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Katy Knutson was the last person that neighbors in her upscale Minneapolis suburb expected to become a drug addict. The petite high school junior was an honors student, a member of the varsity swim team, and a regular churchgoer. But when a friend turned her on to methamphetamine in late 2003, she quickly succumbed to the drug's viselike grip. "It made me feel like the most beautiful and powerful person in the world," says Katy, now 18. "My concentration at school shot up. I felt like I could walk through walls."
For two months, Katy went on a binge, snorting several lines of meth powder a day. The initial euphoric rush was invariably followed by a harrowing crash that left her irritable, depressed, and paranoid. After getting high she would stay awake nights, then sleep for hours, straight through meals (dropping from 115 to 92 pounds in the process). She began skipping school, avoiding church, and stealing money from her parents' wallets to buy more meth. As Katy's sweet personality turned caustic, her desperate parents, who'd learned she was hooked after a few weeks, tried to break the drug's hold. "We yelled, we bribed her with new clothes, we sent her to Alcoholics Anonymous," says Katy's mother, Moira Knutson, 47, a high-school aide. "Nothing worked."
Katy hit bottom on a frigid night in December 2003 when police found her wandering the streets in a light jacket, high and disoriented. The next day, her parents sent her to an out-of-town treatment facility, then to a group home for teenage girls -- three and a half months in all. Knutson and her husband, an administrator at a law firm, agonized over their decision. But Katy's addiction had pushed them to a breaking point. "We worried that she could die from meth," recalls Moira.
For Katy, kicking meth was as difficult as getting hooked had been easy. She endured body-racking tremors and endless insomnia. "I wanted one last hit to feel better," she recalls. Finally, last spring, after months of therapy, Katy moved back in with her parents, clear-eyed and drug-free. She recently graduated from Sobriety High, a school for student addicts in Edina, Minnesota, and will enroll next month at the College of St. Catherine, in St. Paul. She still attends a recovery program three nights a week to fortify her resolve. "It's a hard drug to let go of," Katy says. "But I feel like I've finally turned the corner." Those traumatic months, she says, "were hell -- for me and everyone around me."
The anguish experienced by the Knutsons is being played out all over the country in what has quietly become a suburban youth drug epidemic. Also known as "crystal," "ice," or "crank," methamphetamine is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that is widely available in pills or powder form; the latter can be snorted, smoked, swallowed, or injected. Cheaply sold on the street for as little as $5 a hit, it's also therefore affordable for most teens. Originally popular among California biker gangs in the 1980s, meth has made its way east, infecting rural, suburban, and urban communities alike. While there are no nationwide statistics on meth use strictly among teens, a 2004 federal government survey found that 6.2 percent of 12th graders have used meth -- a figure that experts say is vastly underreported.
What makes meth so dangerous is its addictiveness: It can be virtually impossible for someone to try it just once. "With meth, there's no such thing as a casual user," says Joseph Frascella, PhD, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in Bethesda, Maryland. "The younger someone starts using meth, the worse the outcome." And because it can be easier to get hold of than beer or cigarettes, meth is often becoming the first drug that teenagers use. Because meth stimulates the central nervous system and causes the brain to release pleasure-inducing dopamine, it leaves kids feeling euphoric, brilliant, and in control -- qualities normally in scarce supply during adolescence. And the high from a single dose can last 14 hours.
Over time and with ever-larger doses (as with most addictive drugs, a habitual user needs bigger doses to get the same high) these effects deteriorate into less-desirable ones: irritability, insomnia, anxiety, aggressiveness, tremors, and paranoia. With prolonged use, meth disrupts neurotransmitters in the brain, slowing cognitive and motor functions. "It's a powerful stimulant that blasts the brain. To put it bluntly, it makes you slower and stupider over time," says Dr. Frascella. Researchers do not yet know whether these effects are permanent. But they do know that sustained, high doses can cause a rise in heart rate, resulting in strokes and convulsions that can be fatal. Experts also say that geographic areas with high meth use have a greater incidence of psychotic episodes among teenagers, which, in rare cases, may have led to suicide.
Teens who decide to try meth don't fit the stereotype of kids who get stoned and retreat to their rec room to zone out in front of the TV. Meth often appeals to outstanding students who want an energy boost to cope with heavy academic and extracurricular loads. Among teenage girls, meth's ability to suppress appetite makes it especially popular. A 2004 study of 305 teenagers by Richard Rawson, PhD, associate director of integrated substance abuse programs at UCLA, found that girls are three times more likely than boys to choose meth over marijuana and alcohol. In fact, among some suburban teens, meth is known as "the Jenny Crank diet."
Alexander Smith,* a 17-year-old honors student from suburban Nashville, watched his weight drop from 150 to 118 pounds during his four-month binge in early 2004. He liked the extra stamina meth gave him, which helped him keep up with advanced-placement classes and his after-school lawn-mowing business. "It gave me more energy than my body could handle," he recalls. Soon he was smoking not just for the buzz, but to avoid the hangover that followed the high. He kept taking meth even as his heart rate climbed to 180 beats per minute -- almost three times the normal rate -- and he experienced hallucinations and suicidal thoughts.
