On the rise

Michael Lewis

Meth production growing in Portage County

According to officials, crystal methane is popular among Kent State students and residents in Portage County. Users typically snort or ingest the drug that is often made in clandestine or mobile labs.

Credit: Ben Breier

Fresh out of high school at the age of 18, she did her first line. Four years and many breakdowns later, she left in-patient treatment at the Horizon House in Kent.

As Julie, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, leaned back in her chair, she described that first feeling.

“As soon as I did that first line of crystal meth, everything I knew disappeared,” Julie said. “All my worries, all my troubles and all my stress was gone. I felt beautiful for the first time in my life. I could do anything I wanted.”

Julie’s story is one of many from inside a growing methamphetamine craze nationwide. Her everyday use for a year resulted in an arrest on felony charges of aggravated possession. After serving time, she entered a treatment facility in lieu of conviction to fight her addiction. On Aug. 27 she said she finally got that sparkle back in her eyes when she moved back home.

Portage County law enforcement officials said they are concerned about the increase of meth cases in the last two years.

“We have seen a significant rise in the number of meth cases in this county,” Portage County Sheriff Duane Kaley said. “Our narcotics unit is actively seeking out, intercepting and neutralizing labs.”

Portage County Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci compared the rise of meth to a plague, sweeping the country from west to east.

“Well, the plague has arrived,” Vigluicci said.

According to U.S. House of Representatives statistics, during 1999 more than 9 million people in the United States reported trying meth at least once. In 2000, 7.9 percent of high school seniors reported trying the drug. Use among eighth-graders was more than 4 percent.

According to Vigluicci, within the last year his office has tried 21 cases for felony possession and 14 cases for felony manufacturing with another half a dozen pending.

But those numbers don’t come close to the neighboring county. In Summit County, police and narcotics officers busted 104 labs last year, topping other Ohio counties. As a result, county officials made it harder to purchase pseudoephedrine, one of the main ingredients in crystal meth, commonly found in some over-the-counter cold medications. The pharmacist is now the go-between to purchase cold medication containing the stimulant. After Oregon initiated the legislation, nearly 40 other states passed laws restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine.

The dangers of meth

While meth can be snorted, swallowed, smoked or “slammed,” another term for injected, a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals enables the drug to be cooked.

“If they mess up their cook and let it cook too quick, it’ll explode,” said Portage County Deputy Kevin Nicolino. “I saw a two-story house get leveled, no problem. Any little thing could set it off.”

The highly addictive, crystalline white drug, also known as “crank,” seduces its users by flooding the pleasure sensors of the brain. High levels of dopamine are released into the body, stimulating brain cells and enhancing mood and body movements, according to the Greater Dallas Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Web site.

According to the site, dopamine- and serotonin-containing neurons do not die after meth use, but their nerve endings (terminals) are cut back, and regrowth appears to be limited.

Meth lures users by taking over the central nervous system and eliminating feelings of hunger and fatigue, leading to chemical dependency. Addiction counselors at Townhall II said it is one of the hardest drugs to treat with a relapse rate of 92 percent.

“By the end, I was just awake,” Julie said. “I was a walking zombie. I felt worthless and ugly, numb. The only feelings I felt were fits of rage when I came down.

“My biggest regret is losing my values and losing my family,” she said. “It destroyed my life. I had a home and a family to support me, but I chose to live out of my car. What the hell was I thinking?”

Users, who also asked to remain anonymous, say the drug is cheaper if manufactured and the buzz lasts longer, allowing them to stay awake for days at a time. After a few days with no sleep, the body begins functioning differently. People see things and hear things that are not there.

“I had a gun pulled on me,” Julie said. “Someone had been up for too many days and they lost their mind.

“After day three, you go into the ‘huh?’ stage,” she said. “We realized all we were saying was huh?, what?, huh? You couldn’t tell if you were hearing them wrong or they were talking gibberish.”

Nicolino described the faces of people who use meth for a year like they had “aged 20 years.” Some users he came across had swollen sores all over their bodies.

“They think they have bugs on them,” Nicolino said. “They pick at their skin till they bleed. It looks like chicken pox.”

Meth in production

Clandestine labs have been found in cars, garages, homes, apartments, hotels, trailers and even out in the middle of the woods throughout Portage County, he said. Some labs were found with children living in them.

“Some (cooks) aren’t even high school graduates,” Vigluicci said. “They’re not the most educated people, but they’re doing hi-tech chemistry. Too bad they don’t devote their talents and resources to productive chemistryA-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-; they’d be wealthy.”

When labs are set up in a high-density area, it can be life-threatening. Vigluicci referred to last year’s explosion at Silver Meadows apartments.

“The Attorney General’s office has put three mobile units in this part of the state responding to all the labs,” he said.

About a month ago, the DEA busted two labs in a house at Brady Lake – one upstairs and one in the basement. The health department was worried about the one in the basement because they thought it might drain into the sewers, but found it drained in the ground.

“It could’ve contaminated water if it got in the water supply, but it didn’t,” said DuWayne Porter, director of environmental health at the Portage County Health Department. “Unfortunately the woman involved-got away.”

“We aren’t having the same number of labs like Summit County, but it’s a concern for our Health Department and the other city health departments.”

According to Deputy Nicolino, all the ingredients can be found at your local store. And with the technology today, anybody can pull the recipe off the Internet.

“The red phosphorous is the hardest to get, but now they buy match boxes and get it off the striker patch,” Nicolino said. “Officers get trained to notice things out of the ordinary when they do routine house calls. Most people don’t have a gallon of acetone or 500 boxes of matches in their kitchen.”

Julie said many times she had to purchase boxes of matches and spend “countless hours” tearing them apart and scraping the red phosphorous off. At the end of her use, she became the “pretty girl” who sold it.

She would drive up in a nice car wearing low cut shirts and short skirts. She would hang out with “virgins” (people who never used the drug) and “feed them lines of meth.” Though she never had sex with them, she pretended to be their best friend.

“I would sell you a line for five bucks,” she said. “When they did that, I told them ‘I can’t share anymore, but I can sell you a gram.’ They always wanted more, especially for parties.”

As another user put it, “they invited that girl crystal” to the party.

Looking back, Julie said she never realized she lost that sparkle till it was gone. Through the “grace of God” she got clean.

“People like to be around me again. They tell me they can’t see me being a drug addict and that makes me so happy.

“There are places to go to get help” she said. “It took me getting arrested to get help. There’s Townhall II in Kent. Narcotics Anonymous even has a toll-free number to call when you’re freaking out.”

To receive information or to speak with a drug and alcohol counselor, contact Townhall II at (330) 678-3006. For other questions about use or to speak to a 24-hour helpline, contact Narcotics Anonymous at 1-888-438-4673.

If you suspect a meth lab is located in Portage County, contact the Portage County Sheriff’s Department at (330) 296-5100.

Contact enterprise reporter Michael Lewis at [email protected].