Meth Revisited

Written by Editorial Staff Category: Hot Topics Issue: October 2011
Group Free
Pin It

The Arizona Meth Project tackled meth use with a hardcore ad campaign several years ago, but did it work? Is the coast crystal clear, or did Arizonans simply find a new drug of choice?

Five years ago, Arizona teens – and, for that matter, Arizonans across the age spectrum – saw some of the most macabre and jarring mass-culture imagery ever deployed by anti-drug advocates. One provocative TV spot depicted a teenage party girl finding her

own drug-befouled doppelgänger lazing on a bathroom floor, covered in gaping facial sores and indeterminate crust.

“Don’t do it!” the Twilight Zone what-if-girl shrieks, referring to the crystal meth bender that her healthy past self is evidently contemplating.

The rank but innovative spot was the handiwork of the Meth Project, a nonprofit organization conceived and founded by Montana tech billionaire Thomas Siebel. Designed as a smash-mouth alternative to the rigid, buttoned-up ads of Just Say No and other bygone drug-prevention campaigns, it debuted in 2005 in Montana and was quickly franchised to other U.S. Western states grappling with meth use. Arizona’s imprint – the Arizona Meth Project – debuted in 2006.

At the time, the phenomenon of meth use – especially among teens – was aggressively billed as the next big drug scourge by state leaders, and for good reason: We did a ton of it. Studies revealed that one in six Arizonans between the ages of 18 and 24 had tried the drug at least once. Among teenagers 13 to 17, the figure was 4.6 percent, and that population composed fully 50 percent of the underage occupants to Arizona’s juvenile prison system. Each stat led the nation.

Five years later, Arizona’s once-rising meth tide appears to have ebbed considerably. First-time teen meth use is down, to the tune of 65 percent. Adult use is down, too. Meth lab busts have plummeted. The drug itself is no longer considered narcotic enemy No. 1, according to a wide spectrum of Arizona treatment experts, law enforcement officials and court personnel.

With the Meth Project and other similar initiatives entering a caretaker phase – or vanishing altogether – it seems like an appropriate time to take stock of Arizona’s meth problem. Has use of the drug reached a functional low point? If so, might Arizona focus its limited drug-prevention resources on the exploding rates of opiate and painkiller abuse?

Bags of crystal meth seized at a meth lab wait to be destroyed near Uruapan, Michoacan state, Mexico, in 2009

And if we do, will we run the risk of a relapse? While meth demand is down, the drug itself is cheaper and more widely accessible than ever. Is it a narcotic giant we dare wake?

Commonly known on the street as “crank” (typically a yellowish, lower purity form of the drug) and “ice” (high purity, clear in color), crystallized methamphetamine was first synthesized by Japanese chemist Akira Ogata in 1919. (In a reversal of tradition, it appears to be the rare product that the Japanese invented and Americans perfected.) In general terms, it works as a dopamine re-uptake inhibitor, flooding the user’s synapses with the pleasure-triggering dopamine neurotransmitter, which in turn produces feelings of euphoria, alertness, enhanced self-esteem and – sometimes, during the “crash” period at the end of the high – aggression.

Methampetamine was widely administered to German and Japanese troops during World War II. Purportedly, Japan’s infamous kamikaze pilots psyched themselves up for the suicidal task at hand by gobbling grandeur-inducing handfuls of Philopon, which was the trademarked prescription name of the drug.

Put simply, meth is agro. Perhaps this explains the methodology used by Meth Project Executive Director Jennifer Stagnaro and her staff to recruit their artistic collaborators, all edgy, kitchen-sink-style filmmakers with a firm grasp of human darkness. The Meth Project roster reads like a who’s-who of indie filmmaking darlings. The first and second “wave” of ads were directed by Tony Kaye, most famous for the skinhead drama American History X. The project’s celebrated wave-three ads were directed by Darren Aronofsky, he of the searing addiction drama Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. Subsequent campaigns were helmed by the likes of one-man human degradation machine Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu (21 Grams, Amores Perros) and Oscar-winning Inception cinematographer Wally Pfister.

The moral: If you want sexy cartoon bombshells and time-traveling cars, you call Robert Zemeckis. If you want soul-sickness and obliterated families, you call the guy who directed Requiem for a Dream.

“We always look for the best talent to tell this particular story,” says Stagnaro, who manages a skeleton crew of two Arizona staffers. “We want them to be well-recognized in the genre for how we convey messages, and can show the negative side of drugs in a real and gritty way in a 30-second ad.”

a soldier organizes the destruction of a clandestine meth lab.

