When law enforcement and drug rehabilitation officials want to provide a simple example of the effects of methamphetamine use, a common tool is a series of photographs called “Faces of Meth.” These photos show meth addicts in before and after photos. The “before” photos show ordinary, everyday people. The “after” shows sunken cheeks, deathly pale, sore-covered faces. Meth users look prematurely aged.
Those under the influence have increased heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature. They may sweat and breathe heavily. Long term physical damage includes extreme weight loss and malnutrition, severe tooth decay, damaged blood vessels that increase risk of stroke, irregular heartbeat that may cause cardiovascular collapse or death, as well as liver kidney and lung damage.
Users suffer mentally and emotionally as well, with memory loss, extreme mood swings, depression, psychosis, and brain damage similar to Alzheimer’s, stroke or epilepsy.
Meth users aren’t just a threat to themselves. They exhibit bizarre, erratic and violent behavior, along with hallucinations, paranoia, extreme excitability and irritability.
There are three commonly known categories of meth abuse. Low-intensity users swallow or snort the drug, relying on the stimulant factor to perform tasks faster or stay awake longer, or to lose weight. Binge abusers smoke or inject meth with a needle, receiving a more intense dosage. High-intensity users are consumed by the drug, using more often and in larger doses to avoid the painful “crash” when the high wears off.
Because of the physical effects and behaviors caused by meth, addicts under their influence may not be able to hold down regular jobs and therefore resort to committing crime to feed their habit.
Fort Stockton Police Lt. Lisa Tarango wants citizens to be aware of all these details, because methamphetamine is becoming a real problem here. She says for many years, meth wasn’t a problem in Fort Stockton. It tended to stay on the fringes of the county. Then “it just exploded.”
“The past three years we’ve really seen it start to develop, and now we just see it increase by leaps and bounds daily,” said Lt. Tarango. “You can see the physical effects it’s taken on people in our community that we deal with.
She says her department is used to dealing with marijuana, cocaine and even occasionally heroin users. Meth seems to be the number one drug right now.
“You’ll see the weight loss, the teeth that are falling out,” she continued. “You’ll see the sores on the body and face, the arms, chest, where they are scratching so much.”
Lt. Tarango said scratching is caused by hallucinations that there are bugs or worms beneath the skin that itch.
She says meth is so dangerous because it “drastically” takes over the lives of its victims, given the drug’s intensely addictive nature and relative ease of acquisition. Heavy or long-time users aren’t hard to spot.
People under the influence of meth exhibit intense paranoia, think others may be talking about them or watching them, and may act out in aggressive, unpredictable and confrontational ways. They may appear wild-eyed and be sweating heavily, with heavy breathing and rapid pulse.
“We’re extremely concerned about our community and what physical effects we see happening,” she said.
She says when her officers deal with someone under the influence of meth; it’s common that the person has been awake for three or four days, compounding the paranoia and hallucinations.
“Once a week, for the last three weeks, we’ve gotten some form of meth off the streets,” Lt. Tarango said, “and that’s just what we’ve caught in a small amount of time.”
Part of meth’s popularity as a drug is based on it’s “homemade” nature, wherein most of its ingredients can be bought over the counter and the drug can be cooked up, instead of being imported like cocaine or heroin.
But Lt. Tarango says not much meth production seems to be taking place locally; the telltale “rotten egg” smell associated with cooking the drug makes it difficult to hide. The use of highly flammable, volatile chemicals makes creating the drug dangerous as well. Explosions or fires can occur, and the chemicals are toxic if breathed, and can poison food nearby.
Most of what her department sees is meth from Mexico, where it is made cheaper and the end product seems to be more potent, and more dangerous.
She says in Fort Stockton, there is no specific age demographic for meth addicts, and she’s seen victims of all ages.
Those arrested for drug possession or use frequently give casual explanations for their addiction, such as being bored or just wanting to try something others were doing. But recent medical literature suggests that addiction is genetic, and those most likely to try drugs do so because of mental, emotional or physical trauma, and an unwillingness or inability to deal with that trauma.
Getting high is self medicating, a way to forget or ignore their problems, if only for a short while. As use continues, the effects of the drug may lessen, but the addiction and need to use grows, despite the consequences, which frequently includes loss of a job, car, home, friends, family, serious mental and physical problems, and even death.
Lt. Tarango says that people are more educated about the realities of drug addiction, and many understand that it is a disease, not just chosen behavior. Unfortunately, many underestimate how hard it is to quit, and the real need for professional help.
Many addicts feel intense shame and guilt for their addiction, and may have trouble finding help on their own. Sometimes it’s a support system encouraging treatment that gets addicts into rehab; sometimes it takes an intervention, where that same support system refuses to be in the addict’s life unless help is sought.
It’s important for those wishing to get off the drug seek help. Trying to go “cold turkey,” or stopping use on one’s own is dangerous. Meth withdrawal symptoms include depression, the inability to experience pleasure, physical pain and may even become suicidal. Withdrawal symptoms may not even begin until 90 days after last use.
Lt. Tarango says unfortunately Fort Stockton doesn’t have the drug rehabilitation and treatment centers that Odessa and Midland do, so local help for addicts is fairly limited. Those seeking help can request information from the Fort Stockton Police Department, which can provide a referral for an evaluation to see if they qualify for state assistance, since drug treatment can be expensive. Lt. Tarango credits local prosecutors for working with her department to get non-violent offenders treatment.
Yet people must want to be helped, Lt. Tarango says. A parent who thinks their child has a drug problem cannot force them into rehab, because all treatment is voluntary. The best one can do is notify law enforcement if a family member is in possession of drugs, acting erratically or threatening themselves or others, which provides legal and court ordered consequences that encourage treatment.
“If they assault a family member, that gives us probable cause to make an arrest,” she said.
Lt. Tarango says ordinary citizens should be aware of the meth problem, and take care.
“We want them to be aware,” she said, “make sure their own safety is at heart. Secure their home, their vehicles, their property.”
The police encourage citizens to report suspicious behavior of individuals that may appear to be under the influence, or residences that may have high volumes of traffic at all hours.
“The physical effect it takes on the person,” she said. “That leads to the desperate need to get money for it, and those desperate needs lead to desperate actions. Whether its thefts, burglaries, homicides. It’s all about getting money to provide for their addiction.”