By Tom Angel |
District Attorney Mike
Ramsey says the explosion of methamphetamine in
Butte County is in part attributable to the
passage in 1978 of Proposition 13.
I made my decision
Lead a path of self-destruction
A slow progression
Killing my complexion
rotting out my teeth
I'm on a roll
I'm blowing off steam
--Green Day, "Geek Stink Breath"
Here’s a story Butte County District Attorney Mike
Ramsey tells: A 9-year-old girl goes into a neighborhood
grocery store with her 5-year-old brother in tow. The little
girl has her mother's checkbook, and she tries to write a
check to buy food. The children are hungry and filthy.
The store owner calls the Sheriff's Department. A deputy
responds to the call and is directed to a trailer near the
store. The mother answers the door and lets him in.
The place is foul-smelling and littered with dirty clothes
and empty bottles. The mother is spun on meth, and, under
questioning, immediately gets paranoid, loud and abusive. She
comes at the deputy, and as he backs away from her the floor
in the living room gives way under him, rotted out by urine
and long decay, and the deputy finds himself up to his chest
in the collapsed flooring of the trailer.
And then there was the time the D.A. went along on a night
raid to a house that served as a meth lab. Electricity to the
place had been shut off long since. With deputies at his side,
the D.A. proceeded into the darkness guided by the beam of a
"The smell," he says, "was godawful, and when I opened the
refrigerator door, that smell of rotting food became so
physically overpowering that I ducked my head. I caught a
glimpse of the floor. 'Why is the floor moving?' I wondered,
until I figured out that the floor was a wriggling mass of
cockroaches. Children had been living in that place."
Meth users swallow, snort, smoke and inject the stuff. From
1984 to 1993, methamphetamine use in California rose 366
percent. It first showed up in Butte County in the early
1980s, coming in on the back of a Harley-Davidson, drawn here
by an article in a national biker magazine extolling the area
as a place where outlaws could "do their own thing."
By Butte County District Attorney Office
A collection of syringes
found in the bathroom sink during a
The opportunity those bikers seized upon was an opportunity
partially created by the passage of Proposition 13, in 1978.
"Butte County has been dancing around bankruptcy ever since
then," says the district attorney. It took a few years, but
Proposition 13 (which capped property taxes) caused tax
revenues to shrivel, and with the shriveling of those revenues
came a corresponding shriveling of monies for county agencies.
The budget for law enforcement in Butte County was cut in
The reduction in law enforcement personnel, combined with
cheap land and lots of places out in the country or up in the
pines without nosy neighbors nearby, provided an environment
ripe for the production and distribution of methamphetamine,
the poor man's cocaine. Manufacturing, trafficking and use of
methamphetamines is now a serious national problem, and
California is considered the hub of methamphetamine activity.
And Butte County, with an underfunded law enforcement
presence and lots of open space, is a significant player in
the methamphetamine trade. "What Bolivia is to the cocaine
trade in the U.S.," Ramsey says, "is what Butte County is to
the meth trade in the Bay Area."
It is arguably the biggest social problem the county
faces, and a late-night cruise through one of Oroville's
Indian casinos would convince the casual observer that there
is little to argue about. Meth abusers are just about the only
people still up and about, and they are everywhere--at the
slots and at the blackjack tables or simply broke and
loitering, still joining at 2 a.m., all amped up with nowhere
It looks like a casting call for
The Jerry Springer
Show--people in dingy T-shirts that hang on haggard
frames, smoking generic cigarettes, the fluorescent lighting
making them look even more jaundiced and unhealthy.
They're over at the penny slot machines, and if they
bother to sit on the stools, they are in constant motion, but
mostly they stand, and they jiggle, switching from foot to
foot, and making mojo with their hands on the glass faces of
the machines they are playing. They are poverty cases,
addicted people growing poorer in one of California's poorest
and most addicted counties.
In 2003 Butte had a per-capita personal income of
$23,799, placing the county 44th among the 58 counties in the
state. Per-capita personal income in the county was 71 percent
of the state average of $33,415 and 76 percent of the national
average of $31,472.
Methamphetamine use and production take root in
poverty-ridden areas because meth is a poor person's drug of
choice. Relatively speaking, it's cheap, and it can provide an
illusory feeling of energy and well-being to people who have
absolutely no reason to feel good about much of anything.
According to the D.A., the current street price for a gram of
meth is about $80, and a gram will give the user anywhere from
10 to 20 hits. Since each hit can keep a user high for up to
24 hours, that means the hopeless can buy temporary respite
from despair for less than $8 a day.
But that $8 isn't the only cost, of course. Back in the
'60s, the street wisdom had it that "speed kills," and the
D.A. says that wisdom still holds: "It doesn't just kill you.
It kills all around you. And finally it kills hope."
By Tom Angel |
|SLEEPLESS IN OROVILLE|
bedroom turned-meth lab.
