One state grapples with growing meth use among teens

Monday, April 11, 2005

LAKE ELMO, Minn. -- They sit at a cafeteria table, gossiping and snacking during a school field trip.

"Have you seen him? Has he gained the weight back?" one girl asks.

"Yeah, he looked so good," replies another from across the table. "His cheeks filled in."

It's no casual lunchtime conversation. The teen they're talking about is a recovering methamphetamine addict -- and so are several of the teens at the table, all of them students who attend alternative high schools in the St. Paul area and who are trying to get their lives back on track.

While the methamphetamine epidemic has often been associated with drug labs hidden away in the countryside, today's users frequently defy that image, whether they are urban professionals or suburban homemakers.

"Meth is THE thing -- it's what everybody wants to do," said Anthony, a 17-year-old student at Sobriety High School in St. Paul who first tried meth at age 13 and has been in recovery since he overdosed last summer. He and other students from alternative learning programs were allowed to speak on the condition that their last names not be used.

While statistics show that meth use among teens and middle-school students has been level for the past few years, experts caution that those numbers can be deceiving, since meth seems to spread in pockets, leaving some regions or populations relatively untouched while others are devastated.

But when it does, it often hits hard.

In Nebraska, for instance, two 20-year-olds who were high on meth froze to death after getting lost in a snowstorm in January. And in Oregon, officials recently reported that meth is now second only to marijuana -- surpassing alcohol -- as the drug that sends the most teens to treatment in that state.

Nebraska and Oregon are among the nearly two dozen states that have entrenched meth problems, most of them in the West and Midwest, according to state-by-state advisories the Drug Enforcement Administration released this year. And the DEA says meth is a growing concern in sections of nearly every other state.

Already in Minnesota, a fifth of addicts who entered drug treatment for meth use last year were younger than 18, according to Carol Falkowski, a researcher at the nonprofit Hazelden Foundation, who tracks the state's drug trends for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Another recent state survey found that about a quarter of girls and a fifth of boys in Minnesota's alternative learning schools had used meth at least once in the last year. Ten percent had used it 10 times or more.

How teens get methamphetamine varies. Sometimes, they say friends or relatives -- even a parent -- get them into it. Some have sold meth to pay for their own habit. And a few say they eventually learned how to make the drug themselves.

"Have you ever tried 'crystal'?" he asked, bringing out crystal methamphetamine and a small glass pipe that some refer to as a "bubble."

She hadn't tried it, but told her friends otherwise: "I said, 'Yeah' and just went along with it."

She says the reasons teens are attracted to meth are many, from a wish to lose weight, especially for girls, to the euphoric feeling users get when they first take the drug -- a feeling that ends up causing them more trouble than its worth, she adds.

Many other teens say they also like the long-lasting effects, including an "in control" feeling and the ability to focus and stay up for hours.

Like Kristin, she smoked the drug, which also can be injected, snorted or taken orally. But she quickly became so hooked that "if it fell on the chair, I'd lick it off the chair."

It didn't take long for the effects -- emotional and physical -- to turn ugly.

"I'd look in the mirror and my face would look yellow. I'd say, 'I gotta stop for a while or my mom will find out,"' Summers said, recalling how her mom cried when she finally figured out what was going on. Her mother had asked if she was doing meth but, until she was in rehab, Summers never admitted it.

Indeed, the physical effects of methamphetamine use are often jarring -- from sunken eyes and bone-thin frames to teeth that turn gray and deteriorate.

Changes in behavior also are very common, with many meth users becoming edgy, aggressive and paranoid.

Anthony, the 17-year-old from Sobriety High, spent so much time high on meth and sitting by his bedroom window -- afraid the police or someone else was out to get him -- that friends started calling him "Garfield," a reference to the stuffed toy version of the cartoon cat that people stick on windows with suction cups.

Bettylu, an 18-year-old student at Harmony, was scared into quitting the drug after watching her older, meth-using sister become violent. She says the sister also had trouble caring for her young child.

"If you keep using it, there will be no responsibility left," Bettylu says.

Karen LaBore, a mother from nearby Forest Lake, knows what she means.

LaBore was one of dozens of people who gathered in recent weeks for a community meeting about meth in Chisago County, where officials are considering opening their own "sober" high school in response to the growing drug problem there. The meeting -- one of many that grass-roots community groups are organizing across the country -- brought residents together with law enforcement officials, social workers, school counselors and drug experts from the Hazelden Foundation, which is based there.

Her voice shaking, LaBore had a warning for other parents. She told the group about her 27-year-old daughter, who she says has been using meth for years. LaBore is now raising her daughter's three young children and worries about the effect meth might have on them and her own 12-year-old son.

"We need to learn how to protect our kids," she said. "We have to get to these kids before they start this."

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