Meth ‘has always been here’; now it’s on the rise – The Columbian

Drug abuse in Washington

82%

of people who inject drugs reported using methamphetamine in the last 3 months.

47%

of people who used meth were interested in reducing or stopping their meth use.

78%

of people who used heroin as their main drug were interested in reducing or stopping their opioid use.

364

meth-related deaths in 2016, compared to 120 in 2010.

Statewide, there are

25

syringe exchange programs operating in 18 counties.

SOURCE: University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute

Meth is back, though it never really went away.

Over a recent five-month period, 40 percent of the people using Vancouver Lifeline Connections’ sobering center, a kind of 12-hour sleep-off facility, reported methamphetamine as their drug of choice.

“(Meth) has always been here, but in some of our programs we’re seeing an upswing in its use,” said Lifeline Connections CEO Jared Sanford.

The increase in meth use by Lifeline’s clients is similar to recent reports from state law enforcement and health care agencies.

Lifeline measures such increases in its role as a primary provider of mental health and substance abuse treatments in Clark County. Its main offices and programs are housed in the Vancouver Campus of the VA Portland Health Care System, among numerous sterile-looking medical buildings off East Fourth Plain Boulevard.

The sobering center is a good indication of the substances being sold or traded on the streets, said Sanford. Eighty percent of the people who use the center lack consistent housing, he said.

Data collected from Aug. 14 to Jan. 31 show the sobering center admitted 460 patients during that five-month period. Nearly three-fourths of the patients were men; nearly all were between ages 30 to 64, according to the data.

Whether male or female, 40 percent reported their primary drug of choice as a stimulant, which includes meth, other amphetamines and cocaine. Meth accounted for 98 percent of the intakes.

Another 35 percent of the patients sought help for alcohol use, 16 percent for cannabinoids and 7 percent for opioids, according to the data. The remaining 2 percent or so of people sought a respite from their use of benzodiazepines (tranquilizers like Xanax and Valium) and “other,” such as hallucinogens and inhalants.

“Last year, we had an increase in heroin versus stimulants, and this year it’s the opposite,” said Kaylee Collins, detox and sobering programs director.

“I think there’s a fair amount of heroin and opiate overdose education going on,” Sanford said. “My perception is there may be folks saying, ‘I don’t want to do heroin anymore, because I don’t know what’s in it.’ They think meth is safer — that they can’t die from using it, which is wrong.”

‘Demand will continue’

Seizures of meth and heroin by the Clark-Vancouver Drug Task Force have stayed consistent, said task force Sgt. Bill Sofianos.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office leads the task force, but officers from agencies such as the Vancouver Police Department are also involved. Its goals include dismantling drug-trafficking operations in the county, facilitating narcotics investigations and promoting cooperation among various officials hoping to do the same.

Last year, the task force seized 38 pounds of meth and 20 pounds of heroin.

Sofianos said he hears the price of meth has dropped over the past several years, leading him to believe that it’s more readily available.

In Vancouver, an ounce of methamphetamine costs around $400 while the same amount of heroin goes for around $1,100, according to the sergeant. A few years ago, an ounce of meth would cost at least $1,000.

“One or two of the major traffickers cut prices to gain more customers and that price has not increased,” Sofianos said.

“In my experience … meth has always been more prevalent in the area. Heroin is becoming increasingly more common, but I think the reason heroin is more talked about is because it leads to a higher overdose rate, thus garnering more attention,” he said.

However, meth’s involvement in those overdoses is increasing, according to the Northwest High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area report released earlier this year. Opioid deaths also involving meth increased 72 percent statewide from 2010 to 2015, according to the report, the subtitle of which is “Threat Assessment and Strategy for Program Year 2018.”

All of the county’s law enforcement agencies contributed information to the report.

It concluded the prevalence of meth fell in 2006 when new laws required people buying ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, commonly used as decongestants, to show picture ID. The change hampered the production of local meth labs, but another source stepped up to meet demand.

“The costs of production and the risks taken to obtain the necessary precursors are far less for the Mexican (drug cartels) than for local entrepreneurs,” so the cartels are expected to continue making large quantities of meth and monopolize the market, the report says.

“Demand for the drug will continue to be fulfilled, resulting in increased or at least sustained methamphetamine treatment admissions for both adults and youth,” according to the report.

Unlike Lifeline’s data, the Northwest HIDTA report shows that adult treatment admissions for meth are second to heroin. That’s based on the data available at that time — the first three months of admissions in 2016.