Kaye’s bathroom-floor-tweaker spot – and its accompanying slogan, “Not even once” – were derided as too heavy-handed by some critics. In a 2006 article, Phoenix New Times reporter Sarah Fenske noted that the initial Montana Meth Project, while achieving high recognition scores among teens and young adults, actually attended an increase in first-time meth use by teens. Other critics noted that many teens knew friends that tried meth on one or a few occasions, and not all of them were transformed into rot-mouthed bathroom floor fodder.

The first-wave ads – including a billboard featuring an image of meth-rotted teeth – were intended as attention-grabbers, says Stagnaro: “The reaction we got across the board, from people who knew about meth to those who didn’t, were stunning in their consistency.”

In Aronofsky’s wave-three ads, the initial criticisms of heavy-handedness seemed to be addressed. One of the most memorable spots featured a strung-out teenager pounding on the front door of his parents’ home, begging to be let in for the night. On the other side of the door, his careworn mother tells him to go away. The viewer can see that she’s reached the end of her tether; we also see her enormous grief. It was intense but hardly exploitative or alarmist. “That campaign was designed to show the collateral effect of meth use on families and parents,” Stagnaro says. It also gave teens and young adults the benefit of the doubt – that their decisions about drug-use could be predicated on more than hygienic boogeymen and reflexive self-interest.

Naturally, the extent to which the Arizona Meth Project was responsible for the encouraging figures on declining use can be debated. Stricter sentencing policies are also credited, as is wider prescription drug availability – because, after all, illegal drug use is fickle and trend-dominated like any other consumer ecosystem. However, the Meth Project’s success on one front seems beyond debate: It successfully – and, perhaps, permanently – branded meth as the stuff of Arizona’s art-house drug nightmare. It seems unlikely that any prospective first-time user could contemplate the drug and not imagine that sore-infested girl on the floor, or one of the campaign’s other indelible images.

Creative genius nothwithstanding, it’s important to remember that Aronofsky and the other Meth Project filmmakers did not pull their images and scenarios out of thin air. Those TV spots were based on real stories. Real people. People like Sean.

“Whenever I talk to people about those commercials, I say ‘Yep, that’s exactly the way it goes down,’” the 23-year-old ex-user says.

Sean, who asked PHOENIX magazine to withhold his surname, tells an especially harrowing and vivid story of addiction. His six-year battle with the drug traced all the expected plot points – exposure and addiction, larceny and prison, recovery and relapse – but with amplitudes of desperation and daring that amaze even people accustomed to such tales. In other words, he was no run-of-the-mill addict. He was a Meth Project commercial unto himself.

A self-described “brat from Fountain Hills,” Sean did not the fit the classic profile of a would-be drug-addicted minor when he first tried meth at 15. “I was a really smart and gifted kid when I was younger,” he recalls. “I wanted to be a writer, so I’d fill these journals with short stories I wrote. Mostly children’s fantasies. Like Harry Potter.” While his classmates were futzing on MySpace, Sean managed to crank out a 350-page fantasy novel.

He also enjoyed support at home. Though divorced, his parents were interested and engaged. When Sean saw an advertisement for a two-seat gyrocopter in a magazine, he begged his father – an aviation enthusiast who worked as a mechanic for Delta Airlines – to buy it. “We bought the kit and built it together and it turned out to be this really amazing bonding experience,” Sean says.

Meanwhile, a dark passenger hibernated in the recesses of Sean’s teenage psyche. He recalls being a “lonely kid who never fit in” and was “always too afraid to ask a girl out” – common enough teenage hang-ups, to be sure, but especially acute in this lonely, girl-shy teen. When he was a toddler, Sean was mauled on the face by a neighbor’s pet chow. The attack left him with a permanent slash of pink scar tissue from eye to mouth – and a pronounced case of self-consciousness.

Sean’s social fortunes seemed to improve during his sophomore year in high school. He got taller. He filled out. He met a cute girl at school; astoundingly, she asked him to the winter Sadie Hawkins dance. “I was absolutely stoked,” he recalls. “It was my chance to get a girlfriend. I didn’t want to blow it.” They arranged to meet at her house before the dance. Being polite, she invited him inside to meet her mother. In the kitchen, he found the mother and three of her friends sitting around a table, casually snorting crystal methamphetamine off a small mirror.

