UTAH COUNTY — “I started really young. … I started using meth when I was 17,” he said.
“From there, I liked it too much. You come to this point where you start feeding the addiction, not the high.”
Methamphetamine is, according to statistics from arrests made within Utah County, one of the most widely abused drugs in Utah County, along with heroin.
In 2015, someone was arrested for dealing meth in nearly every city in Utah County. And even more have been arrested for possession, according to arrests.
Zach, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, used to be among those who regularly used meth and other drugs to “feed the addiction.” He started at 17 and got sober in 2011.
“Once you get really heavily involved in it, it gets to the point where you get sick unless you do it,” he said.
“People need to be aware that it is a dangerous drug,” said Sgt. Scott Rich of the Orem Police Department. “When people become addicted to meth, it’s a hard lifestyle.”
According to the Foundation for a Drug Free World, methamphetamine stands out from many drugs in that it is a synthetic, further enhancing its volatility. Meth is commonly made using cold remedies or other common drugs as a base. These are then mixed with other chemicals, such as battery acid, antifreeze or even lantern fuel, to deliver the hazardous substances to the user via syringe or inhalation.
Bruce Chandler with Utah County Health Department helps with the treatment and prevention of drug addiction every day. From what he’s seen, health effects from meth abuse begin immediately after consumption.
“It has pretty marked health consequences pretty quick,” he said. “It’s like putting rocket fuel in a Volkswagen.”
Chandler said the energy spike is a central, initial appeal of meth.
“It gives you boundless energy,” Chandler said. “You lose weight, you feel like you’re on top of the world and can accomplish anything.”
But the side effects of the energy high are incredibly harmful. Chandler said meth can cause one to refuse food for days, refuse sleep and have panic-related hallucinations.
Once the high wears off, then comes the crash. The user will typically sleep for a few days, all the while not eating and furthering the unnatural weight loss.
“I could barely sleep at all,” Zach said. “I would wake up in the middle of the night, drooling, my muscles would be tensed up. It was gross.”
Chandler said all the side effects combine to make the drug more abused by women than men.
“This is the first drug where there were more women than men [abusing],” he said. “That energy, that thought that you can be super-mom, that sort of thing, was pretty appealing.”
But that’s just the short term effects.
Unlike heroin, meth use cannot kill, Chandler said. He said it can lead one to make poor decisions, which may result in death, but it cannot kill. But it can decay one’s life.
The following is a list of the long-term health consequences of meth abuse, provided by the Foundation for a Drug Free World:
- Permanent damage to blood vessels of heart and brain, high blood pressure leading to heart attacks, strokes and death
- Liver, kidney and lung damage
- Destruction of tissues in nose if sniffed
- Respiratory (breathing) problems if smoked
- Infectious diseases and abscesses if injected
- Malnutrition, weight loss
- Severe tooth decay
- Disorientation, apathy, confused exhaustion
- Strong psychological dependence
- Damage to the brain similar to Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and epilepsy
“From the inside out and the outside in, it really nails people,” Chandler said.
How the drug came to the U.S.
Meth is not new to the country, despite its recent popularity. It was actually used in World War II to keep troops awake on both sides. In the 1950s, it was prescribed to people as a diet aid and anti-depressant.
But in 1970, it was made illegal in the country, and 20 years later, Mexican drug cartels built their massive laboratories near the California-Mexico border, bringing meth to the community.
“Anyone that wants to get into it can access meth fairly easily,” Rich said.
“It’s disturbing to me to know that our country has such an insatiable appetite for these drugs,” said Lt. Dennis Harris with Utah County Major Crimes.
Harris said in addition to the large-scale labs, mom-and-pop meth shops were common 20 years ago.
“People were making methamphetamine in their bedrooms and their kitchens,” Harris said. “We as a task force were responding weekly to numerous meth labs.”
But Utah legislators banned many of the means and methods “cooks” used to make meth, making the kitchen labs uncommon.
Prior to this ban, Utah was one of the biggest distributors of precursor chemicals in the country, Harris said.
Its presence in Utah now
Since kitchen labs became less common, meth is primarily obtained through dealers, Rich said.
“Most of the meth we’re seeing is coming out of Mexico,” Rich said. “We used to have more homegrown labs. Every once in a while, we’ll have a lab, but usually they go to Salt Lake, get meth, come down here and deal.”
Salt Lake City, Rich said, is not only the capitol of the state but also the capitol of the meth underground. Many contacts from Mexico live in Salt Lake, he said, which may be why it is a hot-bed for drug distribution.
“I think you have, for a lack of better term, a better connection,” Rich said.
Meth-related arrests have occurred in every city in Utah County in 2015. The Provo/Orem area has more total arrests, but when it comes to arrests per capita, the cities are right on par with most of the county, according to statistics from arrest records.
But oftentimes, arresting a user, or even a dealer, is just scratching the surface of the meth business.
“Many times, we’re only hitting the tip of the iceberg,” Harris said. “[Distributors] may be distributing to 20-30 different people.”
“Utah is the crossroads of the West, literally,” Chandler said. “A lot of drugs, regardless of the flavor, that are made in Mexico come right up through here.”
Combating meth abuse is a constant battle as drugs seem to appear out of nowhere across the county. The major crimes task force works with other county agencies to fight crime in every city.
But drug dealers are becoming harder and harder to identify for police officers and even harder to track down.
“We’re always trying to stay a step ahead,” Rich said. “It’s tough because the people who bring it in are knowledgeable about their trade and they try to keep us a step behind.”
Rich said people who bring drugs into Utah County are very knowledgeable about the laws and about the parameters that they can work in. Those parameters, Rich said, are the most difficult part of the job.
Zach said he had an epiphany one day, after overdosing on several different drugs, that his life was going nowhere if he kept using.
“It just scared me so bad that I didn’t want to be living that life anymore,” he said.
This surprised him, because he never believed he could get clean.
“I was so far gone,” he said. “I never even thought when I was in the thick of it that I’d have the strength to stay clean for so long.”
Zach celebrated four years of sobriety on April 24. Zach went cold turkey when he got clean, but it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Zach went through intense cravings, and he said it felt like his body was in a constant hunger for drugs.
“The craving is really, really tough,” Chandler said. “The withdrawal from meth is actually pretty easy. … But getting over the craving is the hard part.”
Chandler said neurologically, the craving is damaging because of the intense emotions connected to memories of getting high. He said users remembered those highs and crave them, deeply.
But if the user can get clean, Zach said the hardest part was looking at who he was as an addict.
“I think the scariest thing was that you feel like you’re living in the world, but you have no sense of reality,” he said. “And you don’t realize that until you get sober when you realize how wrapped up you were.”
Zach said he has a lot of friends who still use drugs, and it hurts him to know there’s little he can do. He said the more one pushes, the greater the chance their loved one may push away.
“That’s the hardest part,” he said. “Obviously, you know what’s best for them and you just want them to get clean. But the decision must come from them.”
Harris said he tries to keep perspective to never lose hope in those he arrests.
“The thing I do understand is these people are someone’s child,” he said. “They are loved. There’s someone who deeply cares for them.
Rich said people need to recognize the signs of drug use and abuse to help prevent further damage to a user.
Though drug use within Utah County is statistically lower than more populous areas in the state, methamphetamine use still permeates through Utah County with people becoming addicted every day.
“Meth is out in the public,” Rich said. “It is what it is. It’s highly addictive and it’s highly dangerous.”
For those addicted to meth, Zach urged that they find treatment as soon as they can.
“The longer it goes on, the harder it is to quit. The more people you’ll lose, the more relationships you wreck,” he said. “It will give you nothing but pain.”