The April 28 methamphetamine bust that netted 10 locals in John Day and Mt. Vernon exposed a dark underworld that may have been unknown to many residents in Grant County.
“This community, just like communities all across the country, is reeling from the illegal drug epidemic,” Oregon State Police Sgt. Tom Hutchison told the Eagle. “Methamphetamine use is rampant, and the ramifications are felt in just about every call for service that law enforcement officers deal with. Thefts and property crimes, assaults, domestic abuse, child abuse, rapes and other crimes are among some of the byproducts of drug abuse.”
The Grant County Sheriff’s Office said the investigation is continuing and more arrests are expected, but meth use is more than a crime story. Its impacts can be felt throughout communities.
“Meth destroys all loyalties,” Grant County District Attorney Jim Carpenter told the Eagle. “Meth users will lie to, steal from and hurt anyone, family, friend or foe, to obtain meth to fuel their need. Meth users and dealers will readily turn on anyone, especially those they use with or buy from, to escape the consequences of their actions.”
Meth is a synthetic drug that stimulates the nervous system and is sold as pills, powder or small chunks. Common street names for meth include crank, speed and chalk. In its pure form, which is smoked in a pipe, snorted, swallowed or injected, the drug is known as ice, crystal, glass and quartz.
According to the Oregon Health Authority, the toxic properties of meth use include agitation, psychosis, seizures, respiratory arrest and death. Because it is produced in illegal clandestine laboratories, impurities and byproducts are often found in meth that can cause unpredictable effects on users.
“Injury to the liver, kidneys, brain, nerves and respiratory systems are commonly seen in drug users,” OHA said.
Meth is considered especially dangerous because of how quickly it can hook users. Meth users typically exhibit telltale signs, including hyperactivity, incessant talking and wakefulness, according to OHA. Meth produces a false sense of confidence, while users lose appetite and become irritable or moody.
“Prolonged meth abuse can resemble symptoms of schizophrenia characterized by hallucinations, paranoia and repetitive behavior patterns,” OHA said.
An extreme example is the delusion that insects have gotten under meth users’ skin. Users will incessantly pick at their skin to remove these “speed bugs,” which can result in open lesions.
“As the effects of the drug wear off, users may experience drug cravings, depressed moods, lethargy and prolonged periods of sleep lasting 24 hours or more,” OHA said.
Meth use is hard on all parts of the body. The corrosive smoke damages lungs and teeth, the risk of heart disease increases and users can die from hyperthermia caused by uncontrollable spiking body temperatures.
Meth use can cause permanent brain damage, affecting emotion, memory, verbal learning and motor skills. Babies of meth users may be born premature with low birth weight and suffer from withdrawal symptoms. Some die in stillbirth.
An acutely intoxicated meth user showing up at the Blue Mountain Hospital’s emergency room is not unusual, Dr. Raffaella Betza told the Eagle. Their high blood pressure could lead to a stroke, and their fast heart beat could impact circulation and lead to seizures.
Meth-related deaths in Oregon have increased from 73 in 2007 to 232 in 2016, according to data from the State Medical Examiner.
Often a meth user is brought to the hospital by law enforcement at night after someone reported a person acting unsafely, Betza said. Sometimes they are very agitated and even psychotic and need to be restrained. She noted that local doctors, paramedics, law enforcement and 911 dispatchers underwent special training last year on how to handle acutely intoxicated and agitated patients.
The impacts of meth use are seen in families and communities. Betza said it’s not uncommon to learn that parents who use meth were neglectful in feeding, clothing or supervising their children.
“Meth affects entire communities, not just users,” OHA said.
Meth use contributes to domestic violence, child abuse, motor vehicle accidents and the spread of infectious diseases through shared needles. There are increased costs for medical services and emergency room use, and governments must dedicate additional tax dollars to law enforcement, prosecution and social services.
Homes used to manufacture meth are often damaged by fires and explosions and require expensive decontamination. Meth users often resort to crime to pay for their habit or living expenses when they can’t hold down a job.
A 2005 survey by the National Association of Counties found that 62 percent of law enforcement agencies cited higher domestic violence rates as a result of meth use, and 70 percent of law enforcement agencies cited increased cases of theft because of meth use.
In Oregon, meth possession convictions increased by 20 percent from 2,550 in 2012 to 3,085 in 2017, according to data from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. The total number of meth offenses increased from 4,845 in 2014 to 8,150 in 2016, according to the Oregon National Incident-Based Reporting System.
“Meth users will often begin to engage in person and property crimes which quickly escalate to serious degrading or criminal conduct, including burglary, prostitution or sex trafficking to fuel their need,” Carpenter said. “As long as our state does not correlate meth use and the rise in person and property crimes, and continues to minimize the crime seriousness of meth in general, the local meth epidemic will persist, and crimes committed in the pursuit of meth will continue to rise.”
Over half the drivers arrested by OSP troopers in Grant County in 2018 were driving while under the influence of a drug other than alcohol, or in combination with alcohol, Hutchison said.
“It’s up to everyone to help stop this epidemic,” Hutchison said. “Support your local law enforcement officers. Notify law enforcement when you believe drug dealers are operating in your area, and report criminal activity immediately. We can stop this epidemic, but we need your help.”
Help for meth users is available through counseling, medication, family education, structured lifestyle support and behavioral therapy. It’s hard to recover from meth use, but it can be done, Betza said. Treatment can require both counseling and medical care when organs have been injured and when medication is needed to deal with the depression or anxiety that comes with withdrawal.
Helplines are not for urgent care emergencies. If a situation is life-threatening, people should call 9-1-1 immediately. For additional information or advice over the phone, call these numbers:
• Community Counseling Solutions, 541-575-1466.
• Oregon Crystal Meth Anonymous helpline, 855-638-4373.
• The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration national hotline, 800-662-4357.