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Photograph by Robbi Pengelly

Clean and Sober: Dennis Woodson has made the difficult transition from addiction, estimating that while he used, there were some years when he only got 20 nights sleep.

Unsafe at Any Speed

Methamphetamine use has exploded in the North Bay. But wait--this is a middle-class haven. Isn't meth someone else's problem? No way.

By Patricia Lynn Henley

Editor's note: This is the first in a yearlong series that the Bohemian plans on methamphetamine and its impact on every level of life in the North Bay.

Dennis Woodson sat in his pickup on the side of the road, considering his options. He had skipped a mandatory drug test, which meant he was scheduled to appear in court that afternoon for a probation hearing. He was pretty sure the judge would throw him in jail. Plus, wired tight on methamphetamine, Woodson had been awake for a week or more. He had no clue exactly how long it had been since he last slept. The idea of facing his attorney, the judge and everyone else inside the courthouse was overwhelming.

So Woodson drove his truck into an oak tree.

"I backed up about 75 feet, punched it and smashed the front end to where the radiator leaked. Then I called my attorney and said I hit a tree and my radiator's leaking. That way I wasn't lying," recalls Woodson, who has been clean and sober for the past two and a half years. "Then I spent the whole day in the rain, trying to find a radiator and fix my truck. But I didn't have to go face the real world."

The results of this type of fuzzy, meth-induced logic have crashed into the North Bay in a big way, draining the resources not just of law-enforcement personnel but also courts and jails, medical clinics, child-protective services, foster care and other social-support programs. It affects the folks dealing with hazardous materials, the environment and fire control, because "cooking" one pound of meth produces anywhere from four to eight pounds of highly volatile toxic substances.

Meth makes its users feel invincible while rendering them paranoid, angry and emotionally unpredictable. Some become sexually compulsive. Others develop repetitive twitching, known as "tweaking," or start grinding their teeth. It is believed that meth attacks the immune system, making users prone to infections. Prolonged use of the drug can cause a state called "stimulant psychosis," where the addict hears voices or experiences bizarre hallucinations, sometimes causing extremely violent behavior.

For most long-term users, side effects from meth wear out their bodies, making them look decades older than their actual age. It dries out their saliva, leaving their teeth vulnerable to extreme decay, especially when coupled with a dwindling attention to personal hygiene. And the craving for this drug can blot out all other considerations, including the safety and welfare of their own children or other loved ones.

Tweak Nation

The United Nations has identified methamphetamine as one of the most abused drugs on the planet. Both California and Oregon have unfortunately been on the leading edge of this trend since the 1980s. A 2004 study of self-reporting adults revealed that 1.4 million residents nationwide had used meth in the previous year. North Bay law-enforcement agencies cite it as the No. 1 problem in this area for the past decade or more. Despite most stereotypes, addicts are not limited to low-income, immigrant or working-class neighborhoods. "It crosses all socioeconomic lines," says Commander Gary Pitkin of the Napa Special Investigations Bureau. "Methamphetamine is used by poor people, rich people. Meth users reside in every community in the Bay Area, from ghettos to affluent suburbs."

And meth use is increasing. In 1995, Pitkin's unit seized 1,005.6 grams of meth in 78 cases; in 2005, that haul had doubled, up to 2,331.3 grams in 85 incidents. Out of 204 arrests made by the bureau in 2005, 124--or more than half--were for meth-related crimes.

"Meth is probably the biggest drug problem we're facing in Napa County right now," Pitkin says. "We presently devote about 70 percent of our resources to combating it." This drug, says Sgt. Chris Bertoli of Sonoma County's Narcotics Task Force, is everywhere. "It's almost to the point that if a deputy or other law-enforcement officer can't go out at night and find someone with meth, then he's not really turning over very many rocks," Bertoli says. "The majority of our cases deal with meth." In Marin County, meth accounts for close to half the drugs seized last year, says Detective Matt Lethin of the Marin County Sheriff's Department.

"It started out being a working-class drug, but it's become much more prevalent," Lethin says. "Meth has spread to soccer moms. They love the energy boost."

Cloaked by a thousand names--including speed, chalk, crank, meth, crystal-meth and glass--methamphetamine is chemically related to amphetamine, but has a much stronger impact on the body's central nervous system. Heroin is a depressant, making longtime users generally more passive than active. Cocaine is a stimulant, but its effects wear off relatively quickly. Meth is generally cheaper than cocaine and, because the body metabolizes it much more slowly, its effects can last as much as 10 times longer than cocaine.

Meth causes the brain to release large amounts of dopamine, the neurotransmitter for pleasure. Repeated use of meth depletes the body's supply of dopamine and inhibits the ability to create more of this important neurotransmitter; longtime addicts literally have to use the drug to be able to feel any pleasure at all.