Hope is nearly as hard to come by for the
people who treat people who have the addiction. Don Primer
works for the Butte County Behavioral Health Department as a
certified drug and alcohol counselor. He's been doing that job
for six years, but when asked for a story of successful
rehabilitation from meth addiction, he says he'll have to
think about it.
"Meth goes directly to the dopamine centers in the brain,
the pleasure centers," he says. "I've seen lots of kids 14 to
18 who said they were just going to try it once, but they
often wind up joining the revolving-door cases I see so often.
They wake up to the fact that they have a problem when they're
17 or 18, just because the brain is becoming fully formed at
that age, but they've already created changes in their brain
chemistry, and they're addicted."
After an extended period of use, addicts develop a look
known as "sucked up." They lose weight, get skinny and are
often covered with sores from the toxicity of the drug and
from scratching themselves to relieve the accompanying itch.
Some will binge for up to 20 days, going without sleep through
that entire period before crashing, then sleeping for two or
three days before beginning the cycle over again.
With the grim humor of people trying to maintain sanity
while dealing with ugliness on a regular basis, Butte County
law enforcement personnel refer to meth users as
"methamphibians," a phrase descriptive of a lizard-like
subspecies, or as "Butteants," a pun on the word
You know you're a Butteant, they joke, if you hold your
family reunions in the Butte County Jail exercise yard. You
know you're a Butteant if you name your first-born daughter
after your favorite drug--Crystal. You know you're a Butteant
if your urine can cut steel.
It's also likely that you're a Butteant if you have bad
teeth and a sickly pallor. One of the side effects of chronic
methamphetamine abuse is a condition known as "meth mouth."
When smoked, the caustic chemicals in methamphetamine attack
the teeth, the gums and the throat. Heavy users can be
detected by the darkness of their dentition or by their bad
breath. They suffer constant dry mouth, and they are often
seen consuming those mega-soft drinks sold in convenience
stores, a sugar spike that accessorizes their meth high.
They're also likely to lose interest in dental hygiene,
giving up the habit of brushing their teeth entirely. They
also tend to grind their teeth obsessively, a direct effect of
the high. A crank addict's smile isn't likely to brighten
Dentistry is just one indication of the growth of Butte
County's meth problem. Cases of "meth mouth" in the Butte
County Jail are double the number seen in nearby Solano
County. Why should drug offenders be treated to dental care
while incarcerated? "These people are our sons, our daughters,
our brothers," says Ramsey. "There's hardly anyone in Butte
County who doesn't have some line of connection to this
problem. Eighty out of a 100 people probably know someone with
this problem. That's just how pervasive it is."
|Courtesy Of Butte County District Attorney
|PRIME DIRECTIVE |
counselor for Butte County Behavioral Health.
None of the dental care provided to inmates is elective, in
any case. Dental care is provided only for relief of pain, the
repair of injured teeth or removal of irritations that may
lead to malignancies, reports Capt. Jerry Jones, commander of
the Butte County Jail.
The jail houses 500 to 555 inmates at any one time, and it
is not possible to ascertain just how many of those inmates
are in jail for crimes related to meth addiction, but the
number is certainly significant. "I'd estimate that 80 percent
of the county's crime is traceable to substance abuse," says
Ramsey, "but that includes alcohol, of course."
Meth breeds paranoia and irrationality, which in turn
breeds violence. Robberies and burglaries are often
side-effects of meth addiction. The methamphetamine trade is
responsible for an alarming number of domestic-abuse crimes,
ranging from child neglect to homicide. And, increasingly,
meth users are turning to identity theft as a source of
As Mark Lundquist, team unit chief of a drug unit in
Tacoma, Wash., recently told ABC News, "The thing that is
somewhat unique to identity theft is that it requires an
almost absurd amount of hours and focus, which meth users have
in abundance. We've seen meth users putting together papers
that have been through shredders."
The paranoia that accompanies methamphetamine abuse
has caused many users to assault and even kill family members.
Adding to the domestic dangers are the deplorable living
conditions in homes that have been turned into laboratories.
Dangers of sexually transmitted diseases are also increased
among meth users.
Amphetamine use has been associated with stronger sexual
excitement, longer duration of intercourse and intensified
orgasms. Male amphetamine injectors report more female sex
partners than non-drug users and they are less inclined to use
condoms, leading to a higher incidence of HIV infection among
Children suffer disproportionately from their parents' meth
addiction. Methamphetamine addiction is a major reason why
foster care caseloads have increased 25 percent in Northern
California since 1998. Admissions to treatment centers for
methamphetamine addiction from 2001-02 to 2002-03 jumped in
Butte County by 43 percent, and the data for Sutter and Yuba
counties combined showed that admissions more than doubled in
just that one year.
