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Amid an opioid crisis, meth pours into the valley

Amid an opioid crisis, meth pours into the valley

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Amid the wave of opioid addiction, methamphetamine has flooded the Roanoke and New River valleys.

An analysis of drug data — from Botetourt and Bedford counties, to Roanoke and Radford — shows that within the last two years meth usurped heroin in the region as a drug of choice second only to marijuana. As of mid-August, Roanoke police had found more meth than they did all of last year.

“People that barely have a car to drive, they can get their hands on a pound of methamphetamine and it’s nothing,” Joe Crowder, a special agent with the Virginia State Police, said. “It used to be if we knew somebody had a pound of methamphetamine, that was a big-time dealer here. Those people have multiple pounds now.”

While heroin and other opioids remain widespread in Roanoke, the availability of meth has skyrocketed, according to drug seizures that police recorded from 2013 to mid-August. The data provide a snapshot of a city awash in meth.

Five years ago, Roanoke police recorded 38 seizures of meth, compared to 212 heroin seizures, according to the newspaper’s analysis of drug data violation records provided by the department. From 2015 to 2017, the number of meth seizures tripled, from 99 to 309, while heroin increased from 214 to 312. As of mid-August, Roanoke police logged 332 meth and 259 heroin seizures.

Meth, like cocaine, is an upper — speeding up the body’s systems — while heroin and other opioids are downers, slowing down breathing and heart rate to the point of death. Fatal meth overdoses, which often involve opioids, are rare but rising, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Since pure meth doesn’t carry the same immediate fatal risk, police said, it’s unlikely to bring the same attention from policymakers as has the opioid crisis.

But the influx of meth complicates already meager treatment options. Meth use can manifest as psychosis, with withdrawal characterized by “a burden of mostly mental and emotional symptoms,” said Dr. John Burton, chairman of emergency medicine at Carilion. The drug has become ubiquitous at a time when many state and federal treatment grants still are earmarked for opioid-related disorders.

John Eadie, who analyzes drug trends for a unit of the federal National HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas Program) Assistance Center, warns of a growing threat of stimulant drugs, such as methamphetamine, and its prescription equivalents, such as Adderall and Ritalin.

“It’s clear the opioid epidemic is the most significant drug epidemic we’ve faced as a nation,” Eadie said. “But the stimulants are coming very close behind them.”

Unlike the opioid epidemic, in which heroin followed a wave of prescription opioids such as OxyContin, Eadie said, illicit stimulants such as methamphetamine and cocaine are “moving upwards simultaneously” alongside prescription stimulant pills.

“There has been such an appropriate focus on opioids,” Eadie said. “Until now, people haven’t been looking beyond that.”

‘When the dope flow starts’

This isn’t your “Breaking Bad” meth.

The television show popularized the drug as a product of home laboratories. Those have fallen by the wayside, in part thanks to laws that restricted and regulated access to pseudoephedrine, a drug that can treat runny noses — and also be used to make meth.

In the last few years, state police have encountered fewer meth labs in the Division Six region, an area that includes Roanoke and stretches from Bath County to the North Carolina border and from Montgomery County to Rockbridge County.

In that region, state police investigated or cleaned up 40 labs last year, compared to 110 in 2013 and 145 in 2015. So far this year, state police have investigated or cleaned up 14 labs in the region.

The “shake-and-bake” method of meth making — in which people forgo lab equipment to produce the drug in a soda bottle — also has become endangered. Instead, authorities say, the recent uptick is fueled by cheap crystal methamphetamine from Mexico.

Drugs come in cycles. Meth has become common in wide swaths of the country, including the Roanoke Valley. A major reason for increased supply and demand: Meth is cheap.

Four to five years ago, state police investigators paid $1,800 to $2,500 for an ounce of crystal meth. Now, Crowder said, they pay $500 to $700.

Meth comes flowing into the region through the mail, in packages arriving from California and Arizona with meth, federal court records show. At three pounds, six pounds, it comes by planes, trucks and automobiles, too, from Tennessee, Atlanta and Chicago.

“We’ve had several investigations where tractor-trailers are involved,” Crowder said.

While the drug ultimately might be traced to Mexico, its distribution in and around Roanoke is largely a homegrown operation, forged in the prison system, according to Crowder.

