Metroactive News & Issues

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

Daughter's Little Helper

meth user
'I was the one people looked down on, the one you didn't want to end up like. I know that, because people told me.'

Photos by Christopher Gardner

Once the preferred drug of outlaw bikers and working class males, methamphetamine has found a new pool of victims: young, suburban girls who feel pressured to do it all.

By Rafer Guzman

JENNIFER talks rapidly, with the infectious energy of a kid, pulling faces behind her wire-rimmed glasses. Laughter comes easily, even when speaking candidly about her days as a "fucked-up loser dope fiend."'I loved it," the 19-year-old says. "I loved snorting it, I loved the burn. I used to say it 'hurt so good.'"

Raised in the middle-class suburbs of Fremont, Jennifer reflects on her life as a recovering methanphetamine addict. "The one thing that's hard is to think that I'll never get loaded again. Because deep inside, it's my nature to be loaded. That's the nature of being an addict."

The daughter of a single mother who worked long hours, Jennifer spent most of her time with friends, and discovered the drug at the start of her freshman year in high school. For a while, she says, she was able to use meth and maintain her high GPA. Within months, however, she had been expelled from school and was showing signs of advanced drug abuse.

"You get paranoid," Jennifer recalls. "I swear I thought my phone was tapped. If my mom was ever home, I'd start talking in some crazy code that no one but me understood. My friends would have no idea what I was even saying."

Though tall and shapely, Jennifer dropped to 96 pounds. "You don't eat when you're spun," she says. On the days after she smoked meth, she recalls, "I'd try to eat, but the top of my mouth was scraped to shreds. I would be crying because I was starving, but it hurt too bad to eat."

Jennifer subsequently ran away from home and lived with her boyfriend in a broken-down Dodge Duster for six weeks. She developed "speed bumps," sores on the skin which, ceaselessly picked at by jittery users, become half-healed scabs. Due to blood poisoning, her legs showed yellow bruises that would have turned into open wounds had she not quit using. Toward the end of her ordeal, she says, she covered all the mirrors in her bedroom.

"I was the one people looked down on," Jennifer says. "The one you didn't want to end up like. I know that, because people told me. It's a tainted thing to be a crankster in the first place, but how fast I went down that hole was even worse."

Meth doesn't just mess up users, it scars the environment too.

San Diego might just be the meth capital of the world.

Methamphetamine FAQ: What it is, how it's made, how the body processes it.

Fine Lines

JENNIFER SCARCELY resembles the meth user of decades past, when the drug was known as the poor man's coke, a cheap high for 25- to 34-year-old white males on the fringes of society: cross-country truckers, outlaw bikers and trailer-park thugs.

But drug counselors in the Santa Clara Valley are now seeing a different breed of meth users: white, but also African-American, Latino and Asian. They come from poor families in East San Jose and from wealthy families in Palo Alto and Los Gatos. They are woefully young, and getting younger every year. Most surprisingly, they are very commonly female.

"What we're seeing is that both guys and girls of high school age are using crank," concurs Dan Crump, a counselor with the Pathways program at San Jose's Independence High School. "But I think the balance tips towards the females."

An African-American man in his 40s, with a beefy build and a forthright manner, Crump has been counseling the boys and girls of East San Jose's Independence High School since 1992. "The guys will do it if everybody else is doing it, but they don't actively seek it out. It's the girls who really develop the habit."

Crump thinks methamphetamine appeals to shy, first-year girls at Independence High, where 4,000 students make it the 12th largest high school in the nation. "This is a huge school," Crump says. "The tendency is to feel removed, to feel more like a number. So we get a lot of girls who come in who aren't really present. We have an orientation day, but maybe their friends already have their own 'orientation.' "

At home, Crump says, the girls are often dealing with molestation, domestic violence and drug-abusing parents, in addition to normal peer pressure. "You have a drug problem, a divorce, gang activities," Crump adds. "All these overlapping problems. You wonder how the kid ever gets up in the morning and comes to school."

Enter methamphetamine, the drug that turns the average girl into a supergirl. "They can get a lot of things done," Crump says. "Schoolwork, housework, chores, please their parents, party all night, get up, go back to the mall, hang out. Crank allows them to satisfy parental pressure as well as peer pressure. It gives you a leg up on being popular, because you're always in the middle of something."

