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Breaking Good is Hard to Do

Scripps Howard News Service, November 17, 2012

From Hollywood actors to lawyers, from race car drivers and minor league baseball players to children of pastors, from surfers to teachers … from any walk of life you care to name, methamphetamine has found its takers, its so-called tweekers.

"I can equate it to my habit of choice — chewing tobacco," says Nick Reding, best-selling author of "Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town."

Reding spent time over four years in Oelwein, Iowa, population 6,415, studying the pervasiveness of meth.

"We live in a country and a world where drugs are very acceptable," he says. "Alcohol's a drug and acceptable, right?"

Methamphetamine, obviously, has not reached alcohol's level of acceptance. Highly addictive and restricted, the drug can be prescribed to treat obesity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. But the illegal form sold on the street has found multiple niches in American society and there is enough general understanding about the drug — gets you way high, may rot out your teeth, can literally keep you awake for days — that it's even a subject for comics.

"I did this TV show at 3 in the morning," comedian Mo Mandel says in a stand-up routine. "The booker would not let me tell the meth joke. He said he wanted the show to be appropriate for children as young as 7. I was like, 'If a 7-year-old's watching TV at 3 in the morning, the meth joke will work.' "

AMC's "Breaking Bad" is in its fifth season on cable TV and has a cult following. Its main character is a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White who, after receiving an advanced-stage cancer diagnosis, turns to making and selling meth with a former student. In one episode, his young sidekick marvels at the purity of the meth Walt has made and calls him a "(bleeping) artist."

Donna Nelson, a professor of chemistry at the University of Oklahoma and "Breaking Bad's" science consultant, watched several episodes before coming on board. She wanted to make sure the program did not portray making and using meth as attractive. She believes it doesn't, but as a chemist, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, she thinks the show does something for her chosen branch of science.

"You see (Walter) taking pride in his work, although his work is a little different," Nelson says. "But he's happy to create a good product."

The product's ultimate power over users who become abusers is indisputable. According to the National Admissions to Substance Abuse Treatment Services data from 2000-10, primary admissions to receive long-term rehabilitation/residential treatment due to methamphetamine or amphetamine use outnumbered admissions for all other drugs combined (17 percent vs. 8 percent).

Alison Watros, 43, who now runs a drug-treatment center for women in Texas, recalls the final days of her meth addiction: "I was so tired; I had a pipe in one hand and a hamburger in the other."

Breaking good, so to say — ending the cycle of addiction — is extremely difficult and often complicated by the fact that 52 percent of all those admitted for treatment were referred by the criminal justice system (that's vs. 37 percent of those who had a different primary drug of abuse).

Nick Taylor, a clinical psychologist in Montrose, Colo., about 300 miles southwest of Denver, was a founder and the clinical director of a meth treatment/drug court program in Delta County from 2006-09. Participants who successfully complete the program receive a deferred sentence.

"The client has to identify the 10 people in their life they have to get away from to stop using," Taylor says. "And the judge says, 'If I hear you've been around this person, you're gonna spend three days in jail.' That's tricky if they're married to each other."

Jane Maxwell, a senior research scientist at the Center for Social Work at the University of Texas, understands well that meth is easily available — both from the Mexican cartels and from enterprising "meth cooks," who with the main precursor pseudoephedrine (found in cold and allergy medicines) and a few household products can whip up a batch of meth in a 20-ounce plastic bottle anywhere.

Maxwell is studying 222 meth addicts.She believes she may be on to a social/environmental precursor: "They're much more likely to have been abused and neglected as children and adults than heroin users."

The Meth Project (methproject.org) launched an advertising campaign in Montana in 2005 aimed at teenagers. Over the years, the campaign has expanded.Several Hollywood directors, including Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan," "The Fountain"), have assisted with the project, making shocking and graphic ads about the drug's dangers.

The goal? The same as it was in the beginning, says Meth Project Executive Director Jennifer Stagnaro. "Unsell meth."