“The sellers that we hit here, nine times out of 10, it’s a Roanoke-born person who did prison time with someone, made a connection, [came] home to Roanoke, and that’s when the dope flow starts,” he said. “It’s very difficult to just travel to California and cold-contact someone.”

One dealer admitted receiving about 15 pounds of meth to distribute to sellers in Roanoke. When reimbursed, she arranged to FedEx cash in bulk back to her California source, federal court records show.

In recent years, Roanoke and communities to the east have seen the sharpest upswing in meth interdiction, compared to the state’s southwestern region, according to a review of law enforcement drug data.

From 2015 to 2017, Bedford, Botetourt and Roanoke counties saw meth seizures increase and their number overtake those of heroin. Vinton didn’t see any meth in 2015 but logged 17 seizures last year and 56 through August. Salem has not seen such an upswing. Craig County Sheriff Trevor Craddock said deputies have seen an increase in meth. Data from the office don’t always specify drug type.

South and west of Roanoke, the importing of crystal meth might be new, but the drug is familiar.

“Our meth labs have gone to next to nothing,” Franklin County Sgt. Justin Hylton said. “People aren’t making it anymore because larger shipments of the commercial-grade are being brought in. There’s no difference in the potency. There’s so much of it that’s here, why make it?”

Franklin County saw meth seizures increase from 74 in 2015 to 138 through late September.

Radford and Montgomery County saw far more meth than heroin in the past five years, a rate that held fairly steady. The Floyd County Sheriff’s Office, because of a software switch-over, had accurate data from the beginning of this year, which has seen 20 meth and five heroin seizures.

“We find people under the influence at the grocery store, at convenience stores, at shopping plazas,” said Montgomery County Sgt. Ronnie Alley.

Meth use isn’t restricted to “a party house or a dope house” and other private homes, Alley said.

“In a lot of rural communities, you’re still seeing the meth is the primary issue,” Alley said. “We have called it a crisis for us since 2010. It has impacted everything that we deal with on a daily basis.”

‘Meth all night’

Meth could make Christine Baldwin “feel like Supermom.”

Three years ago, the Roanoke County native was struggling with addiction. Baldwin, who had two sons at the time, found that meth helped her cook, clean and complete other chores, she said. It made her feel productive.

“My routine at the time was heroin all day and meth all night,” she said.

Baldwin said she hasn’t touched a substance since October 2016. She’s now an administrator at the Hope Initiative, which helps connect people to treatment. Even in the past few months, Baldwin said she has noticed more people seeking treatment for meth-related disorders.

“When I first started volunteering at the Hope Initiative, say a year ago, it was a lot of opiates,” she said. “I’m still seeing a lot of opiates, but I’m seeing meth with it, or just meth, now here in the last probably 60 days.”

Meth’s impact on the brain, which can manifest as anxiety, psychosis and hallucination, presents another obstacle for those seeking treatment.

Sharon Buckman, clinical services director at Piedmont Community Services, which serves areas south of Roanoke County, joked at a recent opioid symposium that the agency’s meth clients are angry with its opioid clients because of how effective treatment with the drug Suboxone can be. There is no equivalent drug to treat meth addiction.

Burton, the Carilion doctor, said many people who use drugs end up using multiple substances. That’s called polysubstance abuse. The hospital sees a steady stream of patients whose drug history includes meth use, he said, and who often show signs of severe depression.

“A lot of treatment centers won’t take you because you’re hearing voices,” Baldwin said. “And the only reason you’re hearing voices is because you’ve been taking meth the past year.”

Brad McConnell, a Blacksburg-based defense attorney, recalls visiting a client in the midst of a meth-induced psychosis a couple days after he was arrested.

“He’s been in jail for probably two days, and he was still just high and hallucinating,” McConnell said. The man was convinced a Drug Enforcement Agent was following him around Christiansburg trying to assassinate him. “Christiansburg P.D. sent a couple guys to check out there was nothing to it,” McConnell said. “The whole thing was a figment of his imagination.”

But meth usually is not as lethal as some opioids — at least not immediately.

“With heroin, it’s a gamble,” Alley said. “With meth, every time you use meth, it kills you a little bit.”

Fatal meth overdoses frequently involve opioids such as fentanyl and heroin. The Virginia Department of Health estimates 92 people will die of meth intoxication this year, up from 88 last year. Deaths from opioids are much higher, but trending downward. The department estimates 1,167 people will die this year, compared to 1,229 last year. Last year, opioids contributed to about 80 percent of fatal drug overdoses statewide.