They greeted him warmly and offered him a line. He and the girl never made it to the dance.

This was the precise point of embarkation for Sean’s six-year meth odyssey: a meeting of poisonous serendipity that would define his entire young adulthood. It didn’t feel that way at first. Which is to say, it wasn’t a bad or unpleasant experience, getting jacked sky-high with four strange women on a random Saturday night in somebody’s kitchen. On the contrary, the drug sent waves of pleasure and confidence surging through Sean’s body. “The first thought that went through my mind was that I was invincible,” he says. “You know, the most powerful kid in school. It was a revelation. I was amazed that I’d never realized it before.” The emotional connection he made with his new friends that night felt real and important. They were interesting. He was interesting. The experience was a world apart from the time he tried marijuana, which made him introspective and neurotic. That was inward. This was fully, gloriously outward.

Sean’s narcotic deflowering predated the Arizona Meth Project by at least a year, but he still had a sense that the drug was dangerous, so he initially tried to limit his use to every other Saturday. Then it became “just Saturdays.” Then “just weekends.” And so on. “I would constantly draw a line in the sand, and then step over it,” he says. “You know, I’d tell myself I’d only do it on weekends, but then my weekends would include Fridays and Mondays.” Finding the drug wasn’t a problem. His girlfriend’s mom always had a fat stash.

Within a few months, Sean was an everyday user. “It got to the point when there wasn’t a minute in the day that I wasn’t thinking about getting high,” he remembers. Swiftly, he fell into the patterns of emotional volatility and theft memorably depicted in the Meth Project’s third wave of advertisements. He stole from his father. He flew into inconsolable rages when he couldn’t get a fix. During one fit, he tossed his laptop computer off the home’s balcony, obliterating the hard-drive and his 350-page novel along with it.

Sean’s multi-day, sleepless meth binges were undermining his grip on reality. “You start to experience what they call a meth psychosis, where you don’t sleep for three or four days and you literally start to lose your mind,” he says. Hallucinations and delusions are commonplace. Users commonly report hearing people hiding in walls or feeling spiders crawl over their bodies. Sean’s personal hallucinogenic companion was a white tiger: “He used to follow me around. He wasn’t threatening. It was like he was my friend.”

These extreme periods of sleeplessness were followed by proportional binges of sleep – sometimes up to 48 hours long, Sean estimates. After one marathon sleep session, he awoke to find a haggard stranger staring back at him in the bathroom mirror. “I didn’t know where I was or who I was,” he says. “My fingernails were yellow. I had black mold on my teeth, I guess from having my mouth closed for so long. It was so gross.” That morning, Sean’s father returned from a flying trip to Wickenburg. He was in bad shape, hobbled and black-eyed after crashing the gyrocopter. He had tried to contact his son from the hospital, but the then-17-year-old had been too zonked-out to hear the phone. Seeing his son in a comparably sorry state was too much.

“I’ve only seen my dad cry twice in my lifetime,” Sean says. “The first was when my parents divorced. This was the other time.”

Tearfully, Sean promised to get clean and straighten out his life. He helped his father up to his room and into bed. He fetched a glass of water and put it on the nightstand. On his way out of the bedroom, Sean glimpsed his dad’s wallet on the dresser. Naturally, he took it. “When I made the promise to get clean, I meant it,” Sean reflects. “But as soon I turned away, it was all about my next fix.”

Any functional capacity Sean had left as a student and son vanished completely by the second month of his senior year of high school. First, he was expelled from school. Then his father expelled him from the family home, forcing him to couch-surf with friends and fellow tweakers.

Getting kicked out of the house wasn’t the wake-up call for Sean that his father undoubtedly wished for. In fact, homelessness accelerated Sean’s larcenous tendencies. Property crime, larceny theft and burglary are often sited as comorbid companions of widespread methamphetamine use, and in 2005, at the pinnacle of Arizona’s meth crisis, the state ranked first, second at fourth in these three categories, respectively, according to an article in the Christian Science Monitor.

Sean, who started his career as a petty thief by relieving unlocked cars of their stereos and unsecured valuables, kicked it up a notch. He started ripping off homes – preferably in broad daylight while the residents were away at work. He even cultivated his own signature burgling technique, pulling the red-handled engagement cord on the home’s garage door opener so the whirring of the disengaged motor would give him a few extra seconds of escape time if the occupant caught him in flagrante delicto. 

