Crystal Mess

Crystal methamphetamine promises you the world. When you’re high
on meth,you are filled with joy and confidence. You feel smart,
energetic, and convinced you’re exuding great personal magnetism.
You are possessed of extraordinary sexual powers. Best of all, the
drug is long-lasting, inexpensive, and easily available.

Meth is one of a long line of addictive drugs used by humans
over the centuries to stimulate their central nervous systems.
Historically, stimulants have been highly popular. Coffee took
Europe by storm in the 17th century, and cocaine was a favorite
among the intelligentsia of the 19th century. Sigmund Freud and
Sherlock Holmes famously partook, long before the rich and flashy
snorted it through rolled up hundred-dollar bills in the bathrooms
of Studio 54. Of course, uppers have not always had such glamorous
veneers. Countless families in the 1950s were ruined when suburban
housewives became addicted to their medically prescribed diet
pills, and whole neighborhoods were decimated by the crack epidemic
during the 1980s. Methamphetamine itself is nothing new. It was
used in pill form by soldiers and truckers to fight fatigue long
before outlaw motorcycle gangs manufactured and distributed
powdered “crank” throughout the western states.

Today, crystal methamphetamine in a highly potent, smoke-able
form called ice is sweeping the nation. Here in Santa Barbara
County it hit first in the rural north, where its distinctive smell
while it’s being cooked in illegal processing labs is less
detectable. Now, law enforcement authorities are concerned about
its use in the South County. Speaking at a recent forum, Sheriff’s
Deputy Sandra Brown, without an ounce of irony, called it “Satan.”
A Santa Barbara narcotics officer said that his informants are all
turning to meth; worse, the snortable powder has all but
disappeared, replaced by ice. In the last few years, terrifying
meth stories have been all over the news. There was Jason Gomez, in
Lompoc, who rolled over on his infant twins and killed them when he
was crashing from meth; and Jason Allan Page, on the Westside, who
beat his wife to death in front of their children. Recently, Joshua
Miracle was sent to death row for stabbing a man 48 times in
Goleta; and then there was the tragic story of Nathan Cain, who
began wielding a knife and raging about demons in his parents’
backyard. Frightened, they called the police and then had to watch
as he came at an officer and was gunned down.

Whether or not meth causes more violence than other drugs is
debatable. A 1999 Department of Justice report found a smaller
percentage of violent crimes among arrestees using meth than those
not. However, it is at least as bad as any other drug out there,
swelling jail populations, mental-health caseloads, and foster-care
rolls. It is easy to understand the horror of civil
servants — paramedics, police, social workers — who must enter the
homes of meth addicts, where they find deranged people who have
been awake for days, who haven’t eaten, or changed their children’s
diapers, or taken their kids to school. A middle-class grandparent
fighting a custody battle with her own adult daughter anguished,
“She would have made a better mother when she was 10 years

Methamphetamine may promise the world to the user, but looking
through the eyes of the children, it is easy to see what a dirty
lie that is.

The names of drug users past and present have been

Meth: Love It, Hate It

Marta is a 38-year-old mother of three. She started smoking meth
at the age of 30; seven months ago she stopped. Before meth, she
had sometimes battled depression and on weekends would party with
her husband, but she had a career as a hospital lab technician, a
functioning marriage, and a stable home. Now that’s gone and she
must begin rebuilding a life from the rubble her drug addiction

“We actually at the beginning used to have fun,” she said. “We
had barbecues and watched football games with the family. For
somebody like me, with depression, I could be happy. I could get
things done. At first I had rules for myself. I managed somehow to
always make sure my kids were in bed before I got high. Then the
rules got broken.

“In the beginning I worked off and on, but jobs were hard to
keep because I had to stay focused a full eight hours. That’s
impossible unless you are doing an activity you can tweak on.
(Tweaking is when you obsess on something.) I have a friend who
fixes cars — but he gets so hung up that he can’t finish. He gets
sidetracked cleaning all the chrome off some part.

“When I came down out of it I was depressed really bad. It makes
you feel like you have to cry. It makes me suicidal. I usually had
to go to the hospital if I was high for a long time. With my
husband and me there was lots of cheating and fighting. We put each
other in jail so many times. I remember crying, begging, ‘Please
let’s stop, please be strong for both of us.’

“But it does something weird to men. They say it triples their
sex drive. And you know what, I’ve got to admit, it’s like the best
sex you can have on meth — like having a three-hour orgasm. That’s
one of the things people like about it. But it distorted sex, is
what it did. It wasn’t lovemaking at all.

