sports journalist

RYAN S. CLARK

By Ryan S. Clark

 

LANSING -- A plastic 2-liter soda bottle isn’t usually frightening.

 

But mix some noxious chemicals inside one and

it can be. Find the right combination and you have a fully functioning methamphetamine lab.

 

It’s called the one-pot method. It’s cheap, portable and a potentially deadly way of making meth. And, it’s found a home in the Lansing region, partly because the inexpensive drug is popular in economically depressed areas.

 

Eaton County had the seventh-highest number of reported arrests, busts and explosions — known as meth-related incidents — in 2012 throughout Michigan, according to statistics from the Michigan State Police. Numbers are rising across the region. Through July, Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties have had 23 incidents, setting a pace for 46 this year. That would be up from 38 last year, and 26 in 2010.

 

Officials don’t see that trend subsiding anytime soon. They say low manufacturing costs and large profits for dealers make the drug too attractive to give up on.

 

But meth’s grip on Michigan is devastating for users, puts law enforcement and others who come into contact with it in danger and is challenging communities faced with cleanup costs.

 

“It is the most addictive drug we’re seeing out there,” said Eaton County Circuit Court Judge Harvey Hoffman, who runs the county’s drug court. “More than cocaine or even heroin. We look at it as a dangerous situation.”

METH: Mid-Michigan's growing epidemic

News  |  Aug. 11, 2013  |  Page 1A, 3A

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The cost of meth

 

Making meth typically involves a mix of lighter fluid, Drano, lithium, red phosphorus obtained from matchbooks, hydrochloric acid and ephedrine. It’s a $100 to $200 venture.

 

“There is a large profit in it,” said Dr. Jack Jesse, a counselor and division director of Eaton Behavioral Health in Charlotte. “You could take $100 (the cost of making a few grams of meth) and turn it into to $1,000 in meth and then take that and turn it into $10,000. It is a pretty lucrative thing in terms of making money.”

 

Marijuana, depending upon the amount purchased and quality, sells from as little as $120 an ounce to about as much as $4,000 a pound, according to Det. 1st Lt. Tim Gill of the Michigan State Police. Cocaine can cost up to a $1,000 an ounce or $30,000 for a kilo, which is 2.2 pounds.

 

And, meth has far-reaching consequences in the areas it’s prevalent.

 

“Sometimes... (meth labs) just blow up,” said Gill. “And when it does, these people end up dying or they go to the burn unit at the University of Michigan.”

 

An Associated Press survey in January 2010 of burn units in the most active meth states showed one-third of patients in some burn units were hurt while making meth. Most were uninsured.

 

Average treatment costs came to $6,000 per day. The average meth patient’s hospital stay costs $130,000 — 60 percent more than other burn patients, according to a study done by Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo.

 

Rising hospital costs are only part of the problem.

 

Red phosphorus can cause eye, skin and stomach irritation, according to a study from the Michigan Department of Community Health. Those repeatedly exposed — whether it’s the drugmaker or the people who happen to be in the place it’s being produced — may end up suffering from anemia, kidney and liver damage, blood disorders and cardiovascular effects, the study said.

 

Sgt. Chris Crawford of the Clinton County Sheriff’s Department said his agency has received telephone calls from schools regarding children smelling like chemicals. In several instances, investigations showed they were living in or were otherwise exposed to meth labs.

 

In Charlotte, four months after a suspected meth lab explosion at a downtown building, the damaged exterior is still visible because the owner has not made repairs.

 

The March 1 explosion in the 100 block of East Lawrence Ave. — across the street from the police department on one of the city’s busiest streets — severely damaged a wall on the west side of the structure and left the two-story building vacant, Charlotte City Manager Gregg Guetschow said.

 

Police have said a tenant living on the building’s second floor had been cooking meth in the apartment before the explosion. The size of the operation was small: a glass bottle, some aluminum foil and a heating source.

 

The tenant, 31-year-old Derek Ayers spent weeks in the hospital recovering from injuries sustained the blast, and has since pleaded guilty to two charges of operating a meth lab. City officials are still negotiating with the building’s owner, Bruce Fox, who they say hasn’t made any repairs at the property. Ultimately, if the Fox doesn’t address the issues, the city may have to choose between making the repairs itself or demolishing the building, Guetschow said. Fox could not be reached for comment.

 

Sgt. Robert Ott of the Ingham County Sheriff’s Office heads a team that specializes in meth. He has advised officers who come upon a meth lab to call in his team rather than risk hazardous chemical exposure, or contact with paranoid users or the increasing likelihood that meth users have weapons.

Michigan in for long battle

 

Meth offers users a cheap, short-term high that is eventually offset by the reality of the expensive, long-lasting effects the drug can have on the body — paranoia, rotting teeth, loss of sexual drive, depleted emotional functions, curbed appetite and hollow-looking eyes.

 

“When people use something like meth, it uses up a lot of dopamine and it ups the dopamine intake system,” said Jesse, a counselor and division director of Eaton Behavioral Health in Charlotte “They are depleted of the feel-good chemical in their brains. It is why they keep seeking it — because they do not have the ability to naturally produce it.”

 

Jesse said CT scans have shown it can take 12-18 months before the brain can heal from that kind of damage. That’s why it is important to keep a recovering addict in treatment for an extended amount of time.

 

In Hoffman’s experience, meth is indiscriminate. Men and women are equally likely to use it, with some women turning to meth as a weight loss drug. And, meth knows no age barrier.

 

Jesse said he once counseled a ninth-grade girl who was using meth. She and two of her eighth-grade friends made and used two batches. Crawford said college students have been known to use it to stay awake to study for mid-term and final exams.

 

Meth is so controlling, other drugs are often needed to help level a person out.

