An oasis in a sea of meth
June 20, 2005
Houses used as indoor marijuana groves have been uncovered in Summit County. Remnants of meth labs occasionally turn up in Garfield County. The sheriff in Eagle County has noticed a rise in prescription drug abuse among young people.
In Pitkin County, marijuana and cocaine use still trump synthetic club drugs and methamphetamine.
Regional differences in drug use may be culturally based, or they may be caused by geography because communities within the Interstate 70 corridor often see drug trends from the Denver metro area.
But despite all the differences, fear of meth production and use infiltrating these mountain communities unites them all. There’s a good reason for the concern.
Methamphetamine, also known as “crank,” is a highly addictive stimulant, producing euphoria, alertness, excitability and paranoia.
“No one ever tries meth just once,” is a popular phrase about the drug, which can be smoked, snorted, injected or swallowed. It’s also referred to as “poor man’s cocaine,” not because it costs less, but because the high lasts much longer than cocaine (10 to 12 hours compared to less than an hour).
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Whereas cocaine is grown and processed in South America, meth can be made or “cooked” in home or mobile labs, using products purchased at drug stores, like cold and asthma medication, drain cleaner, battery acid or antifreeze. And the byproducts of these meth labs are environmentally hazardous and toxic, needing to be carefully cleaned up by professionals.
In Garfield County, police are beginning to focus their attention on a growing meth problem. The Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Task Force used to spend 70 percent of its time chasing cocaine cases, Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said. Since 2003, its attention has shifted predominantly to meth.
“I think it’s finally gotten to us ” it’s a national trend like West Nile virus, where you can see it coming,” Vallario said. Although traditionally meth has been considered a drug plaguing rural America, he noted that a number of metropolitan areas are now facing the effects of widespread meth use.
At Glenwood’s Youth Recovery Center, therapist Jim Easton said meth is a blue collar drug.
“People use it because they’re leading hard, stressful lives,” he said. “If a family member lives in Parachute but commutes to Aspen for work and comes home and has to deal with the kids, I guess there’s a desire to get a little bit of free energy to handle all of these things.”
But this is a phenomenon that, for the most part, hasn’t reached Colorado’s mountain resort towns. Some say it’s because of a fundamental class difference in drug use. Easton said cocaine is a “higher class type of drug,” which may be why it proliferates in resort towns, where people flock to spend money and have fun.
Another factor that may prevent meth from traveling far into the high country may be some of the less social, less recreational aspects of the drug.
“It’s not like a party where there’s a line of cocaine or marijuana is passed around,” said Jeff Lawson, director of Colorado West Recovery Center in Glenwood Springs. “A group of people may get together and shoot it up or smoke it, but it’s [an addiction] more than anything else.
“It’s not what you’d call a ‘party drug,'” he said.
Meth, Vallario said, is also different when it comes to enforcement.
“It produces more severe paranoia and violent traits, so we approach meth operations with a much higher degree of risk concern than we would with others,” he said. He was told by member’s of Denver’s North Metro Drug Task Force about finding 36 loaded guns within one meth lab.
“Paranoia drives violence, and it’s different than any drug we’ve ever dealt with before,” he said.
Aspen Police Chief Loren Ryerson says there is no indication of meth labs in the upper Roaring Fork Valley besides some individual use. His officers, however, are trained to know how to handle meth labs if they ever do start to crop up.
Resort communities seem to have their own challenges when it comes to recreational drug use. In this area, Aspen police often deal with “poly-abusers,” Ryerson said, people doing multiple substances at one time, like cocaine and alcohol. These users sometimes have violent mood changes when approached by police, he said.
Summit County Sheriff John Minor said his drug task force has uncovered several meth labs over the years, but overall he considers Summit and Eagle counties an oasis in the middle of a “sea of meth.”
“The drug of choice with our more affluent community is cocaine ” there’s plenty of cocaine and marijuana from those people who started doing it back in the ’60s and haven’t gotten over it yet,” he said.
Minor is concerned about meth use and production multiplying in the community and remembers that when he was working for the Silverthorne Police Department they found a meth lab after receiving strange readings at a wastewater treatment plant a mile away from the lab.
“The environmental impact of it, and hearing more and more about cooking meth in the woods infuriates me the most,” he said.
Sheriff Joe Hoy in Eagle County is well aware of how easy it would be for meth to grow in popularity in his county, although it hasn’t happened. The mobility of meth labs makes them hard to detect, he said.
“People can drive up and down the county, stay on I-70 and pull off whenever they want and cook it up in a motel room, pack up and leave,” he said. “It’s also not that difficult to go to a campground in the high country and cook stuff. If people have the will to do it, they’ll get it done.”
For now, however, Hoy said his community is experiencing a rise in prescription drug abuse by young people, which can easily go undetected since prescription drugs are not illegal. There’s a perception out there that painkillers are safer than illegal drugs, he said.
But Hoy still refers to cocaine, marijuana and alcohol abuse as “the big three” that plague the county.
“Cocaine is always gong to be here,” he said. “Alcohol is the No. 1 drug of choice for teenagers in our community, and there is some pot. But as they get older, cocaine rolls into the picture.”
Because Aspen and other small mountain towns don’t have the level of violent crime, gang activity or prostitution associated with rampant drug abuse, Ryerson said, people can become desensitized to other fallout from substance abuse like failed marriages or businesses.
“Any substance abuse is a problem for a community, because it’s tragic in people’s lives,” he said. “We have no illusions that we can stop everyone making bad choices about substance abuse, drinking and driving, but if we can have a small impact and help people make intelligent decisions, that’s a worthwhile goal.”
Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org