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One Radical Opinion

by "Radical" Russ Belville
Saturday, March 5, 2005

"Radical" Russ Belville was born on the first day of the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War in the town of Nampa in the "red" state of Idaho, where any opinion to the left of Reagan gets you labeled as "radical". He currently resides in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon (a.k.a. "Little Beirut") where he works in Information Technology. In his spare time, he enjoys writing about current events, playing the six-string bass guitar, and volunteering for liberal political causes. You can contact him via e-mail at letters 'at' radicalruss.net.

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The Oregonian recently ran a series about the horrors of methamphetamine abuse. Part of the feature was a set of police mug shots showing people before they had taken a lot of the drug and after. The "befores" were your typical mug shot – the sullen, confused, disheveled faces of someone freshly arrested. The "afters" showed the scariest aspect of meth – the scars and sores on well-worn faces, aged far beyond their years, with eyes glazed and distant. The pictures of these "meth monsters" were very popular and spread far and wide across the internet.

You can't peruse the local news without being bombarded about the ravages of meth. On the TV you see the images of police in hazardous materials suits retrieving beakers and chemicals from the latest neighborhood meth lab to be busted. On the radio you hear about the thieves who are stealing scrap metal from construction sites or off the sides of roadway railings or bridges, to be turned in for recycling cash to fund the next meth binge. In the paper you read about desperate meth addicts operating the latest identity theft ring. On the internet you see the pictures of the filthy houses and neglected children of meth-addicted parents. Meth seems to be everywhere, destroying lives, creating crime, harming children, and endangering the community.

Yes, the meth monsters are out there, and many people can't sympathize with the plight of these sick, desperate people. It's obvious that the drug is incredibly destructive and highly addictive. It's made with some dangerous and awful chemicals. We've seen the faces of people whose lives have been destroyed by meth. So who in their right mind would ever put something like that in their body?

Me.

Hold on there, don't worry, you're not reading the speed-fueled ramblings of a pock-marked monster. My affair with methamphetamine was an eighteen-month roller coaster ride that ended back in the mid-1990's. It's been ten years since my nose last experienced the propane-scented burning sensation of what my associates referred to as "crank". I never stole or operated a lab or neglected any kids or suffered the sores on my skin. I was one of the lucky ones; I survived relatively unscathed, just a big old scar on my lower abdomen (more on that later).

What could lead a smart young man to try such a dangerous drug? In my case it was a mix of distrust for authority, opportunity, and not being as smart as I thought. I was in a hard rock band and partying was part of the lifestyle. Total strangers were always very kind to the band – the women would offer free sex and the men would offer free drugs. In retrospect, I was more worried and protected myself better from the consequences of the sex. An unwanted pregnancy or a sexually-transmitted disease seemed like a more realistic danger than drug addiction or overdose. I guess I was thinking, "I can't control a woman's body or what she does with it; but I can control my own body and what I do with it."

"Authority" had always told me that all drugs are bad and using drugs would lead inexorably toward despair and death. Yet through the late-1980's and early-1990's, I had experimented with various drugs and seen none of the ill effects "authority" had always warned me about. Marijuana didn't turn me into an unemployed slacker with no short-term memory. I always held down good full-time technical jobs working with and programming computers. LSD (acid) and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) never made me paranoid-schizophrenic or jump out an open window believing I could fly. They did make "Pink Floyd: The Wall" much more interesting and they did open my mind to incredible realizations and perceptions. MDMA (ecstasy) didn't make me dance all night with a glowstick until I died of dehydration or eat away holes in my brain. It did make me want to hug everyone and babble endlessly about love. Even cocaine, a drug I was a bit scared of, didn't grip me in the hopeless life-destroying addiction I had been warned about. It put some pep in my step, made me feel like king of the world, led to a very fun evening, and the next day it was over and I didn't care if I ever had any again. I was young and invincible and none of the bogeyman dangers about drugs that "authority" scared me with ever came to pass.

