Monday, June 17, 2024

Ice Storm on the Texas Horizon 2005

He thought he was done with methamphetamine, the poor man’s cocaine that had been so popular with his peers in the Austin music scene of the 1980s.

Loren had happily gone eight years without the sleepless weekends and ensuing crash into depression and paranoia that speed brings. But then he ran into his old dealer, just back from San Francisco with a baggie full of what looked like shards of glass.

“He said, ‘You’re not going to believe this shit’ . . . and I was curious enough to try it just the one time,” said Loren, who agreed to describe his drug use frankly only if his real name was not used. Torrents of the neurochemical stimulant dopamine, as much as 600 times more than the brain normally produces in happy moments, coursed through the pleasure centers of Loren’s mind, a relentless rush “better than any high I’d ever had, times five,” he recalled.

He was instantly hooked on “ice,” smokable crystals of methamphetamine that are purer and stronger than the powdered form.

That was 1998, and Loren was among the earliest in Austin to try a drug that had barely ventured east of California at the time. A national ice storm had been forecast by police and the media when the highly addictive drug set its hooks in Hawaii in the late ’80s. In Texas, the ominous warnings smacked of hype and hysteria until recently.

With Mexican drug lords manufacturing a steady supply and local cookers learning to make it in clandestine labs, ice is spreading across Texas — and Austin — at an alarming rate.

Nationally, ice has become such an epidemic in the gay community, where it’s touted as an aphrodisiac and linked to an increase in HIV cases because of unsafe sexual activity, that Crystal Meth Anonymous chapters have sprung up all over the country, including the Montrose area of Houston.

“We’re seeing a lot more ice than we did just a year ago,” said Sgt. Richard Burns, an investigator with the Austin Police Department’s narcotics conspiracy unit. “The more prices drop (from about $150 a gram in 2003 to about $100 a gram currently), the more it’s getting to be a problem.”

In 2004, the unit seized 1,100 grams of all forms of methamphetamine.

In the first six months of 2005, the haul was 2,400 grams, and Burns said most of that has been ice, which is simply powdered methamphetamine that has been washed in a solvent, such as denatured alcohol, to remove impurities.

When the solvent evaporates, it yields crystals with a purity level of more than 80 percent, compared with about 12 percent to 35 percent for powdered meth.

It’s that strength and purity, plus the fact that there are no needles to stick in veins, no abrasive powder to huff up nostrils, that makes ice so alluring.

Perhaps the biggest selling point, however, is that ice users stay high longer for less. A half gram of ice costs about $50 and can keep the user high for two or three days. The same amount of crack cocaine would last about an hour.

“Several years ago, there was this big scare — ‘Ice is coming to Texas!’ — but it didn’t really materialize until recently,” said Jane Maxwell, a University of Texas research professor who’s been tracking drug trends in Texas since 1971. “But now that it’s here, ice has the potential to be a bigger problem than crack ever was.”

The number of ice smokers in state-funded drug treatment facilities has risen dramatically.

In 1992, only 2 percent of those statewide seeking treatment for methamphetamine addiction at public clinics preferred smoking the drug, rather than injecting or inhaling it.

By last year that number had risen to 37 percent, or 1,951 patients, 84 percent of them white. In Travis County, the rates jumped from just under 6.5 percent in 2000 to almost 29 percent last year.

‘3 days of pure hell’

“If you could call a dangerous drug pretty, that would be crystal meth,” said Lt. Joe Millhouse of the Texas Department of Public Safety narcotics division. Recalling a recent ice bust at a home lab in Brazoria, he said, “It looked like a bathroom full of diamonds and snowflakes.”

Comedian Chris Rock once observed, “People don’t sell drugs; drugs sell themselves.” That seems to be particularly true of ice, also called “crystal,” “glass” or “tina,” a “new and improved” twist on speed, a stimulant of the central nervous system and old favorite of truck drivers and college term paperteers.

The small print, however, would warn ice users about the mentally disheveling effects of coming down from the high. Called tweaking, the dark, irritating, delusional stage has turned many experimenters with all forms of methamphetamine away from the drug forever.

Tweakers are prone to violence and paranoia. Officers have raided labs where there’s barely any furniture and filth is all around, and yet the cookers have state-of-the-art surveillance equipment. There is also usually an arsenal of guns, said Burns, “like with all kinds of meth cookers.”

Loren talked of “joining the curtain patrol,” peaking from behind blinds at every noise outdoors, when every car sounds like a cop car and every pair of footsteps belongs to a would-be assailant.

“For every two days of euphoria,” the freelance graphic designer said, “there are three days of pure hell.”

But the crash was forgotten, Loren said, whenever he lit up again. He’d start getting high in anticipation, his heart beating frantically as he prepared to “hit the tin,” chasing puffs of ice smoke from aluminum foil.

“The whole day, the whole night would be stretched out in front of you, and it was just sparkling with possibility,” he said. “I’d always felt that there was a hole inside me. Ice filled it up. I became Superman with my work, and my self-esteem just shot through the roof.”

