low cost, and ubiquity, enforcement and treatment are feeble plague-fighting weapons. Prevention can be a little more effective, but we need to think about it differently.
A majority of prevention programs focus on education. They describe the threats of meth use, much as I have. But those for whom this is effective were less likely to do drugs in the first place. And those who have smoked cannabis and discovered that it's less impairing than alcohol tend to dismiss facts about meth as more scare tactics.
People who become addicts already know that the substance they are putting in their mouths, or up their noses, or into their arms will probably harm them and possibly kill them. But they also know that they will feel euphoric for the next few hours. Nothing else in their lives offers that kind of certainty.
Real prevention involves two things. We must weave a tight network of caring relationships so strong that we don't let each other slip away. And we must create opportunities for young people to learn that they have power to change their lives and their world.
As I consider how to end this column, my thoughts turn again to Phillip Dick, author of 44 novels and 121 short stories. His novel, A Scanner Darkly, drew heavily on his experience with meth. The novel and the movie conclude with the following:
This has been a story about people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. I loved them all. Here is a list, to whom I dedicate my love:
To Gaylene, deceased
To Ray, deceased
To Francy, permanent psychosis
To Kathy, permanent brain damage
To Jim, deceased
To Val, massive permanent brain damage
To Nancy, permanent psychosis
To Joanne, permanent brain damage
To Maren, deceased
To Nick, deceased
To Terry, deceased
To Dennis, deceased
To Phil, permanent pancreatic damage
To Sue, permanent vascular damage
To Jerri, permanent psychosis and vascular damage
In memoriam. These were comrades whom I had. There are none better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The enemy was their mistake in playing. Let them play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.
The "Phil" in this list was Dick himself. Four years later, a stroke took him at the age of 53.