A matter of life and meth: Drug has tragic consequences

Kansas City StarJuly 23, 2012 

The senseless murders of two Platte County sisters last week became somewhat easier to comprehend when authorities said the confessed killer was high on methamphetamines at the time.

Few illicit drugs provoke the kind of paranoia and rage that leads to such violence as meth.

“When you see somebody on meth, they might have been an OK person,” said domestic violence counselor Mary Ann Allen in Poplar Bluff, Mo., “but now they’re crazy.”

Like the Las Vegas woman, strung out on meth, who last weekend took her toddler hostage and told police that she was hearing voices. The boy was unharmed, but prior to being taken in custody, the mom began stabbing herself with scissors.

Or consider one Jason Munjak, sentenced to life in prison for murdering friend and fellow meth user Toby Marie Rock last January in a Merriam motel room. Suddenly convinced that Rock was a police informant (she wasn’t) Munjak shot her in the head and later on couldn’t explain why.

That same month, a Fresno, Calif., mother who supposedly kept a spotless house and took good care of her two children video-recorded herself smoking meth. Hours later, Aide Mendez shot the toddlers, her cousin and husband before turning the gun on herself. Only the father survived.

And so it goes. Meth-fueled homicides, assaults and acts of domestic violence occur with frequent regularity as the United States confronts a methamphetamine epidemic that is only getting worse, despite the best efforts of law enforcement.

Meth prices are on the decline. The purity of the illicit drug is higher than it’s ever been. So, too, is meth ever more available. This thanks to an influx of the drug from Mexican superlabs and the do-it-yourself production method called “shake and bake” that allows almost anyone to cook up a batch of meth with ingredients easily bought from hardware stores and pharmacies.

The combined trends not only worsen the rate of drug abuse, but also exacerbate the consequences, which range from the petty crimes addicts commit to assault and murder.

“You’re not going to find too many drugs out there that have as big a ripple effect as meth,” said Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington, D.C. But of all those affects, meth’s propensity for ferocious violence truly sets it apart.

“The horror stories are out there,” Payne said.

Paranoia

According to the Justice Department, meth “is a powerfully addictive drug that severely affects users’ minds and bodies.... Chronic use can lead to extremely violent behavior, the neglect of the user’s children, and an inability to cope with the ordinary demands of life.”

That definition, however, is deserving of an asterisk, says Vicky Ward, manager of prevention services at Tri-County Mental Health Services in Kansas City, North.

It’s far too easy to lay the blame for the violent acts of meth users on the shoulders of the drug, she says, without considering the underlying emotional problems that likely led to drug abuse in the first place.

“Never, ever will you have me saying there’s a drug cause and effect,” she said. Drugs and alcohol are, rather, accelerants that cause underlying propensities to explode.

It’s just that meth users tend to be more volatile than those who abuse other substances.

“Some (drugs) do not escalate the paranoia and some do not create the hallucinations that methamphetamine does,” she said.

You see those hallucinations manifested in the seeping sores that mar the faces and bodies of meth users. Convinced that bugs are crawling over them, they scratch themselves bloody.

Likewise, those who have smoked or injected meth for long periods tend to believe that friends and loved ones are underhanded and out to get them.

“Methamphetamine turns love into hate,” Munjak said at his May sentencing.

Few drugs have either the pull or the destructive power of meth. Like cocaine, it produces a quick high by releasing high levels of dopamine into the pleasure areas of the brain. But unlike coke, the euphoria from meth lasts from a couple hours to almost a day, instead of under an hour.

“The drug at first creates a feeling that you have superhuman powers,” says Terree Schmidt-Whelan, co-director of the National Meth Center in Tacoma, Wash. At first, meth heads feel confident, have strong libidos and are extra alert.

But because meth binges can go on for days, the user finally crashes either because he’s run out of drugs or simply can’t go any longer without sleep.

It’s during that interim period that meth users tend to become the most dangerous to others.

“They become paranoid and see things that aren’t really there,” Schmidt-Whelan said. “The thought process of a meth addict is not very logical.”

Take the case of the two murdered sisters in Platte County, a crime that defies logic.

According to the probable cause statement filed by the prosecutor’s office, Clifford D. Miller decided he was going to have sex with Britny Haruup that Friday morning, even though they had no sexual relationship previously, and he entered the house in Edgerton through an unlocked door.

When Ashley Key, who was asleep on the couch, awoke and confronted Miller about coming into the house uninvited, he feared getting into trouble for walking into the house. So he beat and smothered Key, according to the statement, then also killed Haarup to cover up a minor break-in.

How much of a role meth might have played is not known at this point, but Miller also admitted to smoking more meth in the home immediately after the killing.

Domestic violence

There are no clear-cut national, state or local numbers that draw a strict correlation between violent crime and methamphetamine abuse. The DEA does not keep track.

Measured instead are the number of meth labs busted or detected year to year. Partly because of focused enforcement efforts, Missouri led the nation last year with 2,058 meth lab incidents out of 10,287 nationally. While the national total was down slightly from 2010, Missouri’s has been on a steady rise since 2006.

Busts are also up in Kansas City.

“We’ve seized 44 meth labs so far for 2012 as opposed to 28 for all of 2011," said Sgt. Tim Witcig, supervisor of the Metro Meth Section for the KCPD. “Part of the reason for the increase is the fact that the old-fashioned red phosphorus type meth lab needed a heat source and this new shake ‘n bake doesn’t. That makes it more mobile, and they can cook in abandoned houses or the woods without being detected.”

But despite the lack of stats on the correlation between meth and violent crime, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming, experts say, especially when it comes to violence in the home.

It’s not that meth suddenly turns an otherwise loving relationship abusive, says Allen, the domestic violence counselor at Haven House in Poplar Bluff.

“It’s that the violence escalates because of the meth,” Allen said. The abuser is more irritable from the lack of sleep and more paranoid that his or her partner and kids might turn him in to authorities. “They’re not inhibited anymore.”

What’s discouraging for police, drug counselors and those individuals and communities that have to cope with the meth epidemic is that there’s not a lot of hope at present.

Cuts in federal funding to help pay the cost of cleaning up toxic meth labs have caused some police agencies to reduce their focus on the drug.

For the same reason, cuts in federal grants put the 5-year-old National Meth Center in danger of going out of business.

Co-director Schmidt-Whelan said that would be a shame when an estimated 12 million Americans have tried meth and 1.5 million are regular users.

“We’re hoping we can get some other grants,” she said, because while her non-profit group might go away, meth and meth violence certainly won’t.

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