February 22, 1996
Influx of New Drug Brings Crime and Violence to Midwest
Drug Returns to California, Death and Violence in Its Wake
By DIRK JOHNSON
EWTON, Iowa -- In this small town surrounded by corn fields, nothing but Sunday morning church bells ever made much noise, and the jail sat three-quarters empty most of the time.
And then about a year or so ago, things started to go haywire.
Crime began to soar, coupled with an outbreak of irrational behavior: a man with a spotless record pulled a string of burglaries; some parents suddenly became so neglectful that their children were taken away; a man fled his workplace to get a gun, terrified that helicopters were coming after him; motorists in routine traffic stops greeted the police with psychotic tirades.
Prosecutors linked all of these cases and many more in this town of 15,000 people to the influx of the drug methamphetamine, and its frequent side-effects of paranoia and violent behavior.
A problem for several years in California and other Southwestern states, the drug is now making its way across America, ruining lives and families along the way and raising the concern of policy makers in Washington.
"Meth seems to have taken control of these people," said Steve Johnson, the prosecutor here in Jasper County, where the 24-bed jail is now overflowing, and 90 percent of the inmates have a problem with the drug. "It's scary stuff. We're pretty frustrated and don't know exactly what to do to get it under control."
The drug, also known as crank or ice, is a stimulant that is swallowed, snorted, or injected. It is much cheaper than cocaine, and its high lasts longer, the authorities say. Users may stay awake for several days at a stretch, feeling euphoric and full of energy before finally plunging into terrible depression and paranoia.
"This is the most malignant, addictive drug known to mankind," said Dr. Michael Abrams of Broadlawn Medical Center in Des Moines, where more patients were admitted during the past year for abuse of methamphetamine than for alcoholism. "It is often used by blue-collar workers, who feel under pressure to perform at a fast pace for long periods. And at first, it works. It turns you into wonder person. You can do everything -- for a while."
Crack, wicked as it is, cannot compare to the destructive power of methamphetamine, Abrams said. He said the drug, because of its molecular structure, is more stimulating to the brain than any other drug.
The effects of cocaine, whether snorted or smoked, might be gone from the brain in 5 or 10 minutes, Abrams said, while methamphetamine continues to work on receptors in the brain for 8 to 24 hours.
The price of the drug here might be $100 a gram, about the same as that for powdered cocaine, but would last a user for a week while the cocaine would probably be used in a day.
Cocaine, which comes from the coca plant, is a natural substance. Methamphetamine is purely synthetic. "The body has enzymes that break down cocaine," he said, "but not with methamphetamine."
Methamphetamine causes psychotic and violent reactions, he said, because the drug throws out of control the production of the brain chemical dopamine, which plays an important part in movement, thought, and emotion, as is the case with schizophrenia. Over time, the drug damages the brain.
"A person addicted to this stuff looks and acts exactly like a paranoid schizophrenic," he said. "You cannot tell any difference."
He said that a crack addict could reach the same point of psychotic behavior but that it would take "much much longer and much more of he drug."
The drug, combined with the effects of sleep deprivation, can cause people to go mad, with ghastly consequences. In a case last July, a man in New Mexico, who was high on methamphetamine and alcohol, beheaded his 14-year-old son and tossed the severed head from his van window onto a busy highway.
The drug has already exacted a big death toll in Western states. In California, it was blamed for more than 400 deaths from overdose and suicide in 1994, the latest year with complete records on the drug. In Phoenix, it killed 122 people in 1994. the authorities said.
Here in Iowa, the ravages of the drug have reached what law-enforcement and health officials call an epidemic level. The police in Des Moines seized $4.5 million worth of methamphetamine in the last year alone.
And for the first time in Polk County, which includes Des Moines, arrests for drugs now surpass the number of arrests for drunken driving. Methamphetamine accounts for 65 percent of the drug arrests.
The drug is often manufactured in makeshift laboratories in rural areas, where the stench given off during its production is more likely to go undetected, and where law-enforcement agencies are more thinly spread.