So in the mid-90's when the opportunity arose to snort a line of crank, I was ready to ignore all the dread warnings of "authority". I asked my friend if it was cocaine. He said, "No, it's crank." What's the difference? I wondered. "It's much cheaper and lasts much longer," he replied. With friends like that, who needs enemies?

When you snort that first line you immediately wish you hadn't. Have you ever drank a root beer, then coughed or laughed so that the carbonation backs up into your nasal passages? Have you gotten a caustic chemical like bleach or lye on your skin and felt that chemical eating into your flesh? Have you ever had really bad heartburn and belched up a small bit of bile that you could taste? Have you ever bitten into something cold and gotten that sharp pain in the metal fillings in your teeth? Okay, mix those four feelings together, multiply times five, and put it right in the center of your skull – that's the first thing you feel when you snort crank.

But after your eyes stop watering, your nose stops running, and your brain finishes thinking, "what the hell was that?" the ride begins. Meth increases your heart rate and jolts your nervous system into an immediate state of alert. You've never felt so "awake" in your life. It's like every cell in your body is hyper-motivated. Everything looks crystal clear, as if you have a heightened perception of all the detail and complexity of the world. Adrenaline and dopamine flood your body, making you feel euphoric and excited. And you better hope you didn't make any plans, because this feeling is going to last eight to twelve hours.

Meth is the all-American drug. It addresses most of the pressures we all face on a day-by-day basis. Are you working extra shifts, driving the long-haul late into the night, or staying up to cram for a test? Well, if Red Bull gives you wings, meth gives you jet engines. Are you desperate to lose those few pounds to fit into the next lower dress size or the "skinny" jeans? Slim Fast may help you lose the weight and keep it off, but meth will slim you faster and you can still eat anything you want (you just won't want to). Are you having trouble focusing on your menial detail-oriented factory job, fast-food shift, or college studies? Meth makes the hours fly by and even the most tedious, repetitive tasks seem interesting. Are you not feeling very sexy, either because of pent-up inhibitions or lack of stamina? Meth is fuel of all-night orgies and turns the shiest wallflowers into raving nymphomaniacs. Work hard. Be thin. Go fast. Get laid. Meth promises the tantalizing world of a beer commercial.

Then there's the business side of meth. A few hundred dollars investment in some mostly-legal chemicals yields tens of thousands of dollars in profits. No foreign tariffs, laws, or border inspections to worry about; all the supply and production can be handled domestically. Labor costs are reasonably low and there's none of those unions, labor laws, safety regulations, or other headaches. A couple of people can handle the work in a shack, a motel room, or even a car, so there's little overhead. There's a small risk of labor being imprisoned, but there's always plenty more workers to be found. Why, it's entrepreneurship and innovation as American as Wall Street. Furthermore, it's got such a huge supply and efficient distribution chain that all the producers, suppliers, and retailers along the line can reap reasonable profits while still maintaining bargain basement prices for the customer. Heck, that's management and business acumen worthy of Wal-Mart.

Many people get started on meth because they do get those benefits. The term paper gets an "A", the jeans fit, they make the all-night drive, or they have a lot of fun at the party. The drug is cheap and efficient. The problem is that it never stays that way. Another friend of mine once said, "Taking speed is like getting a loan on your body's future energy – eventually you have to pay it back, with interest." In the beginning, that interest rate is one of those low introductory rates like credit card companies always offer. Those eight to twelve hours of crank-fueled hyperactivity pass and your body comes calling for that loan payment. Then you either pay off the loan ("crash" for ten or more hours) or, as is more likely for anyone with a busy schedule and a heap of debt, you pay the minimum payment by doing more meth.

Of course when this cycle continues, taking the meth is less like a beer commercial and more like alcoholism – you start because you want to, you continue because you need to, you can't stop because you just have to have that drug. We used to call the second stage "taking a little bump", just a hit to maintain a level of not-awful. This level of maintenance-high never brings you back to the fun of the first lines. Plus, like those credit cards, the interest rate goes up. After three or four days of staying awake, you have to sleep for two or three days straight. Or you do more meth.