Butte County ranks third statewide in the number of
children being detained from methamphetamine laboratories. The
Butte County Interagency Narcotics Task Force (BINTF) reports
that in 2003, there was a total of 96 drug-endangered-children
investigations in which 223 children were rescued.
|Courtesy Of Butte County District Attorney
|KID'S PLAY |
Children caught in the
squalor of a meth house.
Children are particularly vulnerable to the health effects
associated with meth labs. They have immature organ systems,
faster metabolic rates and weaker immune systems than adults.
When they can get it, they eat more food per pound of body
weight, and they drink more fluids and breathe more air per
pound of body weight. They are less able to protect
themselves, and their behaviors (crawling on grimy floors,
eating dirt and putting their hands in their mouths) expose
them to more hazards.
Drug enforcement agents don't go into meth labs without
wearing HazMat suits, but children live in those environments.
Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) data show that 30
percent of labs nationwide had children living in them at the
time of seizure. Children are exposed to toxic chemicals. They
are at risk of explosion, fire and chemical burns and are
often neglected and abused by drug-using parents.
Filth is an integral part of the meth environment. Rooms
become little more than mounds of dirty clothes, carpets are
burned with acid, and kitchen countertops overflow with
encrusted dishes and beakers of half-cooked meth. Toilets
often sit full of feces, the plumbing long eroded by the
flushing of chemical waste.
"You wouldn't believe some of these places," Mike Ramsey
says. "The parents are either so lethargic or so hyper they
can't function. Children are left to fend for themselves."
But, when Child Protective Services sends deputies to remove
the children from these dangerous environments, the parents
put on elaborate displays of parental love and concern.
"I've seen them many times," Ramsey says, "'Oh, no, no,
no,' they say, don't take away my children; they're my life.'
But these parents have imploded."
The nationally recognized Butte County
Drug-Endangered Children Program began in 1993, and a
statistic produced in 2001 showed 105 at-risk children were
taken out of what Ramsey refers to as "hell holes," homes in
the county where families had "just disintegrated due to meth
use." Parents were put in treatment programs and told they
could get their kids back if they could test clean, but 18
months later only 15 of those 105 children were back with
"That's just how monstrous this drug is," says Ramsey. "If
you don't have a lot going in your life, taking meth is like
becoming Leonardo DiCaprio on the bow of the Titanic--'I'm on
top of the world,' is their feeling, and they're always
chasing that desire to feel good."
|Courtesy Of Butte County District Attorney
|STICK IT TO THE RAT |
devised by kids in a meth house to kill rats, was
uncovered in a recent bust.
An anti-crime organization that calls itself Fight Crime:
Invest in Kids California, led by more than 300 sheriffs,
police chiefs, district attorneys and crime victims, cites
research that shows what common sense would suggest: Kids who
come from dangerous homes where they face continuing abuse and
neglect are considerably more likely to become violent
criminals when they reach adulthood. And so the cycle, once
In an attempt to break that cycle, Butte County is leading
the nation in the effort to protect kids exposed to meth and
other drugs. Over a four-year period, the number of
drug-exposed children rescued in the county increased
five-fold, from 45 children in 1999 to 223 in 2003, a
statistic that speaks not only to child protection efforts,
but also to the rise in methamphetamine use.
Cathi Grams, director of Butte County Employment and Social
Services, has estimated that, county-wide, an average of 700
children are cared for in foster homes or similar arrangements
on any given month, a number that has risen about 35 percent
since 1998. More than a third of all children placed in foster
or alternative-care facilities in Butte County are a result of
meth-related incidents. Currently, the need for foster parents
in Butte County is greater than the number of people available
to serve that need.
If children suffer disproportionately due to the
sins of their meth-addicted parents, so, too, does the
environment. Pollution from methamphetamine production is not
limited to the homes of cookers and users alone. Production of
one pound of methamphetamine yields approximately five pounds
of waste chemicals such as lye, red phosphorus, hydriodic acid
and iodine that contaminate land, streams and rivers, public
sewer systems and the walls and furnishings of homes and
Ramsey tells of people who have rented homes, apartments,
or even motel rooms that had once been used as meth labs. "The
chemicals infuse themselves into the floor, into the drywall,
and the new tenants get sick. Headaches, nausea. It's really
The cookers dump waste in back yards, along roadways and in
local creeks. Cleanup costs have risen dramatically, draining
the budgets of county, state, and federal governments as well
as those of private owners. Authorities have found barrels,
glassware, hoses, and other waste from methamphetamine
laboratories in irrigation canals. The damage done to local
agriculture is unknown but believed to be substantial.
Mexican nationals who come to work as "cookers" in Butte
County meth labs have a life expectancy of four to five years,
says Don Primer, and that death rate is directly traceable to
the cancer-causing substances used to produce the drug, as
well as other hazards that come with handling the chemicals
needed to make the drug.
|WHERE'S THE MAID |
House cleaning is
a low priority in a meth house.
