Meth in Sanpete pt. 2

Meth in Sanpete pt. 2


‘Avoid it like the plague’

Users, law enforcement describe the destructive effects of meth use

James Tilson

Staff writer


            “A few years back, in an officer-involved shooting, the suspect (who) was shooting out of the back [car] window, thought the aliens were chasing him, had a shoot-out with the cops—100 percent meth.

            “He was high as a kite when they finally put him in custody. When he got sober, he said, ‘Yeah, I was off my rocker, hadn’t slept in a week.’

             The cops were trying to pull him over for a regular traffic offense. If he had acted normal, they probably would have released him. But he was so high, he started blasting out his back window at them.”

            – Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels, recalling one incident involving a suspect high on methamphetamine.


There are so many outrageous and horrifying stories about methamphetamine use that it can be hard to know what to believe. But there’s one thing on which everyone interviewed for these articles agrees. Meth ruins lives.

“Meth is just evil,” says Deputy Jeff Greenwell, Sanpete County probation officer. “Meth is a very, very nasty drug. It takes somebody who had something and ruins them quickly. It ruins their body, their life.”

“Avoid it like the plague,” agrees David Angerhofer, who, as Sanpete County public defender for several years, represented people charged with meth use and related crimes. “Meth addicts, their lives are just a shambles. [There’s] almost a sense of hopelessness about them, like there’s no way out, no way up.”

Former user, Andrea Sparks (not her real name), told the Messenger, “It ruined everything. I pushed my friends away who were not into drugs. I pushed my family away. I pushed my kids away. I lost all three of my jobs that I had at the time. My husband lost his job. It was just a whirlwind, (like) drowning.”

But while everyone agrees meth is a terrible drug, people who have experience with meth and meth users have different perspectives about how and why people get hooked. Some users claim they were addicted from the first hit, while others say meth is no more addictive than any other drug.

Many claim that early trauma is a precursor of addiction to meth. Others point to youth, experimentation, peer pressure and just being dumb. A person’s particular chemistry can play a part. Some say meth mainly snares the socially and economically disadvantaged. Others say anyone get hooked.

There’s no debate about how meth works. It is a powerful stimulant that can affect the brain in such a way that nothing else gives the user pleasure. Once someone gets addicted, meth will lead to extreme behaviors, including anxiety, paranoia, impaired judgment, criminal activity, physical debilitation and sometimes death.

How addictive is it

Sparks says her addiction began the first time she tried meth. “I’m not kidding you, I was hooked. I had to have more. And then I had to try other things. So I just kept adding something new and doing more. And then I started mixing things with it. Because you’re always chasing that high, that first high.”

But Tonia Castro, coordinator of a drug treatment program in the Sanpete County Jail, says meth is not addictive upon first use based on the body’s reaction to the chemical.

“I don’t think it’s any more addictive than any other substance. It does give a longer high, so I could see where someone would like it more. But in terms of the body’s ability to get addicted to one substance or another, which is how you measure addiction, it’s the same (as other drugs).

“I’ve found that meth addicts like to return to meth. But I wouldn’t say that people get addicted to meth after the first use. A lot of people go back to it over time, maybe a month or two, once or twice, before they stick to it.”

Physical addiction is just one dimension of meth use, says Kevin Daniels, the Sanpete County attorney. “The psychological part of it, and the fact you feel like you can’t function without it” is also a draw, he says.

“Life is stressful, and boredom and stress are the two biggest reasons people get into drugs,” he says. “…If your life is tough, it helps you escape. It’s very psychologically addictive, the most of the major drugs.”

Why they do it

So if the outcome of meth is so awful, why would someone start taking it?

Among counselors, law enforcement officials and former users, most agree some combination of youthful experimentation combined with past trauma is what leads people to drugs and often to meth.

“I talk about using any substance as a way of coping,” says Lance Martin, social worker at Central Utah Counseling Center and lead therapist for the Sanpete County Drug Court. “There’s a certain amount of juvenile experimentation, that’s a first step. But there’s the unspoken thing, and that’s trauma. It can come in the form of (past) abuse, that’s the most obvious. It can also come from broken relationships.

“I think that it’s pretty common for young people to experiment with tobacco, with marijuana, with alcohol, but if they’re more vulnerable because they’ve been abused or neglected or abandoned, they’re really prime candidates for turning to substances.”

Castro, the drug counselor at the Sanpete County Jail, agrees. “Oh yeah, I would say almost everyone (involved with meth) is dealing with some sort of trauma. One of the things I say in my group is, ‘Trauma and abuse won’t make you an addict, but it’ll keep you there.’”

Sparks described how she developed post-traumatic stress disorder from an abusive boyfriend she had as a teen-ager. “It was almost like a numb feeling. I have PTSD, and (meth) made me numb, and I didn’t have to feel anything. I really liked that because it took all the emotion and everything I had been building up and it took it all away. Every time I did it, I was numb to everything.”