Crump believes weight loss, often thought to be the primary reason girls use meth, is merely an added benefit. "They're knocking out two birds with one stone," he says. "They're getting high, and they're not getting fat and they're oh-so-lively!"

When Crump first arrived at Independence, he estimated that 10 percent of the students were what he calls "hardcore users," kids who, during school, are either high, coming off a high, or trying to get high. "They're fidgety, nodding off, sleepy-eyed. They'll wear the same clothes two or three days in a row--that's something you do not do when you're in high school." Crump now suspects his initial estimate was low. The kids, he says, tell him the figure is more like 50 percent.

"Not to be underplayed is the availability of drugs," Crump says. "I know one kid who told me, 'I can get you anything you want with three phone calls--maybe two.'"

Home Cooking

JENNIFER ALMOST never talks of copping meth from mid-level dealers. "There were these people right down the street that I hooked up with," she says. "They were all older guys, and they were all willing to give me some for free, and it was so easy, and I felt so popular, and I had all these guys calling me all the time, so I was just like, 'Cool!'" Jennifer says she never hung out with girls, pointing out: "They weren't going to kick me down shit for free."

Jennifer acknowledges that guys often expect sex in trade for drugs. "I liked that," she says. "I liked being a girl and being manipulative, and sometimes making the guy think he was going to get something, and then he wouldn't. It was a sick game. I didn't respect myself too much for doing that, but I did what I had to do." Jennifer pauses. "I think there was probably a couple of times when I did have sex with somebody just for getting me high. But ultimately, if I didn't have to, I wouldn't." Jennifer says she avoided doing so by doing deals with friends at her own house, which she considered safe territory. The days of standing on a street-corner waiting to score, it seems, are fading fast.

New production techniques have made meth making--and dealing--easier, according to Ed Machado of the California Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. He believes the Hell's Angels, once California's biggest meth producers, have lost their corner on the market to Mexican nationals operating in rural areas around the state. Seventy-five percent of the meth seized by the BNE comes from Mexican laboratories, Machado says. However, 75 percent of the laboratories seized by the BNE are what Machado calls "stove-tops": individuals cooking up batches of meth in their own kitchens.

Small batches of meth can be made cheaply and easily. The drug requires only four ingredients, all found in commonly available commercial products: brick-and-driveway cleaner (muriatic acid), engine starting fluid (ethyl ether), drain cleaner (lye), and nasal inhalers (ephedrine). In approximately three hours and ten easy steps, using everyday items such as coffee filters and a glass baking dish, one can produce several hundred dollars' worth of methamphetamine.

Stove-top producers, Machado acknowledges, are difficult to ferret out. Many of them are not discovered until their "labs" explode, the result of highly flammable materials being handled by people whom Machado calls "not exactly Phi Beta Kappas." (Perhaps the most tragic meth-lab explosion occured in Southern California, where three toddlers burned to death in a trailer-home.) Often, stove-tops are discovered through routine police calls. "A gal gets beat up by her boyfriend, she calls 911, we come down," Machado says. "She's pissed off, so she says, 'They're cooking up meth.' But if they hadn't been dimed by her, we never would have caught them. How are you going to nail these guys in apartment complexes and motels?"

In 1990, when the supply and demand of methamphetamine was relatively small, California's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement seized 1,700 pounds of meth from 277 "clandestine laboratories" around the state. In 1995, however, the BNE reaped a record-breaking 13,225 pounds of the drug from 465 labs. Machado notes that California has 85 BNE officers devoted solely to seizing labs. "We're running full-steam," he says, "and you can just guesstimate what's really going on out there." As of April of this year, the BNE has already seized 222 labs throughout the state.

Machado compares stove-tops to the moonshine stills of the Prohibition era, when everyone knew a neighbor with a quart of whiskey in his bathtub. "But by the time you get to the end of the block, you've got 40 gallons," he says, "and you've got a problem. It doesn't take long for this nickel-and-dime stuff to add up."

Catherine Nguyen
Christopher Gardner

Girl Talk: At The Place in Los Gatos, counselor Catherine Nguyen says the female methamphetamine addicts who come through the door keep getting younger.

Methed Up

SNORTED IN "crank" form (a crystalline powder) or smoked in "ice" form (like rock cocaine), meth provides a euphoric high which lasts longer than cocaine--anywhere from several hours to several days--for about a third of the price.

