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There has been no shortage of local corollaries, albeit not quite so gruesome. And they have caught the public's attention. "Five years ago, 98 percent of the people in out-state communities didn't even know what a meth lab is," Stevens observes. "People in Ottertail County didn't. Then there was a woman up in Fergus Falls who was arrested for cooking. When she was released, she went to pick up her two-year-old child. She executed the child, then she killed herself. After that, people in Fergus Falls knew about meth."
If every meth lab in the state were shut down tomorrow, that would only address a small part of the state's meth problem. While local labs represent the biggest meth-related risk to the non-using public, the vast majority of meth is imported. Stevens estimates that 80 percent of the meth in Minnesota comes from Mexico. Easy access to bulk quantities of precursor chemicals allows the operators of Mexican "super labs" to churn out up to 50 pounds of product a day. Police have yet to uncover a single super lab in Minnesota. The biggest to date, according to Stevens, was an operation in Grand Rapids that had a capacity to make about five pounds at a time. Meanwhile, NAFTA has also worked in favor of the Mexican producers. With a huge increase in truck traffic between the U.S. and Mexico, smuggling product from one nation to the other has became much easier.
Despite the rising number of meth-lab busts in the state, some experts think that the extent of the meth problem here may have been overstated. "We may have the beginning of a methamphetamine epidemic. But the increases are much less in magnitude and scale than the increases we saw with cocaine in the mid-1980s," says Carol Falkowski, the director of research communications at the Hazelden Foundation in Center City. Since 1986, Falkowski has been tracking drug trends in the five-county metro area. Twice a year, she generates reports based on such things as emergency room mentions, medical examiner records, and treatment program admissions. Those reports are then submitted to the national Institute on Drug Abuse, and are used to inform national drug policy.
In 1997, Falkowski noticed a doubling in treatment admissions and a major spike in meth mentions in emergency room cases. The following year, those numbers went down slightly. "At the same time, the number of meth labs uncovered by law enforcement kept doubling. But we weren't seeing any of the other consequences. I wasn't picking up an increase in meth-related deaths or people coming into ERs or people in treatment." Falkowski's inference: A combination of publicity and targeted law enforcement efforts were fostering the appearance that meth was growing more quickly than it actually was. "Law enforcement kept talking about meth, so they kept getting federal grants. And whenever you get a federal grant for a particular drug, you are going to wind up arresting more people for that drug."
And, Falkowski notes, the numbers for admissions into treatment programs still suggest that the drug remains a distant fourth among commonly abused drugs in the five-county metro area. In the first six months of 2002, Falkowski says, treatment programs admitted about 4,800 people for alcohol abuse, 2,000 for marijuana, 1,000 for cocaine, and 460 for meth.
Still, Falkowski acknowledges that those figures may not accurately reflect relative levels of abuse. For one thing, meth users may be less likely to see treatment than alcoholics or pot smokers. Given the demographics of the drug, that seems plausible. Despite an increasing number of female users, meth users are predominantly 18-25-year-old working-class white males, a group less inclined to seek treatment than other addicts.
As methamphetamine use spread from the West Coast to the Midwest over the past decade, there have been a lot of scare stories. The conventional wisdom has it that meth addicts are highly resistant to treatment and, even after intervention, relapse at unprecedented rates. A recent Rolling Stone story put the problem in the starkest terms: Just six percent of meth addicts, the story claimed, get and stay sober.
The anecdotal evidence often appears to support such views, though the numbers vary. "The dramatic effects of this drug change the treatment dynamics considerably," offers Jack Whittkopp, the program director for chemical dependency services at the Austin Medical Center. "One of the alarming things that really stands out is that the relapse ratio is so high. Next to heroin it's probably the toughest drug to treat. You'll commonly see a 10-12 percent success rate for adolescents who've gone through treatment."
The reason: the depression and attention deficit problems that commonly accompany meth use. "The average person experiences a depletion of dopamine at a rate of approximately six-tenths of one percent a year," Whittkopp points out. "Serious meth users can accelerate that depletion at rates that range from 24 to 90 percent, which is staggering.
"This drug ages the brain significantly, and we're only now starting to see studies that suggest the scale of the problems down the road. You see 19-year-olds with depleted dopamine levels that you generally associate with people who are 59. We could potentially be looking at a whole bunch of cases of early-onset Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and all sorts of other neurological complications. The horrible thing, of course, is that you're not supposed to experience this kind of neurological damage until you're aged."