 

“The use of marijuana comes up a lot with most meth users,” said Scott Achenbach, program director for the Alcohol Drug Education Program in Charlotte. “They need it to sleep, calm down and eat. They’ll use it to function.”

 

Other debilitating effects include what’s known as “crank bugs” — the chemicals from meth trying to seep out of the skin, creating large, irritating bumps. Most of these marks can be found on the arm.

 

Crawford said the itch can be so great, it once led to a woman scratching off her skin until she reached the bone in her forearm.

 

Tim Mulcahy, a principal research scientist on the subjects of economics, labor and population studies for the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago, recently completed a four-year meth study surveying 1,300 police departments across the nation. The study showed meth use has evolved from a west coast-specific issue to being a nationwide issue. He said meth use is driven in part by the strength of the drug market and how appealing it is compared to other drugs readily available in the market.

 

Mulcahy said Michigan is in for a long fight against the drug.

 

“The obvious thing to point out is there is not any decrease of one-pot methods,” he said. “I am confident the Midwest is in trouble for a good long time because of one-pot.”

 

But battling meth is not necessarily a lost cause.

 

Achenbach said criminal and legal intervention is becoming the method people are using to overcome addiction problems. But addressing the problem goes deeper.

 

“If you want to fix the problem, you have to educate the masses,” he said. “It has to be done beyond where we are at now. It needs to be early, consistent and lengthy.”

Recovering meth addict:

'My life really went to hell'

News  |  Aug. 11, 2013  |  Page 1A, 3A

By Ryan S. Clark

rsclark@lsj.com

 

CHARLOTTE At certain moments, Tim Haney’s

smile is sometimes followed by a laugh.

 

“I used to weigh 119 pounds,” he says. “But if you look at me now, you’d probably think I eat 119 pounds for breakfast some days.”

 

There’s the smile. Then, there’s the laugh.

 

Haney, 46, is a recovering methamphetamine addict. His drug use, he says, stemmed from the death of his two best friends in college.

 

The deaths, Haney said, led to heavy drinking. Cocaine followed. Then meth, a cheaper alternative.

 

But meth, it seems ruined and save his life.

 

Haney’s five years as an active meth addict were so controlling he couldn’t keep a steady job for even a full day. He once was a 240-pound man who lifted weights daily. Meth turned him into a shell of that — a 119-pound flesh-covered, organ-filled skeleton. He was living underneath a bridge in a cardboard box in Arizona he jokingly called “his condo.”

 

Using needles to inject meth led to Haney contracting the HIV/AIDS virus in 2002, he said. That was when things changed.

 

He managed to get clean, return to school and earning a master’s from the physical campus at the University of Phoenix in Arizona and obtaining a doctorate through Grand Canyon University. He also got married. He is now a master’s level substance abuse counselor for the Recovery Network in Charlotte.

 

“Basically, I have a background in education where I was a teacher,” he said. “I got messed up with the drugs for a long time and when I got sober, I saw a lot of things where I said there is a way to make a difference in people’s lives.”

 

In college, Haney did everything with his two best friends. That was until one of them committed suicide in December 1990. The other died in a car accident in January 1991.

 

“I’ll be honest with you,” Haney says. “There wasn’t a day within the next 10 years I was sober.”

 

Drinking alone became an everyday routine. He did it just to get by. He was looking for something more and Haney said that conquest led to drugs.

 

He did cocaine for about two or three years before moving to Arizona. It was in Arizona where he learned about meth, which produced a greater high and was cheaper than cocaine.

 

The high was so great, he was immediately hooked.

 

“I have energy, I can do things, I feel good, your sexual libido goes through the roof,” Haney said. “I am alert, smarter, better looking. It was a very good feeling.

 

“It was different. It was almost like, ‘Oh my God. Thank God, I don’t have to do cocaine anymore.’ I didn’t realize how fast it’d take over my life.”

 

And then the hallucinations started.

 

“I swear to God I thought I could hear things,” Haney recalled. “Not just hear things but people I know talking about me. You know they are not there but I swear to God, I could hear them: ‘They’re outside, they know what I’m doing, they think I’m a piece of ...’

 

“And you can hear them say: ‘Oh my God, this isn’t right,’ so you try to hide under the closet because you don’t want to stop getting high.”

 

Getting meth, he said, was easy. He compared it to the ease of getting a burrito.

 

“I can’t tell you how many times I went in to buy stuff and had someone hold a gun at me,” Haney said. “That to me almost got commonplace. If someone were to pull a gun on me now, I’d be scared to death. When I was using, I didn’t feel it.”

 

Meth, in a sense, became Haney’s only consistent friend. He had no real relationships and rarely talked with his mother. She once called him and asked if she needed to take out a life insurance policy in case he died.

 

One day someone suggested injecting meth. He did and it was the beginning of the end.

 

“My life really went to hell,” he said. “Not that my life hadn’t already gone to hell, but it was way, way worse after that.”

 

Needle use made for a quicker, stronger high. It also made Haney start to bleed profusely to the point where he went to the hospital.

 

He told a doctor about a bump “the size of a softball” on the back of his head. The bump was a lymph node. It prompted doctors to test Haney, and he was then diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

 

“At that point I said, ‘Maybe I have a problem,’ ” Haney said. “ ‘Maybe I need to quit.’ ”

 

Haney went through rehab twice. His first attempt had mixed results. He gained weight but started falling back into old habits by not paying attention to his depression.

 

The second time, 11 years ago, Haney went through a full treatment program.

 

Haney says his life experience gives him credibility as a counselor.

 

“I talk to people and they say, ‘You’re a therapist, what do you know?’” he says. “I tell them, ‘You’d be surprised at what I know.’”