Sean was nothing if not prolific, and he preferred only the finest neighborhoods. He recalls playing hooky from a self-help seminar, paid for by his father, and breaking into eight homes in Scottsdale’s Doubletree area over two afternoons. 

Meanwhile, he was losing his teeth, and his body “was going down the tubes,” he recalls. He occasionally suffered seizures. He was penniless and disconsolate. One day, Sean broke into his father’s home and sat on his boyhood bed, reflecting on the waste of it all. “I was 18 and I’d given away everything in my life,” he says. “All I had was fear – fear of not finding meth, fear of red-and-blue flashing lights. I got on my knees and prayed for God to either kill me or help me.”

Three hours later, a Scottsdale police department SWAT team burst into the home. The authorities had been investigating Sean’s crime spree for some time. They ultimately were able to place him at one of the crime scenes by matching his DNA with saliva he left on a soda can.

Sean was saved. In a manner of speaking.

His subsequent trial and conviction on five felony counts of burglary and theft was not the end of Sean’s meth ordeal, but it was the beginning of the end. In the interim, there was a prison term, two relapses, a skipped-bail episode wherein he fled to California and served 30 days for grand-theft auto, and – most vividly – the time he slept in a neighbor’s stolen BMW for three days.

The end came in 2009, when Sean found himself shivering and semi-conscious on the floor of the Madison Street Jail in Phoenix. He had urinated on himself. The other prisoners looked at him like he was a monster. “It was a bunch of drunks, murderers and thieves, and I realized they were afraid of me,” he says. “That was the moment I decided to live.” Sean was released on “intensive probation” – meaning he was surveilled regularly by a case officer – and started learning some of the adult life skills he neglected while chasing meth, like doing his own laundry and paying down debts. Reluctantly, but firmly, he bid adieu to the white tiger.

Now sober for more than two years, Sean shares his tale of addiction and survival with youth groups via the Scottsdale arm of Not My Kid, a national nonprofit organization that educates teenagers on the perils of substance abuse and other high-risk behaviors. Sean, who remembers the anti-gang-and-drug D.A.R.E program from his own days as a schoolboy, believes that hearing drug-addiction testimony from someone like himself is more effective deterrent for teens than “hearing it from a 50-year-old cop,” good intentions aside.

To a large extent, the future of Arizona’s meth-use prevention effort may hinge on people like Sean, because large-scale public-service campaigns seem to be on the wane. In 2006, then-Governor Janet Napolitano launched the Arizona Methamphetamine Task Force, a multi-agency effort designed to take a “holistic” approach to the state’s meth problem by authoring a 10-point plan for eradicating the drug. That program was dissolved in 2009. Moreover, the Arizona Meth Project itself has tamped down its activity in recent years. Initially funded with $5.6 million in local and federal money, the campaign aired sparingly in 2010 as Arizona municipalities cut spending to balance their budgets.

“Funding is always a tricky thing,” Stagnaro concedes. “Currently our funding is predominantly from the private sector.”

Ironically, anti-meth funding could be a victim of its own success. According to Rich Rosky, a retired MCSO captain who currently works as the program coordinator for the federally-managed Southwest Border High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program, the declining rates of meth use (“They’ve gone down every year for four years,” he says) have coincided with a spike in the abuse of prescription drugs, especially among teens. “It’s identical to what we were experiencing 20 years ago with meth,” Rosky says. “And the age range with the highest abuse rates is 17 to 20.”

Health experts agree that prescription drugs – particularly pain-killing opiates like OxyContin and Vicodin – have supplanted meth as Arizona’s foremost upward-trending abuse narcotic. “Opiates and painkillers are really rampant in both teen and adult populations – they’ve taken over, if you will,” says Phoenix-based addiction specialist Dr. Lawrence Sideman. “One of the problems is that [the drugs] are so easy to obtain at the outset. You just open up any grandparents’ medicine cabinet and there it is. In the professional sector, too. It cuts across all age and demographic groups.”

Long the scourge of Appalachian rural communities, where OxyContin acquired the nickname “Hillbilly Heroin,” illicit prescription drug consumption has exploded nationwide in concert with growing legal consumption. According to figures released by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, retail pharmacies dispensed 174 million prescriptions for opiates in 2000; by 2009, 257 million prescriptions were dispensed – an increase of 48 percent. Experts like Sideman say that a hefty percentage of those prescriptions will inevitably fall into the hands of illicit users.