"You're not high, per se," Jennifer desribes of the moments following meth ingestion. "You're just incredibly, incredibly, incredibly amped. You just want to do all this stuff--clean your room, clean the bathroom, talk to everyone you meet. Then that wears off. And the longer you've been up, the worse your crash is."

Methamphetamine stokes the brain's "reward circuitry" to produce euphoria, explains Mark Stanford, director of the National Council of Alcohol and Drug Dependency. "We have a neural net," he says, "which, when stimulated, gives us a feel-good response. It's there for when you eat something, or rest, or have sex. What meth does is it goes in there and hyper-stimulates that area." He notes that in lab tests, animals engaging in activities which stimulate their reward circuitry eventually reach satiation, and stop. "The difference," Stanford says, "is that animals will press on a bar for meth to the point of exhaustion."

During the post-crash hours, Jennifer says, "You're totally spaced. You snap really easy, yelling at people for no reason." She tells stories of screaming at friends at parties, punching her mother, and putting her fist through her bedroom window. "I got mean on crank," she says. "I was a real bitch."

Though new and "improved," methamphetamine still comes with the same old side-effects. They include measles-like acne, brittle nails and hair, and perforation of the septum (the division between the nasal passages). Typical psychic maladies, such as those suffered by Jennifer, are paranoia, panic attacks, and a schizophrenia-like condition called "amphetamine psychosis."

Sleeping disorders are common, and speech disturbances are not unheard-of. Female users may cease menstruating, and often fail to detect pregnancy until well into their second trimester. Many experience spontaneous abortions, or give birth to abnormal infants. Hospital emergency rooms usually see meth users suffering from severe dehydration, arrhythmia, seizures, hypertension, and cardiac failure.

Meth-related emergency-room admissions in California, according to a report by the Public Statistics Institute of Irvine, have increased more than fivefold during the past decade. In 1985, there were 1,815 such admissions statewide, but in 1994, the figure skyrocketed to 10,167. "There's not another word for it, it's an epidemic," says PSI spokesman Dan Hicks. "You're talking about a lot of people going into the hospital. ... And of course, amphetamines today are totally different that what they were in the '70s in terms of potency."

Low Culture

IN RECENT YEARS, Alan Scherer has seen increasing numbers of girls like Jennifer come through the door of the Triad teen counseling center in Los Gatos. His reddish beard and mane of hair may date him (he calls himself a recovering hippie), but his blue eyes have a youthful twinkle kept alive by a fondness for alternative rock. His ability to name even marginal rock musicians who have died of drug overdoses--Kristen Pfaff of Hole, Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon--has impressed teens who hear his lectures.

"River Phoenix died of [the designer drug] GHB," he says, recalling the rumors that followed the young actor's death. "That drug was getting very popular in Southern California at the time. But when he died, that drug died with him. When a drug gets bad PR, it causes users to abandon it. But for right now, we haven't seen anything like that with meth."

Though Scherer may not be hoping for a celebrity death, he wonders what changes in popular culture will have to take place before meth loses its hold on teenagers. Recalling his own teen years, he says, "Speed was not interwoven with the counterculture. It wasn't widely circulated or widely accepted. Now, there isn't a counterculture. It's interwoven into the culture.

The current zeitgeist, Scherer feels, is one of the biggest factors in meth's new-found popularity. "If we were to sit this cuture down and do a psychiatric evaluation," he says, "I'd diagnose it with depression. Using crank is a way of feeling like there's hope when, really, there isn't any. A lot of kids don't expect to see adulthood. In the '60s, we had reasons for that: we thought someone would drop the bomb. But kids now aren't talking about some outside evil. The decay is from within: breakdown in families, lack of communication. We've done some serious damage to the moral infrastructure. The kids feel like, 'What do I have to look forward to?' "

"I hated my life," concurs Jennifer. "There was nothing good about it, and there was nothing good about being born, and this was the worst place to be."

Methamphetamine, a powdered form of happiness and fearlessness, would seem to be the perfect drug for any young girl.


IN HER BOOK on troubled female adolescents, Reviving Ophelia, psychologist Mary Pipher writes, "Girls are having more trouble now than they had thirty years ago, when I was a girl, and more trouble than even ten years ago. ... The protected place in space and time that we once called childhood has grown shorter."