“One day I had been up for five days. I got jealous, and
irritated, and in a rage. My husband told the police I tried to run
over him with the car. Maybe I did. They charged me with attempted
murder and assault with a deadly weapon.

“After that incident, we got kicked out of our house. The kids
were sent to my brother’s. I was homeless for a month, living out
of my car and getting into all kinds of trouble. But finally I made
a deal to take the drug program — Project Recovery — to get my kids

“Now that I’m sober, I have to admit life seems very boring. I’m
on antidepressants. I’m doing home healthcare, and I have another
part-time job at an auto body shop. I have to totally seclude
myself from all those people I used to hang out with, even my
cousins. “But my kids actually came out really good for all I put
them through. My son’s 18, he’s the helper. He helps everybody. He
fixes everything. He took care of his two little sisters while I
was getting high. I think he saved them. He stepped in; he made
sure the girls were ready for school.

“I have an A student. She’s a little pigheaded demon child. She
talks back, she argues. And she’s messy. But she’s really a good

“My middle child is really struggling. She’s always getting into
trouble. She saw my husband with a knife to my throat.

“It’s horrible not to have control over your emotions. I love
meth, but I hate it. I hate that I want to do it.”

Lyin’ Eyes

Not everybody believes that meth is destroying their lives. Brad
feels he’s maintaining pretty well. He’s 35, and has been using
meth since he was 28. He looks quite good, except for the sores on
his hands and a gory-looking fingernail. His eyes are perpetually
bloodshot, which he attributes to the apparent destruction of his
lachrymal glands. But he believes crystal meth has helped improve
his game of golf, which he takes very seriously.

Brad worked in a skilled trade steadily for eight years of his
life. Since starting on meth, however, he has taken and lost a
series of jobs. He recently acquired a new job with a weeks-on,
weeks-off schedule that he hopes will allow him to binge and clean
up in time to pass the random drug testing the job requires.
Whether or not he really believes this, it’s clear that meth is
doing a good job affecting his ability to see what’s really

One of the big lies meth tells is that everything is just fine,
because among its other actions, it floods the brain with four
times the amount of dopamine that cocaine provides, according to
the American Psychiatric Association, which bases its conclusions
on magnetic brain scans. And the dopamine keeps on coming. Dopamine
is thought to be the brain’s reward hormone, like chemical
applause, letting you know you’re doing great. Meanwhile, back in
reality, methamphetamine use truncates the terminals of the brain’s
dopamine-producing neurons, thereby damaging its ability to produce
enough dopamine under normal circumstances. Scientists are not sure
whether this damage is permanent, or merely long-lasting.

Last but not least, methamphetamine stimulates the adrenal
glands. In the short run, some studies suggest, this does indeed
improve mental acuity. The lie is that this effect will last.
Ultimately, the jacked-up attention becomes scattered, especially
after several days and nights without sleep. Confusion and
disorganization are signs by which cops identify tweakers who, too
jumpy to hold regular jobs, often try home businesses: Petty
burglary, petty theft, and that other old addict’s
standby — drug-dealing — are popular choices.

While many users start out thinking they can dip into meth
lightly as an occasional party drug or useful tool, things seldom
work out that way. It’s not only the psychiatrists and drug courts
who say so. Dealers, who unquestionably have the most firsthand
evidence, were willing to speak straightforwardly about it,
apparently unconcerned about discouraging their customer base.
“Some people try it and don’t like it,” said one. “If they take to
it, though, they keep taking it more and more frequently.” Some
people go downhill faster than others, of course. “I noticed a lot
of my customers were trying to get high,” said a guy who admitted
he used to sell it. “But they couldn’t anymore. They were tweaky
but couldn’t get that good feeling again, so they kept coming back
to buy more dope. That’s what I loved about them.” He charged $20
for a hit, which he said should have lasted all day. “They were
trying to get high, but it’s like with anything. One cup of coffee
gets you high, three and you get the shakes.” Some people, he said,
just can’t handle it. “I wouldn’t sell to people once I saw that
they were delusional, hallucinating, accusing people of plotting,
thinking every white van is full of cops.”