Depending on the quality of the drug, a meth high can last from six to 24 hours; some first- or second-time users have reported being up literally for days from a single dose. The drug boosts and pummels the user's nervous system the entire time. For someone whose body is already accustomed to the drug, it takes more and higher quality meth to sustain a single high. Meth brings its users way, way up and then crashes them way down, often to the point of serious depression, so that all they think about is how to end their misery by doing more meth and getting up again.

Due to the nature of the drug, meth addicts typically have lots of energy that, coupled with a sense of omnipotence, often leads to other crimes. Petty infractions are common among long-time users, but more arcane scams such as identity theft are not unknown. Spending 20 hours reassembling a shredded bank document to extract account numbers is a fun activity for a wired-up meth addict, says Lethin.

For many years, methamphetamine was mainly bought in powder form, then snorted, mixed with water and injected, or sprinkled on tobacco or marijuana and smoked. But the rate of addiction really took off with the development of methamphetamine hydrochloride: clear, chunky crystals resembling rock candy that can be inhaled by smoking them in a small pipe. Inhaled meth gets into the bloodstream quicker and bypasses the liver, which would normally screen out some of the drug's effects.

"It's one of the most powerfully addictive street drugs out there," says Lethin.

Up All Night

The first time Woodson tried meth, he was 19 years old. While eating supper with a friend recently at a Santa Rosa restaurant, he explains that he came from a fairly "normal" family, although he became a bit of a daydreamer in school after his parents divorced when he was nine.

Eager to appear more adult and cool, he started drinking and smoking marijuana when he was about 16. His instincts were to stay away from meth, but one Friday night, while drunk at a friend's apartment, he snorted meth powder. As he left the building, Woodson did a hand-plant off a car and landed on his feet. "I was like, 'Whoa, I can't believe I did that,'" he remembers.

Emboldened, he climbed a street light and hung by one arm from the metal bar that stretched high overhead. Then he slid back down the pole, absolutely convinced he was invincible and capable of doing anything that might occur to him. That one high lasted all weekend. By Sunday evening, he was exhausted, so he figured he'd sleep it off in his truck in front of a friend's shop.

Woodson didn't wake up until 2pm--on Tuesday.

That was the beginning of a 12-year-long drug odyssey during which Woodson snorted and smoked both powder and crystal meth. He would stay awake for as many as 19 days in a row, snorting or inhaling more as needed to keep the buzz going. He knew he should go to bed, but he wouldn't, because if he fell asleep, he might not wake up the next day to go out and get more meth. "There were times that I would guess that I maybe got 20 nights of sleep in a year," he says now.

Struggling with his addiction, Woodson would stop using meth for 10 days, two weeks, maybe a month at a time. During a "clean" period, he'd land a job. He was a truck driver, worked construction and even moved to Auburn once to be part of the California Conservation Corps. He saw it as a chance to turn his life around. But he always went back to using meth. In almost every case, he lost the job within a year. Either he was fired or he simply stopped showing up. Then he'd live off his mother or his girlfriend or whoever would help him get by so he could stay high. He didn't know how to break the cycle of addiction.

Paint Thinner and Lye

California has been coping with methamphetamine for the last 16 years, and now the problem has spread to the Midwest and the East Coast, and is attracting national attention, says Dave Darrin, special agent in charge of the nine-county Bay Area region for the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement for the State Department of Justice.

"For years, we led the country not only in user labs, which are the small labs that generally make an ounce or less, but in what we call the 'super labs' that produce 10 pounds or more. We still lead in the production of methamphetamine exported to other states," Darrin says. These are not stats that make him proud.

The quantity and quality of meth on the street has risen and fallen over the years as U.S. officials crack down on one form of production, and then the manufacturing simply ramps up somewhere else. Mexican drug cartels operate a lot of the super labs, both in California and south of the border where pharmacy regulations are more lax. "The city of Tijuana has double the number of pharmacies it should have for its population," Darrin says.

One of the reasons meth is so plentiful is that it can be "cooked up" from either ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, which are the active ingredients in such cold and allergy medications as Sudafed. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are known as "precursor" drugs for meth. This means that, while harmless or even beneficial on their own, when mixed with other chemicals they result in something entirely different--in this case, meth.

In the mid-1980s, federal DEA officials tried unsuccessfully to limit sales of these chemicals, suggesting that buyers of these cold medications should be required to register and show identification. According to recent reports in the Oregonian, the Portland, Ore., daily newspaper, and the PBS television show Frontline, the proposed regulations were defeated by powerful drug company lobbyists protecting their companies' cold medication profits.

The state of Washington now mandates that precursor drugs must be sold behind the pharmacy counter, and senators Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jim Talent, R-Mo., last year added a provision to the USA Patriot Act calling for extremely tight controls on the sale of these products. Some drugstore chains have already tightened access to these over-the-counter items. These actions will help, but they won't solve the problem, says Darrin.