Meanwhile, his parents seemed oblivious to his secret life. Smith's mother, 42, an elementary school nurse, admits that she and her salesman husband were fooled. Smith continued to get good grades. When he'd sleep all afternoon, she chalked it up to typical teenage sloth. "We realized what was going on only when the police called at 1 a.m. on a school night to tell us our son had been arrested for possessing and intending to sell drugs," she says. "We thought he was in bed asleep." Last April Smith was arrested again, this time for selling the attention deficit disorder prescription drug Adderall at school, and then a third time for failing a drug test before his trial. Convictions on all three counts earned him nine days in jail, six months on probation, and expulsion from school. He has since entered a treatment program and now attends Community High School for recovering addicts in Nashville.
Such naivete is all too common. A 2004 study of 1,205 parents by the nonprofit group Partnership for a Drug-Free America found that only 1 percent of parents believed their teens had ever used synthetic drugs. "These chemical drugs are much more powerful than the marijuana and cocaine baby-boomer parents used as teens," says Partnership president Steve Pasierb. "Most parents are clueless that meth is one of the most dangerous drugs out there."
How has meth so effectively infiltrated the suburbs? Its active ingredients are legal (pseudoephedrine is found in common over-the-counter cold remedies). "And it's made from a recipe that any chemistry student can follow," says Karen Tandy, a spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Arlington, Virginia. While much of the country's meth supply is made in so-called super labs in Mexico and Southern California run by organized crime and street gangs, one-third is produced in "mom-and-pop" meth labs in hotel rooms, homes, garages, even in the trunks of cars. A mere $200 can buy the ingredients to produce an ounce of meth (enough to get 100 people high), and "cooking" instructions can be downloaded from the Internet. (A Google search for "meth recipe" turned up some 30,000 hits.) "Everything you need can be bought at drug and hardware stores," says Shannon Brant, 34, a meth addict who used to supply pseudoephedrine to a meth manufacturer outside Atlanta. Brant would enlist the help of girlfriends to buy 100 boxes of medicine at a time. "We'd go into one place and each buy three packs of cold pills, then do the same at other stores," she recalls. When Brant had accumulated enough pills, she'd take them to a lab, where she'd receive some of the finished product as payment.
The labs have bred a crime wave of burglaries, thefts, and even murder in surrounding communities. But a crackdown is under way. More than 17,000 meth labs and dump sites nationwide were shut down last year, according to the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, in Washington, D.C. More than 20 states have enacted sales restrictions in the last two years on pseudoephedrine in common cold remedies and other meth precursor products. The first major bill, passed last April in Oklahoma, classifies decongestants in tablet form as controlled substances and bans their sale in convenience and grocery stores. It also requires that pharmacies put these remedies behind locked counters, limit the quantities sold per customer, and require buyers to show a photo ID and sign a logbook. Since the law went into effect, busts of illegal meth labs across the state have dropped from roughly 100 to 25 a month. Experts feared the law would simply drive meth makers into other states -- an outcome that has prompted legislators elsewhere to adopt their own regulations in defense. At press time, seven states had passed laws similar to Oklahoma's, and 30 more were considering doing so.
Last January, Senators Dianne Feinstein and Jim Talent, of California and Missouri, respectively, cosponsored a bill that would make restrictions on access to pseudoephedrine national law. "There are more sales of cold medicine for illegal uses than legal ones," says Senator Feinstein. "People can go into supermarkets and buy shopping carts full of cold medicine and no one blinks an eye." While some drug firms involved in the $2.2-billion-a-year cold-remedy market oppose the bill, several retail chains, including Target and Wal-Mart, moved the most abused cold medicines behind pharmacy counters this past spring.
To cope with the growing meth epidemic, parents have formed support groups to help one another as well as their kids. Two years ago Mary Holley, MD, a physician in Arab, Alabama, founded Mothers Against Meth-Amphetamine (MAMA) after her 24-year-old brother became an addict and committed suicide. MAMA, which now has 60 chapters in 30 states, also supports alternative sentencing to jail time (such as community service) for young offenders, as well as greater leeway for schools to order drug testing of students.
Success rates for treating meth addiction vary widely. Thomas Farah, intake director for Second Chances, a recovery program in Statesboro, Georgia, cautions parents not to expect a quick fix. "A few weeks in a detox program will dry out a kid but not fix the addiction," he says. "You have to change your whole life, and that takes a long time." Geared to women of all ages, Second Chances is a 12- to 15-month program that includes counseling, acquisition of job skills, and Bible study. The inflexible structure is not for everyone. One in three addicts drops out, but for graduates, the success rate is 86 percent.
Daniel McGuinn,* a 19-year-old from suburban Phoenix, is living proof that recovery is uncertain at best. Since he began smoking meth as a high school junior two years ago, he has been through an inpatient treatment facility in Arizona, a wilderness ranch in Montana, and an extended care facility in California -- all to no avail. At home he resisted his parents' best efforts to get him off meth, which included bolting his bedroom window shut so he couldn't sneak out to join his drug buddies. "We couldn't love our son any more than we do," says his mother, 42, a homemaker. "But this drug took over his life and we couldn't control him anymore." Finally, after McGuinn turned 18, his parents kicked him out of the house.
Today he lives alone, works as a telemarketer, and struggles with his meth demons. A few months ago, he went on a meth-smoking spree -- evidence of just how hard it is to shake the drug's stranglehold. "We'll all be struggling with this drug for the rest of his life," says McGuinn's mother. "With meth, there are no guarantees."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, August 2005.