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Land of Toxic Rites

Budget Cuts Threaten Alternatives to Meth Culture in Rural California

New America Media, News Feature/Audio, Scott Bransford Posted: Sep 08, 2009

(7m 41s, mp3,7.0MB)Download File

Editor's Note: In rural counties of northern California, the toxic rites of methamphetamine use have replaced earlier rites around the lumber industry, which disappeared and took good jobs with it. Places like Trinity County face the prospect of a protracted struggle with the drug as budget cuts narrow treatment options and rehab centers confront financial hardship. NAM contributor Scott Bransford reports from Trinity County. Research and reporting for this article were supported by a 2009 NAM California Politics and Policy Fellowship, funded by the Irvine Foundation.

LEWISTON, Calif.--The summer light faded on a recent evening as the residents of Trinity River Recovery Lodge stood in a circle to pray to God for the strength to accept the things they could not change.

Among those things was the lack of electricity at this isolated halfway house, located in the mountains of Trinity County about 200 miles northwest of Sacramento. Earlier in the week, a worker from the local utility company came by to shut off power after a string of unpaid utility bills, and proprietor Doug Carter was in talks with real estate lenders, trying to work out a compromise to keep the lodge out of foreclosure.

Carter, a towering, thickset 57-year-old who has worked as both a timber faller and counselor for juvenile offenders, said he owed at least $491,000 on the property. Revenue is hard to come by, he said, because the lodge still lacks a state license for providing drug treatment services, which would make it eligible for government grants.

Carters pleas for donations have gone nowhere, even though the lodgethe only sober living facility in Trinity Countyprovides a rare refuge from the epidemic of methamphetamine use that swept the surrounding mountain communities during the late 1990s and turned into a way of life. He finds hardly any support from local residents and out-of-towners who stream into the county during the summer to vacation, fish, and grow marijuana on the regions vast tracts of national forest land.

Matters only grew worse in early August, when sheriffs deputies arrested a woman staying at the lodge for allegedly tossing a lit cigarette into a field and starting the 1,200-acre Coffin Fire. The incident spurred some local leaders to discuss shutting the place down for good.

The bulk of the community would like to see us gone, said Carter, who contends his lodge is just a scapegoat for the countys struggle with drug use. People say were just those losers from the hills. Were like a non-entity.

The State of Meth in the U.S.

Some 10 million people in the United States have abused methamphetamine in their lifetimes, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2005, approximately 500,000 were current users ( National Survey on Drug Use and Health).

Meth abuse is most prevalent in Hawaii and the West. However, it is continuing to spread to other areas of the country, including the South and Midwest (NIDA). Rates of meth use were highest in Nevada (2
percent), Montana (1.5 percent) and Wyoming (1.5 percent) according to 2002 to 2005 data from SAMHSA. The lowest rates of meth use (about 0.1 percent) were found in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Meth use was reported to be the fastest growing in metropolitan Atlanta (NIDAs Community
Epidemiology Work Group).

Meth use has declined among young people since 2002. The percentage of 12th graders who reported that they had used meth in their lifetimes fell from 6.7 percent in 2002 to 2.8 percent in 2008 (NIDA).

However, emergency rooms and treatment centers are experiencing the fallout of the growing impact of methamphetamine abuse. The Drug Abuse Warning Network, which collects data on drug-related visits to hospital emergency departments, reported a greater than 50 percent increase in the number of emergency visits related to meth abuse between 1995 and 2002, reaching approximately 73,000 emergency visits, or 4 percent of all drug-related visits, in 2004. Admissions into meth treatment programs have also been spreading across the country. In 1992, only 5 states reported high rates of treatment admissions for meth problems; by 2002, this number increased to 21.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that meth has gone from a domestically produced drug to one that is largely imported from Mexico. Since 2004, domestic production of the drug has dropped off and Mexico has become the primary source of meth to U.S. drug markets according to the National Drug Intelligence Center.

Reported by Elena Shore

Recovery Lodge residents interviewed for this story were stoic about the turmoil surrounding Carters lodge, and not just because they were adopting new hopes and prayers for finding serenity. The struggles of the halfway house are typical of what theyve experienced in impoverished communities across northern California, where local agencies are increasingly powerless to provide a viable alternative to methamphetamine use.

Meth, a highly addictive stimulant that can be made from the pseudoephedrine found in over-the-counter cold medicines and other household chemicals, cost the nation some $23 billion in 2005 alone in healthcare costs, law enforcement and foster care services, according to a recent study by the RAND Corporation.

But despite the visible evidence of a rural crisis echoing the wave of urban crack use in the 1980s, budget cuts recently signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are bound to further weaken rural law enforcement agencies. Worse still, cuts have all but dismantled the states Proposition 36 program, which funnels drug offenders into rehab programs rather than state prisons.