Though he considered himself to be an exemplary user, more
self-disciplined than most, he said he doubted he would ever lose
his craving for the drug, “No matter how many times I go through

Filling in the Cracks

The question everybody is pondering at the moment is what, if
anything, can be done to counter this growing epidemic. The South
County has long had a strong alcohol and drug recovery network,
including outpatient programs for adults and teenagers, detox beds
at both Cottage Hospital and the Rescue Mission, and numerous clean
and sober group homes. Public Defender Rick Barron, who represents
participants Santa Barbara Superior Court’s various drug diversion
calendars, believes Santa Barbara has “the Cadillac” of treatment
models, which may contribute to a lower crime rate here than in the
North County and other places. But will it work with crystal meth?
Families who have tried to intervene in loved ones’ meth use say
it’s not enough. They envision a state-of-the-art treatment center
where addicts can stay for as long as it takes to kick their

Though it would take an enormous effort to create such a
facility, it would not go empty. Eighty-five percent of
probationers receiving court-ordered drug treatment at Project
Recovery identify meth as their drug of choice, ahead of alcohol,
marijuana, and cocaine. Most of the teenagers at the Daniel Bryant
Youth and Family Treatment Center’s drug treatment program are
there because they got caught cutting school and using drugs, said
director Peter Gallway. Most got caught smoking marijuana, but 60
percent say they have tried meth.

Walking the Line

If there is any sign of hope in an unspeakably grim situation it
is that a recent study suggests that young people, in particular
teenagers, can to a great degree mend the damage done if they stop
early enough. But this is by no means easy. A shining example of
both the hope and the difficulty is the story of Deirdre.

Things were not going well for Deirdre even before she started
using drugs. She was prescribed antidepressants at 13 when her
father died of a cocaine overdose. Then at 14 she switched to meth.
She and her friends got into snorting meth while they were hanging
out at the now defunct Hot Spots, a coffee shop near the beach. It
was a big drug scene, she said. But what really hooked her was when
they went over to somebody’s house to smoke meth. “It was good if
you want to not cry over the loss of someone, or not be angry about
things,” she said. “It makes you feel like you can get through the

At the age of 16 she realized she was not getting through the
days at all well, and she quit cold turkey. She was paper thin, and
“going to die. I had sores all over my face and arms. My nails were
green and oozing puss, and my hair was falling out.”

Older, non-meth-using friends took her into their home. “At
first it was the worst anxiety and depression ever,” she said. “I
just smoked pot and played video games. Once I started walking to
town to score, and I ran into my friend, who was coming home from
his lunch break. He just looked at me and said, ‘Don’t do

The way I got well was, you just wake up in the morning and do
one thing that’s productive — read a book, paint, write in your
journal. When I was able to, I took classes that really interested
me, like philosophy and art.” She stayed for almost two months.
That was four years ago. Now she’s 20 and has finished two
semesters of school. She is sharing an apartment with friends, some
of whom are ex-tweakers, and she is trying to start a craft
business. “I’m proud that I fought the battle and won,” she said.
“I know I’m susceptible, but I fought the battle and won. I think
I’m a strong and vibrant person, and I love that.”

Deirdre has a dear friend named Colin, whom she’s known since
they were both hanging out at Hot Spots. Unlike Deirdre, Colin
always enjoyed school and did very well. His parents are both
professionals who sent him overseas to visit relatives when he
graduated from high school. This interrupted a three-month meth
habit that they never knew he had.

Photos from graduation day show him looking like a healthy,
gleeful, matriculating senior. He may have had some withdrawal
depression, but nothing that he could distinguish from
homesickness. Colin is courteous, handsome, full of ebullient good
humor. He’s studying and working in retail. He started using meth
again last summer. Unlike Deirdre, he doesn’t think it’s a

He and his friends are smart about taking meth, Colin said. They
make a point of eating three times a day when they use, even though
food is completely unappealing, and they take vitamins and drink
water. He only uses it on special occasions, as a party drug. His
personal record is staying awake for five-and-a-half days at the
Burning Man festival — then he ran out of meth. Most recently, he
used it when a friend of his got out of the military, and they
drove across the country in 36 hours, getting back in time for
Colin to go to work in the morning. Colin added that all the users
he knows minimalize their meth use — like gamblers who insist that
they always break even. Colin’s movements are lightning fast, but
some people are just like that. Some days he talks very quickly.
It’s hard to tell. But if he keeps using, eventually it will be

Deirdre thinks Colin is headed for trouble. “I do not believe
people can maintain on meth,” she said. “I think people think they
can. I think it takes beautiful, wonderful people and turns them
into nothingness, into empty canvasses where once there was beauty
and light and color and idea.” ■


Please note this login is to submit events or press releases. Use this page here to login for your Independent subscription

Not a member? Sign up here.