What began in the 1980s as larger "super labs" run by biker
gangs soon devolved into what Ramsey calls "Beavis and
Butthead" operations--smaller labs run by people who score the
recipes off the Internet for making crystal meth. How easy is
it to get recipes for making methamphetamine? Just Google
"Recipes for making methamphetamine," and you'll get all the
information needed, plus attitude aplenty.
At the first drug maker's Web site listed in a Google
search, the browser is met with the following advice from a
guy who calls himself Totse: "WARNING: You will be using
dangerous chemicals while producing this shit. This is not a
fucking game, this is not something you do for fun, you MUST
know what you're doing." The advice continues, along with a
list of the necessary ingredients and instructions on how to
make the batch, and then Totse concludes with the following
words: "I have used this formula and made 1/4 pound of some
high quality shit. Wear a mask and gloves if you can. Do it
someplace remote. Make sure there's not moisture in or around
the bucket or, as Totse says, KA- FUCKING-BOOM!"
These labs are especially dangerous because they are fairly
ubiquitous. Meth busts have been made in every municipality
and jurisdiction, every nook and cranny, throughout Butte
County. Catching the "Beavis and Butthead" operators is made
easier for local law enforcement because one in five busts
occurs when the labs explode.
Those explosions, of course, increase the fire danger in
places like Magalia or Forest Ranch where many smaller labs
have been known to operate. A fire on those ridges, started by
a meth lab in high fire season, would add incalculable costs
to the already high costs of this subterranean trade in
Now the D.A. says he’s seeing an upsurge of
the "super labs" first seen in the county in the 1980s. A
"super lab" is defined as an operation that can produce 10
pounds or more of the drug in each manufacturing cycle. There
are fewer of the "biker" labs now, and currently, the majority
of these labs are overseen by Mexican gangs coming up from
Southern California or Mexico, and they are bringing with them
new recipes for crystal meth that are producing purer and more
Street gangs like La Nuestra Familia are exporting product
from this area to markets in the San Joaquin Valley, the Bay
Area and as far away as the East Coast. Since the dawn of the
new century, Hispanic street gangs have become the
fastest-growing type of gang in the country. Many Hispanic
gangs have established a multiracial membership, and these
gangs are reported to be active in every state in the
For those who would celebrate diversity, the
methamphetamine epidemic welcomes all races, colors and
creeds, both as users, producers and distributors.
Ya-ba is a Thai word meaning "crazy drug," a name for a
powerful and very pure form of meth that is turning up more
and more frequently. Drug enforcement agents fear that this
drug will become popular among young people at raves and clubs
because it does not yet carry the negative image often
associated with other forms of meth.
Socio-linguists often measure a society by assessing its
use of language. By that measure, we are a society obsessed
with drugs, as evidenced by the plethora of words used to
discuss them. The Web site for the National Institute for
Chemical Dependency provides a vocabulary list of street slang
for drugs and drug activity that chalks up some 7,000 words in
common usage among drug users.
Someone who is "ate up," for instance, is someone who is
always wasted, and someone who is "amped-out" is suffering
from the fatigue of a long meth binge. "Ice," "Super Ice,"
"Batu," and "Red Phosphorus" are all words for smokeable
methamphetamine. If you are "amping," you are experiencing an
accelerated heart rate from the drug, and if you go to buy the
stuff, you might request it by asking for crink, pixies,
cartwheels, roses, brownies, co-pilot, rhythm, forwards,
bumblebees, peaches, chicken powder, Windex, splivins or any
of a couple dozen other names.
Good news is hard to find in stories about
methamphetamine. Solutions for the problems associated with
it--mental, physical, familial, environmental, social, legal
and criminal--are not easy to come by. There may, however, be
hope for those who seek recovery from the addiction. A recent
study by researchers at UC Davis indicates that brain changes
caused by long-term methamphetamine use may not be
Before the brain can repair itself, however, the user must
be free of the drug for an extended period of time, and that
is no easy task for an addict. Most of those who manage to
beat the addiction do so through 12-step programs such as
Narcotics Anonymous. Most of the people who find their way to
NA do so through the criminal-justice system, ordered into
treatment by judges as a part of their sentences.
Don Primer, the Butte County substance abuse counselor who
had been asked for a success story, never did manage to come
up with one. What keeps him going in the face of such odds?
What keeps him from despairing over the difficulties people
face who are trying to shed their meth habits?
"That's a good question," he says. "I see my job as
planting seeds, really. Something I say may stick in their
minds, and they may change their habits. I'm just leaving
wake-up calls." He sighs into the phone. "But there's not a
lot of acknowledgment, and there are so many revolving-door
Meanwhile, in a dark home not far away from your own,
children are living in unspeakable circumstances. Those
children are in deadly peril.
And so are their neighbors.