For 16-year-old Nicole, methamphetamine helped rocket her into adulthood. By the time she came to The Place, a drug counseling center for Asian youth in East San Jose, she had been using methamphetamine since she was 12. With an absent father and a mother occupied by a string of unsuccessful marriages, Nicole spent more time on the street and in friends' houses than at home. At 13, she moved in with her 18-year-old boyfriend. By then, she had already become addicted to meth, which was easily obtainable from her friends in San Jose's Norteño gang community.

The Norteños shared their money, their cars, their clothes and--at first--their drugs. "The people I hung around with were not greedy with the things they have," Nicole says. "But as time went on, the drug started getting more and more in demand. And people wanted more of it, and wanted more of it sooner, and they were willing to pay for it. And pretty soon, the dealers wanted money, even though we were good friends."

Meth helped Nicole deal with a childhood that already resembled the difficult life of an adult. Nicole helped raise her boyfriend's year-old daughter from a previous relationship. Though barely out of puberty, Nicole had endured a series of abusive boyfriends--one broke three of her ribs--and the man she now lived with was no different. "He would beat me black and blue," Nicole says. "There were parts I don't remember. I would just wake up in corners, and I would start to feel sore, and feel angry, and then I'd go buy a line."

The abuse continued for a year, punctuated by two attempts at suicide by overdose. One night, following a six-day, around-the-clock crank binge, Nicole's boyfriend blackened both her eyes and split open her lip. "And I had bruises and cuts from the day before that were still fresh," Nicole says. "I thought, 'Nicole, you stay with this guy, he's going to kill you.'" Nicole packed a bag and left. Hallucinating from lack of sleep, she stumbled into San Jose Medical Center, where police discovered crank in her jacket pocket, and promptly sent her to juvenile hall.

Nicole can remember none of the four days she spent there. "The next time I got locked up, they had to remind me I'd been in before," she says. "I got so embarassed. I just started crying, thinking how bad things had really gotten with me."

Unwilling to return home, Nicole rented a room in an apartment with a woman in her 20s. Nicole landed a job as a "comfort girl" in a Korean bar, feeding and flattering high-paying Asian businessmen in the evenings. At 14, Nicole was paying rent, phone bills and car payments with her under-the-table wages.

Such responsibilities prompted Nicole to attempt sobriety. She still kept company with the Norteños, though her involvement ended after the night she and her friends became victims of a drive-by shooting. Nicole still cries when describing how her 14-year-old girlfriend, bleeding from a gunshot wound to the head, died in her arms in the back of a bullet-ridden car.

The Nicole that was once bruised and bloodied is hard to reconcile with the graceful and confident young girl that now attends group meetings at The Place. "I hear some of the kids here talking about the last time they got loaded," she says, "and some of them still think it's cool. They think it's funny. I just think, 'No, you're so stupid.' "

After graduating from high school, Nicole says, she intends to major in business at UC-Berkeley. Normal freshman experiences--the first joint, the newfound freedom, the wild nights--will not be hers.

This may be the worst side-effect of meth abuse: loss of youth. "Someone once told me, 'You've had an amazing life,' " Nicole says. "I don't think it's amazing. I think it's sad."

JENNIFER NOW sits on the back patio of the house where she grew up, indulging her only remaining addiction, cigarettes. "The fact that I'm young sometimes screws with me," she says. She admits to bouncing in and out of several rehab programs before settling on the Triad and regularly attending 12-step programs. "I know people who have been clean 20 years, longer than I've been alive. ... But when I got clean, I'd been using for a third of my life." At 19, she is back at home, finishing out her summer before the start of school.

Jennifer admits, "Sometimes I get jealous of people who've never done drugs. What a nice, sheltered little life they've lived. ... I've got more life experience than someone who's never used--which isn't necessarily a good thing." She adds, "And I had some pretty fucked-up shit happen to me while I was out there that I'm still working on."

The Triad counselors encouraged Jennifer to apply to college, and she begins her first year at UC-Davis in September. She currently acts as a sponsor for a 15-year-old girl in recovery.

"I really don't know how you'd prevent people who've never used," Jennifer comments. "I know the 'Just Say No' campaign was like a joke to me: 'Red Ribbon Week, man, pass me the joint!' It's so attractive, that whole scene. It's fast and fun. I wish there was a way, but all I can do is live by example and maybe help somebody by telling my story."

[ Metro | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the August 15-21, 1996 issue of Metro

This page was designed and created by the Boulevards team.
Copyright © 1996 Metro Publishing, Inc.