Diana Headley, a recovering addict, said meth helped her deal with a sense of loneliness and isolation. “I think it was never having a sense of belonging. I’m Canadian, I was born in Canada, my dad went back to Europe, and my mom brought me and my brother to Sanpete, so we have no family here. No grandparents, no aunts, uncles, cousins, dad gone, and I always felt a little different, like an outcast.”

And Jeanette Jarvis (not her real name), mother of an addict, tells how her son, experienced a loss of a close family member as a child that she thinks lead to his addiction.

“He does have some emotional issues that he’s battling, and he’s never received the proper amount of counseling for them. He lost his dad when he was 12, and they were really close. He just never has gotten over it. And I think that plays a lot in the addiction because I guess when you’re on the meth, you just forget everything.”

An addict may have learned his or her addictive behaviors from family. “When they are taught that this is normal, that they must manipulate to get things. Especially when it comes from mom and dad, they were using, and now they’re  using with mom and dad. It’s just crazy to think about.”

Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels thinks that the “family problem” is one of the most intractable parts of dealing with an addict. “You want to solve the drug problem, you got to solve the family problem,” he says. “And I’m not necessarily saying nuclear family, mother, father, kids. I mean the people who mean ‘family’ to you.

Det. Derik Taysom, of the Sanpete County Sheriff’s Office, says situational stress can play a big role in making substance use appealing. When looking at an addict, “I will say, a lot of times, when you see someone who hits a bad place in their life, they lose their job, lose a relationship, can’t hold down a job,” drug use and abuse sometimes follow.

But Taysom is quick to add that you can’t blame every addiction on past trauma or situational stress. “I would say at least 50 percent of the people I talk to didn’t get into drug use because of stress in their lives. They started because they were young and dumb and hung out with other people who used and were given drugs by them.”

Individual brain chemistry

Another factor contributing to meth addiction may be a person’s particular brain chemistry, says Martin, the social worker with the Central Utah Counseling Center.

“There are people who are going to be naturally attracted to a stimulant. Somebody who struggles with depression might like the idea. (They might think) ‘I just need energy, I need something to clean the house, or fix the car, or go to work, or whatever.’

“There’s some people who function better with a stimulant. For example, someone with hyper-activity disorder, they may come across meth, and they function a little bit better. Maybe they don’t know why, or maybe they do. Maybe they were prescribed Ritalin as a child.”

Socio-economic factors

Some law enforcement officers and drug counselors believe socio-economic status affects who gets involved with meth, while others say they’ve encountered addicts from all social strata.

Martin, noting that most of his clients are court-ordered and thus more likely to not have very much money, says economic background may have some influence on whether a person becomes an addict.

In Sanpete County, Martin says, one can look at how closely an addict is connected to the LDS church to see how stable that person’s life had been.

“It does create a kind of class differentiation, where you have solid citizens of the community who are working, have families, own property. And then you have those who are in that other culture, that are side-by-side but don’t associate with (the other group). And users tend to not be able to hold down jobs, tend not to own property, and that tends to reinforce those differences.”

But there are LDS members that become addicts, too, he says. “We have group therapy sessions, where many of them know the primary LDS songs by heart.”

Daniels believes meth use is definitely affected by economic background. “By its very nature, you can see someone who starts somewhere else and ends up at meth, but typically it’s a working class drug,” he says.

“The intersection with the LDS culture is interesting, because [in that culture] it’s hard to justify using meth. Whereas a lot of LDS people will be more susceptible to abusing prescription drugs, because it comes from a doctor and ‘must be safe.’”

But some of the law enforcement officers interviewed said that based on their experience, meth does not come out of a particular background.

Probation officer Greenwell says, “Originally, I thought there was going to be [a typical meth addict], but there’s not. I can’t single out a stereotype of a user. I’ve got them from 18 to 65, good backgrounds, poor backgrounds, there’s no singling it out.”

Det. Taysom agrees. “There’s always the obvious profile. But it’s not always the case. I know people who go to church and are prominent in society who use meth.”

And attorney Angerhofer says he has meth addict clients from all walks of life. “I represent a doctor and a lawyer, so when you lump them together, you wouldn’t think so, [with] someone who has never held a job in their life, they never seem to match [your expectations] at all.”

Meth biochemistry

Even with all of the evidence of how awful methamphetamine is, in the short-term it has a powerful pleasure-inducing effect on the user.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), most of the pleasurable effects of methamphetamine are believed to result from the release of high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is involved in motivation, pleasure and motor function.

“The neurotransmitters release dopamine into the system, and then it over clogs the receptor,” Castro says. “After that, all of these chemicals are floating around between the receptor and the transmitters, with nowhere to go, so they get pushed back up into the transmitter that sent them out, and that gives the sensation of being high.”

