Meth scourge is growing
Judge: Calls problem 'a dirty bomb' unleashed on an unaware society
On television's "Breaking Bad," crystal meth turns a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, into a paranoid, murderous multimillionaire.
In Bridgeport's real world, it allegedly turned a charismatic potential Catholic bishop, Monsignor Kevin Wallin, into a twitching, hyperkinetic addict and cellphone juggling drug dealer, according to court documents and Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Caruso.
On the street, crystal methamphetamine is called crank, ice and glass. But in federal court, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas P. Smith called the growing problem with the drug in the Northeast a "dirty bomb" unleashed like plutonium on an unaware society."
"It's creeping eastward from California," Smith has warned.
To Dr. Gary Blick, a Norwalk HIV/AIDS specialist and internist, that's an understatement.
"It's already here in full force and not going away," Blick said.
More InformationAnyone seeking help with a crystal meth addiction can access www.cmact.org. Wayne Kowal is available to speak at no cost to parent or professional groups. He can be reached at 203-630-5607 or Wayne.Kowal@ct.gov.
Since July, the State Police Statewide Narcotics Task Force has seized 6,391 grams of meth, about 14 pounds. Most came from the Wallin case. That represents a marked increased from the 154 grams, or roughly five ounces, the task force seized the previous fiscal year.
Another 30 pounds, or $4.2 million worth of meth, was seized from a car by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Massachusetts State Police in December.
State Police Capt. Dale Hourigan, head of the Statewide Narcotics Task Force, said he has been advised by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that crystal meth is being manufactured in pill form and distributed as Ecstasy, a popular club drug.
These revelations, along with the latest task force intelligence, tell Hourigan that Connecticut has a large customer base.
To help get the word out on what he sees as a growing contagion, Hourigan has directed Wayne Kowal, his training-program coordinator, to compile a bulletin for local police. Kowal also is available to talk to parent and professional groups about crystal meth and other drugs in an effort to head off the scourge.
Crystal meth use is not just endemic to the seamy, criminal underworld. It spans all of middle America -- bored housewives looking for kicks, upwardly mobile businessmen who crave its chemical energy and naive, experimenting teens. Even ordained priests are not immune to its seduction.
As state police are discovering, meth poses a big problem in the homosexual and bisexual community -- which Blick treats.
"This is a feel-good drug," Blick said. "It's inexpensive, it takes away inhibitions and its effects last for hours. So you want to use it over and over and over again."
But don't expect to find it being sold on street corners like crack and heroin. Interviews with users confirm that it's available in sex clubs, online bulletin boards and in social networks.
"When I was addicted, five or six years ago, I had to search far and wide," said a local meth addict -- now in rehabilitation -- who asked for anonymity because of the stigma of being a former drug user. "Now it's within 10-minutes access."
The drug suppresses appetite, often leading to weight loss and a gaunt, wasted appearance. But it can increase concentration and focus, and reduce the need for sleep.
So for the soccer mom, that means "getting up, getting the kids to school, going to the gym, doing the laundry, driving the kids to after-school activities and having dinner on the table all by 6 p.m.," Frank said.
Travis Wendel, a senior research associate in the anthropology department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, helped author a 2011 research report titled "Dynamics of Methamphetamine Markets in New York City." Most of the participants interviewed reported the drug enhances sex, reduces pain and helps them cope.
The study estimated there were about 63,000 meth users spending roughly $640 million on the drug in the New York City market alone.
"The salient point to make here is that with increased production, wider availability in the U.S. and lower market prices, methamphetamine use will likely rise in the U.S. in the next few years," the report concluded.
But Blick and Frank see a bigger concern, increasing HIV infections in younger men.
Blick said the drug's inhibition-reducing effect causes HIV-positive users to discontinue medical drug regimens that arrest the virus and reduce the risk of transfer.
"So they go into clubs and have unsafe sex."
"I'm absolutely positive that the introduction of crystal meth into the men-having-sex-with-men community has sent HIV infections soaring," the doctor said. "People on crystal meth don't care about themselves. They don't care about their partners. Their only care is getting high."
