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Methamphetamine has surged across the U.S. Federal data given exclusively to NPR show law enforcement seizures of meth more than doubled between 2017 and 2018. Martha Bebinger of member station WBUR in Boston reports on the growing problem of meth use.
MARTHA BEBINGER, BYLINE: There are many paths to meth. Mike Leslie, who is 37, found his way to meth after more than 20 years of drug use that started with weed, progressed to cocaine and then opioids, pain pills, heroin and fentanyl. About a year ago, Leslie had stopped using fentanyl but was struggling against the urge to get high when he ran into an old acquaintance from the streets in Boston.
MIKE LESLIE: You know, he was selling meth, and it was basically the one thing out there that I hadn't tried that was now readily available, and so I tried it.
BEBINGER: Leslie realized right away why meth hooks people who were already using drugs. It's relatively cheap. One hit keeps you high and awake for days as compared to fentanyl, which wears off every few hours. And many people think meth is safer.
LESLIE: I knew if I went back to using fentanyl, I would likely overdose and die. And this was basically coke or crack times 50.
BEBINGER: A powerful high that wrecked Leslie's life. He'd kept working years back while on heroin, but four months after his first injection of meth, Leslie had lost his job, dropped out of graduate school and was sleeping on the floor of a train station.
LESLIE: As soon as I tried it, I was no longer functioning. It was all about the meth.
BEBINGER: Easy access to meth is new for Boston and many regions of the country but no longer unusual. A federal program that monitors drug seizures in 32 so-called High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas - or HIDTAs - shows meth rising in virtually every one. John Eadie, who tracks emerging drug threats through the HIDTA network, says the sharp increase in seizures signals a major rapidly developing problem.
JOHN EADIE: The reason we're so concerned is that as seizures go up, the supply in the streets go up equivalently, and with that go deaths.
BEBINGER: All stimulants are on the rise. Meth rates are the highest, but cocaine is up, too. And doctors are prescribing more stimulant medications such as those used to treat ADHD. Looking at these combined increases, Eadie sees a stimulant epidemic entwined with the opioid crisis.
EADIE: We're seeing almost as many people now starting up methamphetamines and cocaine and prescription stimulants as are abusing the opioids. So the problem is getting worse at the moment, and it's more complicated to deal with.
BEBINGER: That's not news to Bradley Osgood, the chief of police in Concord, N.H.
BRADLEY OSGOOD: Methamphetamine just presents a whole new issue for us. And our officers are getting hurt. We've had concussions. We've had broken hands.
BEBINGER: While trying to pull someone who resists out of traffic, for example. Osgood says calls to revive someone who's overdosed on opioids are finally starting to drop, but meth is more than filling the gap.
OSGOOD: It's surpassed what we're seeing from heroin and fentanyl. The rise in meth has just been unbelievable.
BEBINGER: Fentanyl, which stops breathing, is still the leading killer in this drug epidemic. A meth-related heart attack or stroke is less common. But some emergency room doctors are seeing more patients arrive with what looks like a stimulant overdose - extreme agitation.
MELISA LAI-BECKER: Your heart is racing. Your blood pressure is going up. You're probably becoming incredibly sweaty.
BEBINGER: Dr. Melisa Lai-Becker and her staff may have to restrain a patient so they can inject a sedative. For at least 10 years, Lai-Becker says the stimulant overdoses were rare in her small hospital outside Boston. These days, she sees about four a week. Doctors often don't know if a patient is on meth or cocaine or some new stimulant cooked up in a lab outside the U.S. The DEA's second in command for New England, Jon DeLena, toured a lab last month deep in a Mexican jungle that the military had just shut down.
JON DELENA: A lab that was responsible for the production of up to 7 tons of crystal methamphetamine every three days.
BEBINGER: Seven tons of crystal meth, a solid glass-like form of the drug, could fetch hundreds of millions of dollars.
DELENA: Those are the drugs that are coming to the United States and ultimately up into our region.
BEBINGER: DeLena says the Mexican cartels put almost all U.S. meth producers out of business several years ago with a cheaper, more potent version of the drug. He says cartel leaders figured out that drug users would want an alternative to fentanyl.
DELENA: They studied the trends just like, you know, people here study the stock market. And they know what the next trend is going to be. And sometimes they force that trend upon people, and that's exactly what they're doing in this case.
BEBINGER: Meth and other amphetamines have been a tool for people working two or three jobs for decades. Drug users now may use meth to pick themselves up after being sedated by an opioid. Meth is cheap and delivers a long-lasting high. With meth seizures more than doubling between 2017 and 2018, Boston University epidemiologist Traci Green sees an urgent need to understand just what's driving meth use.
TRACI GREEN: I think we need to start paying a lot more attention to stimulants and quickly.
BEBINGER: But, says Green, without losing the focus on curbing opioid overdose deaths.
For NPR News, I'm Martha Bebinger in Boston.
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