During fiscal year 2008-09, counties could draw from $90 million in Proposition 36 funds, but no money will be available for the next fiscal year, according to Suzi Rupp, a spokesperson for the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.

In rural counties, such realities seem destined to make the toxic rites of methamphetamine useinhaling, snorting and injecting crystals made of dangerous chemicalsall the more appealing to hardcore users. Places like Trinity County face the prospect of a protracted struggle with a drug that gives people temporary feelings of euphoria, purpose and empowerment, yet condemns many initiates to mental illness, neurological damage and birth defects in offspring.

Carters halfway house is only a small part of a frayed patchwork of public agencies and private rehab programs available to the states estimated 2 million meth users, whose dangerous habits pose a threat to isolated counties already plagued by double-digit unemployment, fractured family structures and youth violence.

For every meth user in a big city theres probably four in a rural area, but theyre silent, said Alex Stalcup, a Bay Area doctor who has worked to promote meth treatment programs throughout rural Northern California. The scandal in California is that we have a treatable disorder and nobodys treating it. Its not only a shame, its killing people.

About 35 miles southwest of Carters lodge, a curvy road cuts toward the community of Hayfork through meadows filled with wildflowers and bounding deer. Approaching the city limits, scattered patches of blight begin to emergecollapsing barns, abandoned cars, and at the entrance to town, the abandoned structures of a shuttered lumber mill.

As in much of rural Northern California, Trinity County is a place where pristine scenery mixes with the faded paint and rust that color communities in economic decline. A great number of Trinity Countys jobs went away in the late 1990s, as changing environmental regulations led to a steep decline in the local timber industry.

Unemployment now stands at 17 percent, according to the states Employment Development Department, and local officials have been hard-pressed to attract new businesses. The only growing business is the countys burgeoning marijuana farming, which includes both legal medical marijuana cultivation and illegal crops. Sheriff Lorrac Craig estimates that some 300,000 to 400,000 cannabis plants will grow in Trinity County this year, filling the coffers of growers and helping some local businesses, yet leaving the county with little in the way of tax revenue.

This went from a hard-working, hard-partying town to nothing but dope and the economy going south, said Hayfork resident Darby Strong, 70, a high school baseball coach and retired timber industry worker.

Few of Trinity Countys 14,317 residents blame the meth problem solely on the decline of the lumber industry. Carter says the drug was in the county as early as the 1970s, when biker gangs used its isolated corners for meth manufacturing. But many say the loss of mill jobs and logging crew work set the stage for an epidemic of addiction.

Young men who for years were initiated into a rural culture with such esoteric rites as tree felling, soon found themselves deprived of an identity and a livelihood. At the same time, Carter explains, satellite television and the Internet increasingly saturated the region with advertising that reinforced feelings of defeat and isolation.

Guys see advertisements that say, If you had this car, your woman would look like this, explains Carter, who used meth before finding sobriety and becoming a counselor. But here you are looking for a used tire for your old, fucked-up truck.

Meth, an outlaw drug long reviled by urban hippies, provided many young men with an alternate realm in which they could reclaim feelings of power and a sense of identity that faded from the region when timber harvesting stopped.

Although meth is now intertwined with rural notions of masculinity, the appeal of the drug seems to have little to do with gender. Women also gravitate to meth in large numbers for its efficacy in boosting confidence, enhancing sexual sensation and controlling appetite, explained drug counselor Patty Nealy, who has counseled scores of meth users.

That sort of control and power really surrounds meth, said Nealy executive director of Empire Recovery, a residential rehab facility in the town of Redding.

The consequence was a wave of families in which initiation into meth use sometimes began even before birth. Health officials in the 1990s were alarmed by evidence of young mothers giving birth to children exposed to methamphetamine during pregnancy and in infancy. Effects include low birth weight, heart defects and behavioral problems as children grow. Dr. Stalcup said perinatal meth use is relatively rarehe estimates five percent of mothers use meth while pregnant in areas where the drug is prevalentbut the consequences are still a threat to rural communities.

The risk of a meth-exposed infant becoming an addict is so high its almost surprising if they dont, said Dr. Stalcup. Theyre meth addicts waiting to grow up.

Christina, a 21-year-old who spoke on condition of anonymity, says she grew up in a tiny farming community outside Redding where she had to engage in prostitution to pay for her mothers meth. Shes one of several mothers interviewed by New America Media who attested to the difficulty of ceasing a meth habit while pregnant. Many mothers said they were hesitant to discuss their addiction with doctors for fear of arrest, not to mention the pain of withdrawal.

I knew I needed to get sober but it was so hard, recalled Christina, who said one of her children suffered liver damage because of her perinatal drug use. I would sit there and cry, looking at this little baby and her stomachs huge, and Im thinking, this kid IS sick because of me, because I did drugs.

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