Drug agents found seven such laboratories in Iowa last year. In the first six weeks of this year, they found five more. One of them, in a house trailer near the small town of Centerville, exploded and burned a man over 40 percent of his body.
The drug is also making its way into schools throughout Iowa, with some ghastly consequences.
One night about a year ago, 17-year-old Travis Swope of Waterloo sat down with his parents, Tim and Keely, and began to tremble. "I'm scared," the boy told them. He said he could not eat or sleep, and that he had been taking a drug called crank.
His parents, who had never heard of the drug, were shocked, but supportive. Swope, a maintenance worker at the John Deere Co., said his union insurance would cover drug treatment. The next day, however, Travis said he would quit on his own. And his parents believed him.
"I was in denial," Swope said. "I thought it was something he'd get through."
Travis, who was a first-rate athlete, seemed better for a while. But then he lost weight and looked pale, all the while insisting that he was not using drugs. Then his manner changed.
"He had never been disrespectful to us," his mother said. "But all of a sudden, he'd be like, 'I'll be home when I decide to come home!' That wasn't Travis. It was like he was a different kid."
At the end of September, there was a blow-up with his father, and Travis was told to leave the house.
On Oct. 6, Travis checked into a hospital, feeling as if he had a terrible case of the flu. In fact, the drug had broken down his immune system and he had developed a form of meningitis. Ten days later, he was dead.
"Learn about this drug, and sit down with your sons and daughters," said Mrs. Swope, her voice breaking with emotion as she talked with a reporter. "I learned way too late, and I feel like I failed him. Travis was a really good kid -- not a perfect kid. He made some wrong decisions, and this drug sucked him away."
Swope said there were times he avoided discussions about drugs with his son, because he feared it would lead to a confrontation. "But I would give everything to have him sitting here now," he said, "being mad at me."
While it seems puzzling why otherwise intelligent people would risk ruining their lives with this poison, drug counselors point out that stimulants have long held appeal in American culture. Going back more than a generation, students, athletes, and workers have sought endurance by taking "uppers" or "speed" in tablets called Black Cadillacs or White Crosses.
The old country song by Dave Dudley, "Six Days on the Road," spoke in the voice of a long-haul trucker in a big hurry: "I'm taking little white pills, and my eyes are open wide."
Methamphetamine made inroads among many blue-collar people because it did not carry the stigma of being a hard drug, the authorities said.
"Crack has the stigma of being an inner-city drug, and powder cocaine is thought to be for affluent people," said Mike Balmer, the chief deputy sheriff in Jasper County. "But speed was a working-class drug. It's what people used to get them through a shift at the factory or keep up on a construction site."
Indeed, the use of methamphetamine goes back many years, perhaps to the '20 or '30s. But today's form is far more powerful, and deadly.
Years ago, the authorities said, a typical street dose of methamphetamine consisted of perhaps 20 percent of ephedrine, the ingredient that delivers the kick. New methods that emerged in the late 1980s and early '90s, often using a synthetic, psuedoephedrine, have yielded a much more potent substance. Now the drug contains over 90 percent of the active ingredient.
Even before the big influx of methamphetamine, the use of stimulants were a problem in Iowa. A public health survey in 1993 found that the use of stimulants like amphetamines among Iowans was twice the national average, a finding that caused some scholars to wonder if an intense Midwestern work ethic was partly to blame.
The latest statistics show that more than 35 percent of the people going to Iowa prisons last year reported using methamphetamine. And 90 percent of the people being committed to the mental health facilities in Polk County have used methamphetamine.
In some cases, the psychotic behavior provoked by the drug becomes permanent. The drug also causes body sores, which are worsened by the incessant scratching by users who feel like bugs are crawling over their bodies.
To fight the drug, Iowa has begun a radio and television advertising campaign to warn people of the dangers. A new prosecutor has been added to the U.S. attorney's office in Des Moines, just to concentrate on drugs. At least five counties in Iowa have hired extra prosecutors to deal with the rising tide of methamphetamine cases.
"They haven't seen much of this in the East Coast," said Tom Murtha, the director of the First Step-Mercy Franklin Center, an alcohol and drug treatment center. "But it's coming."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company