The drug in its methamphetamine form was synthesized in 1893. During World War II, both sides used it to fight fatigue and suppress appetite in military personnel. Nowadays, it's only two FDA approved uses are to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, where low, time-released doses increase concentration and to help manage obesity.
By the 1960s, outlaw motorcycle gangs discovered it was a tremendous money maker, and began producing it using household chemicals. A $150 investment in cold tablets, aquarium tubing, matches, household cleaners and battery acid could produce a $10,000 profit.
Meth labs were springing up all over the country. So states like Connecticut, began restricting the purchase of cold tablets and requiring buyers to sign a log and show identification -- and meth use dramatically decreased.
The U.S. Justice Department's National Methamphetamine 2010 Threat Assessment contends that domestic methamphetamine availability has rebounded from its 2006 low to a five-year high as a result of increasing large-scale production in Mexico.
Investigators in the Wallin case maintain that his supplies, like most of Connecticut meth, arrived from Mexico. Documents seized from Wallin's Waterbury apartment indicated he pocketed $300,000 from sales between last August and December.
The going price for a pound of crystal ranges from $14,000 in Hartford to $19,500 in Bridgeport, according to court documents and testimony.
Most users purchase meth in gram quantities. Wallin's prices ranged from $60 for a quarter of a gram to $500 for an eight ball or 3.5 grams with purity at 97 percent, court documents state.
One addict interviewed said he was paying $300 a gram five or six years ago. Hourigan said $200 an ounce is the going rate.
"A hundred dollars of crystal meth lasts a long time," said Wendel, who helped author the New York report.
When compared to the more costly Ecstasy, Blick said meth wins hands down.
"The more continuous doses of Ecstasy, the less effect you get," he said. "Not so with crystal meth."
Users often begin by snorting, then smoking and finally injecting.
"The first time you inject, it's like: "Oh my God," an addict said. "Now you feel its effect for eight hours. You don't have to keep hitting the pipe every 20 minutes ... It doesn't take much to become a full-blown addiction."
Once addicted, the user fights to avoid the intense depression of coming down, said Dr. J. Craig Allen, medical director at the Rushford Treatment Centers. That's because it takes over the brain's pleasure center.
"Smoke crystal meth one time, and 50 percent of the users will develop a craving," he said. "A cocaine high might last 30 minutes; crystal meth can last 12 hours."
He said users binge because they can't deal with the "horrible depression on coming down."
Maybe it's the drug's effect on the brain that increases the probability of Parkinson's disease, or the toxic chemicals used in the manufacture that eat away at organs and teeth. Then there's psychosis and an intense itching that feels like something is under the skin.
"Crystal meth destroys the body from head to toe, teeth to skin, inside and out," Blick said. "People who go down this road die.
"I haven't seen too many old meth users or meth cooks," he said.
While addicts prefer the higher quality Mexican-made meth, they'll settle for a cheaper, browner homemade form, which is mixed in plastic bottles. This is called the `one-pot method.'
"It really is easy to make," said Wendel. " `Breaking Bad' makes it look harder than it really is."
Last year, the DEA uncovered 42 New England meth labs.
"The majority used the one-pot method," said DEA Special Agent Anthony Pettigrew.
Pettigrew said it's dangerous. A lab in a ground-floor room at the Peabody, Mass., Holiday Inn exploded last July, spewing ammonia gas and evacuating 200 guests. Another gutted a New Hampshire house.
Closer to home, DEA agents and state police here uncovered 15 labs in recent years. One was on Coventry Lane in Norwalk and in 2007 landed Michael Longo, the 60-year-old resident, in federal prison for two years.
Treatment and support
Blick's Circle Care Center at 618 West Ave., Norwalk, is working with the Triangle Community Center and the Mid-Fairfield AIDS Project to create education, awareness and more support groups for users. There are groups in Bridgeport and New Haven.
"The success rate of someone entering rehab is about 10 percent," Blick said. "Ninety percent relapse very easily -- a smell, a sound, a picture, a person can trigger reuse."
One addict said every day is a struggle.
"I can't and I won't watch `Breaking Bad'"