Dodging the “Crystal Bullet”

Friday, March 30th, 2012

A few weeks ago, police searching a California home for stolen iPads came upon 750 pounds of methamphetamine—the devastating drug known as “crank.” It was one of the largest meth busts in the history of our country, and the street value of the drugs seized was $34 million. Then, last week, USA Today chronicled the immense damage that meth is doing in middle America—not just ruining the health and lives of users and makers alike, but also threatening entire communities and the geographic areas that surround meth labs. This is a tremendously addictive drug that wreaks havoc on the human body, and every year it wreaks more and more havoc on our nation as a whole.

And yet…another recent article praised my home region of New England for managing to “dodge the crystal bullet” and avoid the meth epidemic entirely. So—what’s going on? In a nation where meth use and production is on the rise, have my fellow New Englanders hit upon some sort of magic meth repellant that frees our citizens from this terrible drug? If so, how can we replicate this technique in other states that so badly need a respite from meth?

As a clinical director, I’ve indeed noticed that between all the clients we treat for addictions ranging from marijuana to alcohol to prescription opiates, meth rarely makes an appearance. This drug has been relegated in the minds of many to the Missouri Ozarks and other regions of rural heartland America. And with good reason: in 2010, DEA agents seized 1197 meth labs in Tennessee and 1624 in Missouri, while only 13 were seized in New England that year. But this isn’t to say that meth won’t become a problem in our region – or in any supposedly “meth-immune” region – in the future.

The aforementioned article offers many hypotheses as to how New England (and Vermont in particular) has avoided methamphetamines—maybe it’s the dearth of motorcycle gangs, or the unavailability of a particular chemical fertilizer often used to cook meth. Or, as one of my colleagues pointed out, maybe it’s because of the widespread meth prevention and education efforts that the Vermont State Police ran ten years ago. Maybe it’s simply because New England meth users get their drugs from other states and don’t report their use. Or maybe meth just hasn’t arrived…yet.

On one hand, New England has somehow been doing a great job of keeping the “meth menace” at bay, and other regions would do well to replicate some of those possible causal factors—such as prevention seminars. On the other hand, this is no excuse for New Englanders to pat ourselves on the back and rest on our laurels. Our region’s skyrocketing prescription drug abuse problem, for example, is proof that substance abuse is here, even if we don’t have Missouri’s problems with meth or Texas’s problems with heroin “cheese.” Fighting specific drugs in specific regions where they’re popular is all well and good, but it’s not the answer; we need to dig deep and get at the things that motivate people to start abusing substances in the first place. That’s the big picture.

Too many of us shrug off certain drugs as being “dead” or out of style within our particular communities. But addiction is an insidious disease. We’re fighting a foe that will just keep coming back. Don’t doubt addiction will find a way. So with meth, as with any drug, let’s not assume victory in New England as we incorrectly assumed victory over heroin in New York City. Instead, let’s keep preventing, educating, and treating. Because while we may have dodged one “bullet,” we never know when the next will be fired.

Neil Gaer
Director, Clinical Affairs
Director Massachusetts and New Hampshire Programs
Phoenix Houses of New England

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