Trying to quit

Vancouver resident Tiffany Everett, 36, said she used meth off-and-on since she was 12 before kicking the habit — hopefully once and for all — seven months ago. She said the drug has become widely available in Clark County.

“It’s all over the place. It’s in every area, every neighborhood. You used to have to go across town to get it, but now, people can walk out their front door and meth is there,” Everett said.

She started using meth when someone offering it told her she’d feel intense pleasure. Everett said she believes the scores of users pick up the habit because meth can strip away negative emotions — they’re “living in the moment.” Others tend to use because their addiction is so severe it’s the only way to make it through the day, she said.

“I’ve always wanted to quit, but you get so wrapped up in addiction and the only stability around are drug acquaintances,” Everett said. “The peer group is enabling. Someone is always asking if you want drugs, or have drugs and want to share them.”

Studies show frequent meth use often results in health problems — abscesses, soft tissue infection and endocarditis, a serious infection of the inner lining of the heart. The more immediate effects of overdosing — or what is starting to be called “overamping,” although the term isn’t yet widely used — on meth usually looks like a heart attack, stroke or seizure, and can include sudden psychosis, according to drug abuse researchers.

Addiction can also mean an inability to maintain a normal life. That struggle caused Everett to lose custody of her children, ages 13 and 17.

“I’m hoping to get them back,” she said. “Meth use offers immediate pleasure. But I’ve learned you can’t have the best things immediately. You have to work for them.”

Injection ‘increasing’

The Washington State Syringe Exchange 2017 health survey, released in January, also indicates increased methamphetamine use among Washingtonians.

There are at least 25 syringe exchange programs operating in 18 counties through local health departments, nonprofits or tribal entities. Clark County has its own syringe exchange; 40 out of 1,079 individual surveys collected statewide were conducted here.

The University of Washington’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Institute collaborated with the exchanges to produce the health survey.

Among its key findings: 80 percent of the respondents reported using heroin by itself in the last three months. Eighty-two percent reported using meth by itself over the same amount of time.

“Methamphetamine use among people who inject drugs appears to be increasing,” the findings say.

Comments from the survey-takers were included in the report.

When asked about using multiple substances, one respondent said, “Using heroin … meth just comes along with it these days.” Another respondent replied, “I used meth to come off heroin.”

Collins, Lifeline Connections’ detox and sobering programs director, said many of her patients have reported being given meth — for free.

“What we’ve seen is when many drug dealers out there want to create a new brand, they’ll give it to them, our patients, who then tell us that’s how they got started on this kind of drug,” Collins said.

The authors of the health survey also concluded that deaths from meth have been steadily increasing since 2010, a year that saw 120 such deaths. There were 364 meth-related deaths six years later. Forty-three percent of the 2016 deaths also involved an opioid.

Two such deaths were recently reported through the Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office:

The Nov. 5 death of Michael R. Holmes, a 66-year-old Vancouver resident, was ruled an accident, and his manner of death resulted from “methamphetamine intoxication,” the medical examiner said in a release. James M. Rennells, 41, also of Vancouver, died the same way.

An employee found Holmes’ body outside a convenience store in a nonfunctional ice machine. Rennells was missing for a week before he was found at Leverich Park on Dec. 27.

Reports of meth or cocaine mixed with fentanyl are currently making headlines, especially in Ohio, a state hard hit by drug overdoses, adding a newer, even deadlier issue to ongoing drug trends.

The laced meth hasn’t appeared in Clark County, at least to the knowledge of law enforcement.

“Fentanyl is commonly laced with heroin. We have not knowingly seized any fentanyl-laced heroin,” said Sofianos. “It’s possible we’ve come across it, but I’m not aware of any confirmed seizures. I’m confident we will come across it sooner or later.”

Despite increasing meth-related deaths and the danger of fentanyl, many people are reportedly uninterested in quitting. According to the health survey, more than three-fourths of people who used heroin as their main drug of choice were interested in reducing or stopping their use. Only 47 percent of meth users said they were interested in making those changes.

Everett — who participated in Lifeline’s in- and outpatient services, is currently enrolled in drug court and has a place to live at a transitional living Oxford House — said many meth users are focused only on the drugs, not getting off of them.

“People need to be willing to change, but many aren’t. All they know is drugs, and they feel like they’ll be all right because they’re comfortable using in the moment. I really had nowhere to go when I was on the streets, so I fell into the same pattern.”