Nationwide, the death toll is “equal to Sept. 11 every three weeks,” in the language of the president’s drug addiction commission. That refers to 2015 data. Preliminary 2017 data from the Centers for Disease Control suggest another reality — a 9/11 nearly every two weeks.

The sheer number of overall drug deaths has prompted a deluge of media attention, funding and efforts to steer those suffering from opioid addiction into treatment, rather than prisons.

‘Some empathy gaps’

Some posit that factors related to opioid crisis victims — such as their skin color, class or age — play a role in the response.

“Story after story describes drug use in suburban, white communities as a new and dangerous phenomenon, even though decades of the epidemiological evidence shows that blacks and whites have long used illicit drugs in relatively similar proportions,” Julie Netherland and Helena Hansen wrote in a 2016 study analyzing media reporting on the opioid crisis.

“Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered,” Michael Botticelli, then-director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the New York Times in 2015. “They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”

Nationally, Native Americans reported the highest rate of meth use within the last year, according to 2017 results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Pacific Islanders were a distant second, then people of two or more races. White people reported a meth use rate three times that of black people, according to the survey.

The perception of who’s affected, and how they came to be, could help explain future political reactions to drug trends.

“There’s definitely some empathy gaps,” said Colin Dwyer, program coordinator for the Drop-In Center, a Roanoke nonprofit group that aids those with transmittable diseases and related health issues. A main cause of the current opioid crisis — the overprescribing of FDA-approved drugs — influences a perception that its victims are less to blame than people who came to drugs through other means. As for how the reaction to a wave of meth could play out, Dwyer said, “That will end up depending on whose daughter it affects first.”

A less punitive approach to drug use also has gained traction as more people begin to see addiction as a disease rather than a flaw in character. More than half of Americans described addiction to opioid pills as a medical issue that requires treatment, according to a 2018 survey from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Nearly a third said it was very or extremely likely that addiction was caused by bad character or upbringing.

Steve Ratliff, adult and family services director for Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare, said he hopes the stigma related to drug abuse will continue to abate as more people understand the science behind addiction.

Ratliff said he was surprised to hear law enforcement record a rise in meth. Everything he reads about the addiction crisis, he said, revolves around opioids. And so does some grant money that Blue Ridge receives from the state Health Department.

“Everything is geared towards getting us to focus” on opioids, Ratliff said.

Federal money is pouring into the state, Stacy Gill, a behavioral health commissioner at the state health department, told an opioid symposium audience last week at Ferrum College.

“We are getting large amounts of funding that’s coming into the state of Virginia from the federal government specifically to address the opioid crisis,” she said, noting such money was funneling to many state agencies, including law enforcement.

On Wednesday , the U.S. Senate passed the “Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018,” which, in part, beefs up postal inspections for illegal drugs and renews funding for treatment focused on opioids.

All the while, the “meth is rolling right now,” in the words of Salem Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Bowers. Just two weeks ago, federal authorities charged more than two dozen people with conspiracy to traffic meth from California to Southwest Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia. The feds called the probe Operation California Dreamin’.

“Meth has been the drug of choice even throughout the opioid epidemic in Southwest Virginia,” U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen said in an interview. “It never left, and it never ... was supplanted by opioids.”

Cullen said he wishes he had 200 more DEA agents and 50 more prosecutors to disrupt the drug supply. But he also noted that efforts in prevention and treatment, such as drug courts and medically assisted treatment for opioids, are key to stem addiction.

“I’m not naive enough to say I can dismantle three major methamphetamine rings and it’s going to lead to a dramatic decrease,” he said.

It’s not just meth. Recently, Crowder, the state police agent, was talking with an assistant U.S. attorney supervising some of the agency’s drug cases. Surrounded by hundreds of pages of reports, the attorney was overwhelmed.

“He says, ‘I’ve come to figuring out that I just didn’t realize how much of a drug problem there is here in Roanoke.’”

The city is known among drug dealers as a place with many consumers, Crowder said. But he thinks it’s also becoming a hub for distribution.

“If you can distribute to four, five, six counties from here you’re making good money,” he said, suggesting that the drug flow won’t stop anytime soon.

There’s “no light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

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