It was an expensive habit — Loren went through $600 worth of ice on one weeklong jag — but he took on more work and was able to meet deadlines.

But he also remembers the excruciating depression, as he’d lie in bed for days with the covers pulled up to his nose.

A potentially lucrative side venture went under as he hid from the world and his business partner.

Loren’s apartment, always immaculate, turned into a dump of dirty dishes, discarded clothing and enough dust to be able to write “Help” a hundred times.

Ashamed, Loren forced himself to eat so he wouldn’t resemble the gaunt speed freak prototype. He didn’t buy ice paraphernalia, such as the $6 glass pipes available at most head shops, because that would make him feel more like an addict. He thought nobody knew he had a drug problem.

Then one day 18 months ago he confided to one of his few remaining friends that he’d been “smoking glass,” and the friend said he’d known all along. He said Loren’s pores emitted an acidic odor. “I was horrified, humiliated. It was one of the worst days of my life,” Loren said.

It was enough to send him to outpatient treatment for a month and online to — an info-chat site run by the founders of Crystal Meth Anonymous — where he could share his story with other repentant speed freaks.

Staying clean hasn’t been easy, however, and Loren admitted that he’s relapsed a few times, most recently five weeks ago. He’s relieved that he’s just embarked on a job that’ll take him out of Austin, away from temptation, for at least four months.

Recipe for addiction

Powdered meth, made when ephedrine or pseudoephedrine is cooked with hydriotic acid and red phosphorous or anhydrous acid, is not new to Texas.

The state has a history of biker crank — powdered or gooey meth– and “mom and pop cookers,” who extract pseudoephedrine from such over-the-counter medicine as Sudafed. They often bought medicines by the shopping cart, prompting the passage of a state law to take effect Monday limiting pseudoephedrine products to two per customer.

Meth producers have also been known to siphon anhydrous ammonia, a common fertilizer, from tanks on farms.

It’s a recipe employing toxic and dangerous chemicals, and you can find it right on the Internet.

“We’ve seen a whole lot more ice in the past 18 months, but it hasn’t quite taken the place of powdered methamphetamine,” said Drug Enforcement Administration agent Joseph Arabit, who heads the San Antonio district, which includes Austin. “That may change in six months, but right now we’re seizing more powder.”

Comprehensive statistics on ice seizures are hard to come by. Unlike cocaine busts, where crack is differentiated from powdered cocaine for statistical purposes, all methamphetamine is tallied together.

But court papers identify ice, 220 grams of 99 percent pure methamphetamine, as the drug DEA agents seized from a pickup in North Austin on April 19. The driver of the truck, Jorge Aguilar of Cuba, has pleaded guilty to possession of methamphetamine; two other men are awaiting trial.

Investigators believe the ice came from Mexico, where it’s legal to buy large quantities of ephedrine.

“I’d say about 90 percent of the ice we’re seeing was manufactured in Mexico,” Burns said. “A lot of it goes up through California before it hits Texas.”

The emergency room at Brackenridge Hospital has seen “a gradual upswing” in both powdered meth and ice use in the past few years, according to Dr. Patrick Crocker, chief of emergency medical services.

“Mostly they complain of chest pains or hypothermia, plus we’ve had a few psychiatric emergencies, with patients panicked, hallucinatory and out of control.”

About a month ago, a patient checked in with a temperature of 109 and died at the ER. A drug screen found methamphetamine in the patient’s system.

Crack cocaine is still more prevalent in the area than crystal meth.

A recently released report by Maxwell states that crack cocaine was the primary drug problem of 18 percent of those admitted to publicly funded Texas treatment facilities in 2004, compared with 10 percent with methamphetamine/amphetamine addictions.

But meth is taking over in West Texas, with the Department of Public Safety citing “methamphetamine, especially ice,” as the primary problem in the Lubbock, Amarillo and Abilene areas.

In the first half of 2004, 57 percent of the drugs analyzed by the DPS in Abilene’s Taylor County contained methamphe- tamine.

“Ice has come on strong here,” Abilene DPS Lt. John Murphy told his hometown newspaper in January. “Two years ago, you never heard of it. We’re finding people cooking it all over Abilene.”

The devastation ice has brought to Hawaii, where more than 40 percent of all males arrested test positive for methamphetamine, serves as a cautionary tale for just how badly ice can take over a community.

Meanwhile, Loren, 47, is ready to move on. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, he admitted, as he recalled his love-hate relationship with crystal methamphetamine.

“It’s the most insidious drug I’ve ever done, and I’ve done plenty,” Loren said. “Once you’ve smoked ice, you can never do cocaine again.”

He was able to finally turn away from ice, at least for several months, when he saw yet another dark sky brushed with the first strokes of dawn.

“I’m so goddamned tired of seeing the sun rise!” Loren declared to himself. “I want to watch the sun set for a change.”

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