At this point the lesser-addicted users like me would give in. Time to take a nap. Time to eat something. And maybe just a few days or a week or two where you don't do any meth at all. But eventually the opportunity comes along, and you're surprised to find that after abstaining for a while, the first line is fun again. Not as fun as the first first line, but more fun than any second line.

This is the path to those "after" pictures and a life of stealing scrap metal. These are the "tweekers". The name comes from the sight of a stammering, sweaty, shaking speed freak constantly picking at their skin and tweaking with pointless repetitive projects, like taking a clock apart, organizing yarn, or rebuilding a carburetor. They lack enough concentration, commitment, and frankly, hygiene to keep a job. They're human lab rats trained to (a) get money, (b) buy drugs, and (c) tweak. Also, "tweekers" are the ones who get to the point of smoking the crank, or worst of all, injecting it directly into the veins.

I was oddly fortunate because meth sent me a very clear warning about mortality before I ever attained my "tweeker" merit badge. Part of the physical effect of long-term meth use is that it causes your body to deteriorate, not only the pock-marked sores on your skin, but your teeth rotting out of your head, your eyesight failing, and as I found out, weakening of the body's internal tissues. I had spent many crank-fueled all-nighters at gigs where I had thrown around heavy speakers and amplifiers, and the lining in my intestinal wall had weakened.

One night while I slept I suffered a nasty lower abdominal hernia that awakened me with a very sharp pain. Yet I still lay there, afraid to go to a hospital, worried I'd get in trouble with the police somehow. I laid there until the blood flow to my lower abdomen was so restricted that I reached down to find a very cold, very blue, very shriveled set of twig and berries. I called someone to drive me to the hospital because few men would not choose incarceration over castration.

Four hours later I was out of surgery. I had a nice little scar and a profound new understanding of life. I joked with the surgeon that I was glad I didn't have to lose my little general and two privates. He told me, "Russ, three more hours later you would have lost your life." Who knew hernias could be so deadly?

But I also had a tremendous support system. I had a very close family with some education and understanding about drug addiction. I had other friends – real friends – who could welcome me back to a world lacking those temptations. I had no criminal record, a decent education, and very marketable job skills. Not everyone in life is as lucky as me. Some of the people I ran around with then also managed to make it out. Others continued to use, some went to jail, a couple died. Some got help, some were never offered any help, and some refused the help that was offered. No one I know who made it out made it out alone – someone reached out to help them.

So when I see the "tweeker" mug shots on the TV or the newspaper, I always remember that under different circumstances, that could have been my picture. I don't have all the solutions to the attack of the meth monsters, but I highly doubt they include locking up all the "tweekers" in prisons, hiding the Sudafed in the grocery store pharmacy, and running a perpetual media scare campaign about meth monsters. I'll bet spending more money on teachers, social workers, schools, and healthcare would help, but I'm not so naïve as to think that would wipe out all drug abuse and crime.

One thing we can all do is to calm some of this drug hysteria in general and this meth-monster hysteria in particular. We need to accept that throughout history some people have always done drugs. Societies have always tried various punitive means to eliminate the problem with no degree of success. We need to think of new ways to regulate and control drugs, for our Prohibition experiment in the 20th century and our ongoing War on Drugs have proven to be failures. We've seen success when we regulate alcohol and tobacco, and when combined with health education, social scorn, and tough laws against drunk driving and second-hand smoke, we've seen the rates of use and social harms decline. We've seen failure when we allow criminals to control the drug markets, and when combined with exaggerated scare tactics, enormous profits, and tough laws against simple possession, we've seen the rates of use and social harms increase.

The next time you see those photos, just remember that those are sick people who deserve some compassion. Encourage the media to follow up on drug treatment and prison reforms. Tell your representatives to start looking at new and creative ways of harm reduction like drug courts, public funding of drug treatment, and realistic measures of reclassification, decriminalization, and regulation of drugs. It's time for some changes.