“You also have people who go to multiple physicians to get the same drug,” Sideman adds. “Managed care just doesn’t allow the time to do a thorough background check on all your patients’ prescription histories.”

According to enforcement expert Rosky and addiction expert Sideman, the strong gusts of prescription drug abuse are fanning a resurgence of the arch-villain of early 1990s drug prevention: heroin. “Across the country, you’re seeing a spike in heroin cases,” Sideman says. “People will get hooked on painkillers and then go to heroin, because it’s often easier to find. And [the uses] are much higher up in the socioeconomic world. Heroin used to be a bowery drug. Not anymore.”

Though the physical and psychological depredations of opiate addiction tend to be less cinematic than those of meth abuse, experts caution against underestimating its net destructive effect. “The thing that’s most dramatic and scary about opiate abuse is that people die from it,” Rosky says. “When you look at emergency room mortality rates, you see that fatal overdoses from opiates have gone up 300 percent over the last five years. It’s now the second-leading cause of accident fatalities in Arizona, behind car wrecks.”

Moreover, opiate dependency is at least as onerous as methamphetamine addiction, according to experts. Maricopa County Superior Court Commissioner Keelan Bodow sees hundreds of paroled narcotics offenders on a weekly basis in her capacity as a drug court officer. The parolees run the drug-use gamut, from middle-aged heroin addicts to teenage pill-junkies. Some make it through the program clean, some don’t. And in her experience, “people who abuse opiates are the ones who have the most trouble staying clean and staying out of jail. Even more so than meth users.”

Is an Arizona Opiate Project warranted? As Sean, the reformed meth addict, points out, “It would have to be a different approach. Capturing someone freaking on meth is different than someone nodding off to heroin.”

In fact, a handful of opiate-abuse prevention ads have made their way to Arizona television. In Rosky’s opinion, the most effective is a Drug Free Arizona public service announcement in which the viewer is asked to look at a pair of side-by-side corpses in a morgue, and is then told that one died from a prescription drug overdose, and the other from heroin. “Can you tell the difference?” the narrator asks.

The upshot being: Just because something comes out of a medicine cabinet, it doesn’t mean it can’t kill you.

To skeptics, America’s war on drugs can look like a game of Whac-A-Mole – beat down one illicit drug, and see another take its place. Drug-prevention and law enforcement professionals such as Rosky cringe at such analogies, because they minimize the concrete gains achieved through their efforts.

Still, the reality is daunting. While meth consumption in Arizona is down, availability is greater than ever. “In terms of trafficking, we’ve actually seen an increase,” says Rosky. “We’ve had record seizures along the border in 2011 – four seizures of over 100 pounds, which is more than all of last year.” And that’s only what officials managed to catch. According to a July 31, 2011, article in The Arizona Daily Star, “Tucson police estimate law enforcement may be catching only 10 percent of what is moved through Pima County.”

According to Rosky, the meth streaming northward from Mexican super-labs has filled the void left by smaller domestic operations, i.e., the motel room and trailer-park labs, many of which were strangled by Arizona’s successful efforts to limit pseudoephedrine sales. Found in over-the-counter analgesics like Sudafed, pseudoephedrine is the precursor compound of the so-called “D” form of meth – the more powerful and popular of the two most common forms of the drug.

The Mexican government has similarly banned large-scale pseudoephedrine sales. Hence, most Mexican drug labs have resorted to the time-honored “P2P” method of methamphetamine synthesis, employing two chemicals – phenylacetone and methylamine – that are strictly controlled in the U.S. but are more readily attainable in Mexico. “The P2P method is how the bike gangs used to make it when they ran the industry,” Rosky says.

This modern-day Mexican “corporate” meth is cheaper than ever. It’s also purer, which means a more predictable high. Interestingly, Rosky says that small-scale American labs have stayed afloat by using “smurfers” – i.e., junkie minions who fan out to drug stores and contribute their legal, two-box-a-day maximum allotment of pseudoephedrine to the meth-making effort. Black-market boxes of Sudafed can sell for $30 each. Each one makes about a gram of meth, which typically sells for $60 to $80 on the street, Rosky says.

All the more reason for state leaders to keep meth on the drug-prevention radar, say experts. Soon, kids too young to remember the initial wave of Meth Project ads will enter the at-risk 13-to-17 age group. Will they be as educated as the previous generation?

Sean, for one, hopes Arizona doesn’t suffer a meth relapse. And he should know.

“Getting clean was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” the one-time addict says. “And I’m still trying to feel like my old self.”