The elevated release of dopamine is also thought to contribute to the drug’s deleterious effects on nerve terminals in the brain.

“When the neurotransmitter sends out all of these chemicals, it sends out a burst of them, just a ton, all at once, and the receptor can’t catch it all,” she says. “The brain reacts to having made too much, and will not make any more for quite some time. Serotonin is one of those chemicals that make you feel good, feel happy, that the brain will stop producing.

“And so, when the addict isn’t high, even when you think you should be happy, for example, if your kids did well in the school play, you can’t feel happy until you force yourself to feel happy through drug use.”

The short-term effects of pleasure and “happy-ness” are accompanied by increased wakefulness and physical activity, along with decreased appetite.

There are bad short-term side effects of meth, too. There can be rapid heart rate, irregular heartbeat and increased blood pressure. With an overdose, elevated body temperature, or hyperthermia, and convulsions can occur, and if not treated immediately can result in death.

The long-term effects are where the dangers of methamphetamine really become evident. NIDA describes how addicts develop a tolerance to the pleasurable effects and need to take higher doses, take it more frequently or change how they take it in an effort to continue to get high. Eventually, an addict may have a hard time feeling pleasure in anything except the drug.

Addicts may develop significant anxiety, confusion, insomnia, mood disturbances and violent behavior. They may display psychotic symptoms, such as paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, and delusions.

Castro finds the chemical effects of meth on the brain lead to mental health issues for her clients. “They start to have-meth induced psychosis, they hear things, they’re paranoid, even when they haven’t been using for months. They’re distrustful of almost everything.”

“I had quite a few come through here diagnosed with schizophrenia. A lot of professionals have told me when they find schizophrenia in meth users, it was the meth that caused it because there was nothing there before.”

Psychotic symptoms can sometimes last for months or years after a person has quit using, and stress has been shown to precipitate spontaneous recurrence of methamphetamine psychoses.

But for law enforcement, assuming a person is using meth based on his irrational behavior can be a mistake.

“Yeah, they’ve got a vibe,” says Det. Taysom.  “(You think), ‘Man, that person could be on meth.’ But at the same time, it could be a mental condition. I’ve run into that a few times, you think they use meth, they’re showing the signs, but really they’ve had a head injury that’s affected their behavior, something along those lines.”

Meth addicts also develop physical problems. Castro says, “Their teeth are rotting, they have little tics. But even if they don’t develop overt physical symptoms, they still seem jittery, nervous and over confident.

“I have a guy in my group right now, he has perfect teeth, beautiful body, wonderful smile, he looks young for his age, but he’s been doing meth for years. You couldn’t have told (he has a meth history) from his appearance, but he does have that energy about him of being a meth addict.”

Behavioral consequences of meth

One thing is for sure. Anyone using meth with any regularity is sure to exhibit changes i attitude and behavior.

Marsha Hunt (not her real name), who divorced her husband because he became a meth addict, says, “He became possessive, paranoid, verbally abusive, more than he already was, started getting to the point I was afraid for my own life.”

After she filed for divorce, “he followed me on Facebook, tried sending me messages, emails, texts, phone calls. He tried to break into my house…”

And Diana Headley, a recovering addict, describes how when someone becomes an addict, he or she doesn’t care about the consequences of actions anymore.

“It’s kind of like they run off of fate. There’s no mindset of that, by making choices, you make the good times or the bad times…It’s like, one of these days something big is going to happen, and I’ll be sober.”

Defense attorney Angerhofer recounts how meth can force a parent to make a dreadful choice. “I do child welfare cases as well, and you’re talking to people with the very real possibility of losing their family, losing their children, and they have a choice to make—fight for their kids or do meth. And they choose meth.”

“There’s a reason they (meth users) will go and get into a shredder and reassemble all the financial documents, or they’ll strip the insulation off of a lot of copper wire, which is a tedious task,” says Daniels, the county attorney. “You’re up, you’re energetic, you’re focused, and if you’re a criminal, you’re going to use those attributes to commit new crimes.

Daniels says meth was at the heart of the Fullwood murders, an incident in 2011 where a retired couple was shot and killed in their home in Mt. Pleasant. The killer, Logan McFarland, had been doing meth and was apparently trying to rob the house to find money or goods he could sell for drugs. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“Methamphetamine was at the core of the Fullwood murders. Period. Without meth, you don’t have the Fullwoods being killed,” Daniels says.

Meth addiction seems to boil down to just two pathways. Either the addict quits using—or his or her life is ruined.

“When you live this lifestyle…I stopped counting the number of friends that I’ve put in the grave in Sanpete County at 29,” says Headley. “I’ve lived here since I was 12, and now I’m 41. I’ve had a lot of friends die from addiction, and for each one of them, I never stopped to process [my grief].”

Next week: How Sanpete County tries to help meth addicts break their addiction.