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Meth¹s appeal crosses youth social boundaries

| June 16, 2004 12:00 AM

EDITOR¹S NOTE: The following is the final article in a three-part series discussing drug and alcohol abuse in Lincoln County and the ongoing effort to combat the crisis.

By Paul Boring, Western News Reporter

In stark contrast to alcohol and marijuana, methamphetamines transcend normal high school cliques, appealing to members of each group, said Jay Maloney, emergency room doctor at St. John¹s Lutheran Hospital.

³Some of the kids that are getting into meth are the jocks or the hardworking logger types,² Maloney said. ³These are good meaning kids that just play a little harder than average. They find that they can party all night and work all day. They get euphoric and they think they can perform better on the field or on the track. Next thing you know, they¹re on this meth and it ruins them.²

After peaking roughly one-and-a-half years ago, the number of overdoses markedly decreased following three major busts by law enforcement. Meth abuse has picked up again, Maloney said, with roughly one case of meth use burdening the ER each week, including overdoses, symptoms of toxicity, and accidents resulting from its use.

³We¹ve had people admitted here who have been handcuffed, hogtied, completely out of control and carrying on,² he said. ³They¹re scary to handle when they¹re high. Other ones come in completely delusional. They have no rational thought at all.²

In the past, with alcohol and drugs like marijuana, experimentation was widely viewed as a phase that would pass. If not acceptable, the assumption was that the person experimenting would ultimately abandon the phase once the novelty wore off. Meth is different in that it immediately sinks its claws into the user.

³We were all around alcohol and marijuana or other drugs and we saw people do them three days and after three days they were normal,² said Maloney, who has worked in the Libby ER for 15 years. ³Meth is not like that. They start using, then they use it once a week for a while, then they¹re using it 24-7. They¹re going three days without sleep. They go in this direction and then they hit a wall. When they come back months later for some other reason or to visit a family member, they seem to be brain-dead.²

The irreparable damage meth inflicts on the user is the most devastating effect, Maloney said. Although other drugs like LSD have been known to adversely modify the brain, the long-term effects of meth are even more dangerous, the addictive component notwithstanding.

³I¹ve heard these meth addicts say, ŒWell, they make it out of herbs, ephedra and stuff like that,² Maloney said. ³They try to tout it as being a safe alternative, like taking vitamins. It is not a vitamin. It is not an herb. This is very toxic stuff that will give you brain damage.

³There seem to be some changes in the brain that occur after months of meth use,² he said. ³These changes make it almost impossible for the person to feel normal without it, not just an addictive craving like many other illegal drugs.²

Local meth manufacturers often cook the drug to support their habit. Consequently, little regard is given to children residing in the makeshift laboratory areas.

³They pour these flammable substances through a coffee machine, so there¹s a great fire risk,² Maloney said. ³A lot of these 25-or 30-year olds who are manufacturing have kids in the room. These kids are eventually pulled away from their parents and their family.²

Meth has the potential to become an epidemic, as it is cheap to produce and produces in the user a feeling of euphoria. In order to fully grasp the toxicity of the drug, one need look no further than the ³cooking² process and the ingredients used.

³Some people cook it with antifreeze type products,² Maloney said. ³Some people use Coleman fuel. When you¹re using your Mr. Coffee, think about that boiling and brewing going on. Suppose you were pouring Coleman fuel in there and you were using all of these extracts, or you were opening these pills to get this little bitty faint powder to get precipitated. And then you scrape it off the edge of the filter and you snort it up your nose. That¹s an awful thought.²

Manufacturing meth is a relatively simple and inexpensive process, which Maloney said is an ominous sign for communities hoping to combat the drug and its producers. Recipes for meth have seen exponential dissemination among users and potential cooks.

³They say that everybody who learns how to cook meth teaches 10 people the next year,² he said.

The availability of meth in expansive Lincoln County has presented countless problems for law enforcement officers hoping to head-off problems and doctors saddled with erratic patients who have overdosed on the drug.

³Meth is a scary, scary business and it¹s widely available,² Maloney said. ³I¹ve heard more than a few stories of it being sold on Mineral Avenue on the gut, being passed from vehicle to vehicle across the street. You expect that to be happening in Seattle or Spokane, but you don¹t expect that to be happening in Libby.²

Doctors treating overdoses are placed in a difficult position, focusing on helping the patient while searching for a way to dissuade the user from seeking the highly addictive drug in the future.

³We¹re caught between a rock and a hard place,² Maloney said. ³If we see somebody on it, we¹re treating the patient and the question is do we get law enforcement involved. If we¹re not careful, we¹ll have people avoiding the hospital, and we can¹t have that.²

Doctors will often shy away from involving law enforcement, opting to instead counsel the patient and encourage follow-up treatment.

³We try to get the family involved and tell them that this drug is not easy to quit on your own,² Maloney said. ³I¹ve talked to people who have overdosed afterwards and they will often say, ŒI need it to feel normal. Without it, I can¹t function.¹ You take someone who has done it for years and it¹s almost impossible to get off this stuff. But we still have to try to help them.²

Meth users can often be identified by their dilated pupils, overt aloofness, and unwillingness to make eye contact.

³A lot of these people are trying to hide their signs and they will avoid things they used to do or partake in,² Maloney said. ³Their behavior changes.²

Pharmaceuticals like oxycontin have also made their mark on the drug scene. Responding to widespread allegations a decade ago that patients were being under-treated for pain, doctors have overcompensated by prescribing more powerful prescription pain relievers in greater quantities.

³Now, every doctor out there has some patient on very high dose painkillers,² Maloney said. ³What¹s happening is that these drugs are falling into the wrong hands. Some of the people are paying for their drugs legally, but illegally giving them to others or selling them, and these drugs are getting into the hands of people who are not used to them.²

Maloney has seen at least three people under the age of 50 take painkillers and die in their sleep.

³If somebody takes oxycontin everyday, they may function normally under that dose,² he said. ³If a person who is naïve to the drug happens to take one of their pills, especially under the influence of alcohol, they can quit breathing.²

Drug users or pushers often target people suffering from chronic pain for the pharmaceuticals in their possession. In the future, legitimate prescription holders will be penalized because of increased government restrictions.

³The people paying the price are the people who really need the medicine,² Maloney said. ³There¹s going to be more and more restrictions on how you get it and the responsibilities once you have the medicine. If you give your pills to someone, that¹s a felony. If you sell your prescription, that¹s a felony.²

After 25 years in medicine, Maloney has concluded that public education is tantamount to putting a halt to drug use.

³Public education has made more difference than all the treatment centers in the world, just by people not wanting to be an alcoholic or drug addict and have their lives affected in negative ways,² he said. ³That¹s just awareness. We need the kids to understand the danger before they¹re exposed to it.²

A community meeting will be held in Libby on Wednesday, June 23, in the basement of the County Annex Office, located at 418 Mineral Ave., to brainstorm strategies for helping battle drug use in Lincoln County.

Although alcohol and other drugs are a big problem facing the county, Maloney sees meth as the drug that should be battled head-on.

³This is a big issue,² Maloney said. ³People need to open their eyes. It¹s a different drug. I¹ve been in medicine now for 25 years and this drug is scarier to me.²