Darrin notes that when the DEA made it more difficult to get ephedrine, the meth traffickers simply switched to pseudoephedrine. And since meth addicts are often awake for days, they have plenty of time to figure out ways around the system. Darrin recalls officers once confiscating a map book annotated with every pharmacy and convenience store in the area that sold the cold medication precursor drugs. All the meth "cooks" had to do was take turns going from store to store, buying small amounts of what they needed.

Recipes for making meth abound on the Internet and often include such ingredients as lye, Freon, paint thinner, nail polish remover, camp stove fuel and drain cleaner--all items available from any hardware store. "The people who manufacture, the people who traffic, the people who deal are very good at adapting," Darrin says. "Even if you put it all behind the counter, they'll still be able to purchase it."

And as with everything, it does come down to money. One of the biggest challenges of the meth explosion is funding treatment for everyone who needs it, says Michael Spielman, executive director of the Drug Abuse Alternatives Center (DAAC), a nonprofit organization providing treatment programs in Sonoma and Lake counties. The DAAC maintains a treatment program with two Sonoma County locations that jointly have a capacity of 129 beds. Of that number, 83 are contracted to Sonoma County for criminal-justice-referred clients--people who have been arrested for one reason or another. Medi-Cal also pays for outpatient treatment for teens or low-income adults with children or disabilities. Additionally, there's funding for 3.6 beds for low-income or homeless people who aren't in the criminal justice system.

Spielman estimates that there's a daily "gap" of service to about 412 people who need treatment but can't get it. Sonoma County spends more on these programs than most counties, but it's still not enough, Spielman says. He'd like to create "treatment on demand" for anyone who's willing to make the commitment to do what it takes to stop using drugs or alcohol. Spielman points out that it costs about $90 a day to keep someone in the North County Detention Center; $156 daily in Sonoma County's main jail; and $65 a day for Turning Point residential treatment.

"Our vision for the future is that there will no longer be a treatment gap. Our mission [at DAAC] is turning lives around by providing healthy alternatives to alcohol and other substances," Spielman says.

Back from the Bottom

Housed in a former convalescent hospital, the Turning Point residential treatment center in Santa Rosa has wide hallways that were once filled with the wheelchairs and walkers of seniors nearing the end of their days. Now people of all ages and backgrounds walk those same hallways, this time hoping they will find a new beginning in their lives, a way out of their downward spiral. A group of about 30 people gather in a Turning Point meeting room on a Thursday evening in late February. Dennis Woodson has volunteered to be one of the "Turning Lives Around" open-house speakers. He talks about his early addiction and the lost years of his life. Now 34, he didn't get clean and sober until he was 31. And it wasn't at all easy. Like many addicts, it took more than one attempt.

He went through the Turning Point residential program several years ago. After completing the program, he figured he could have "just one beer." That led to a glass of whiskey, which led to using meth, which dropped him right back into a full-blown addiction just 24 hours after leaving Turning Point. Woodson was arrested three times in the next three months, all on outstanding warrants related to previous busts.

"I was given a choice of going to jail or to drug court. I took drug court," Woodson recalls. Run by the DAAC, drug court counseling is a highly structured outpatient program where clients make a commitment for a minimum of nine months. If they test dirty for drugs or make some other major mistake, they can be sent to jail. Most of the clients have to go to court every week for an update on their progress. "Drug court was the best thing that ever happened to me," Woodson says. He is working hard at figuring out how to be an adult for the first time in his life. He sees his counselor on a regular basis and attends a number of local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Agreeing to make the coffee or committing to do other tasks at these AA sessions are one way to take on some responsibility. It's also a way he can ensure he'll attend regularly.

Laid off from a construction job in the winter months, he's taking basic courses at Santa Rosa Junior College, and is interested in getting into urban rescue or EMT work. And he's working his 12-step program, doing things like making amends for missing his daughter's fifth birthday because he was too high.

When he was using, Woodson says that he wanted to be like "them," the successful people he saw around him drinking wine and enjoying the good life. Now he realizes it's enough simply to be himself. "I just live life now. I just enjoy the moment. I really am a big advocate of being grateful. I get on my knees every night and I'm grateful. Every morning I'm grateful. Throughout the day I'm grateful." On the days when it's hard to feel that gratitude, Woodson remembers where he used to be.

A few months after deliberately crashing into the oak tree, Woodson found himself homeless, living in his still-damaged pickup. "I take myself right back to the side of the road where I parked my truck with the front end all smashed up," he says thoughtfully. "That's where I go back to. It was my bottom. So that makes me grateful for today.

"I don't want to ever forget where I came from."

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From the March 29-April 4, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

Copyright © 2006 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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