Meth back on upswing in Garfield County
The rise of methamphetamine in Colorado and the U.S. 15-20 years ago brought increased awareness of the stimulant and its devastating impact. The spotlight has dimmed in recent years, but use of the drug has persisted — and in Garfield County it remains a leading illicit drug of choice, according to local law enforcement and health care providers.
“It’s not going away,” said Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario. “It’s clearly a product that’s going to stick around for a while just because it’s so easy to produce anymore, it’s relatively inexpensive, it gives you highs more than any other drug out there.”
Data from the Two Rivers Drug Enforcement Team, a multi-jurisdictional task force known as TRIDENT, shows an increase in the supply of methamphetamine.
In 2010, TRIDENT arrested 65 narcotics violators and seized 81 grams of methamphetamine, along with other drugs. In 2014, arrests totaled 77 and the task force seized 4,578 grams of methamphetamine. That same data show 14,745 grams of cocaine seized in 2010 compared with 19,866 in 2014.
“I think the reason (methamphetamine) has taken off is more the socioeconomic issues surrounding it,” said Levy Burris, Silt police chief and the current chair of TRIDENT. “Your cocaine was considerably more costwise per gram and the cocaine … would take a little while to get the high. Well, that’s not the case, studies are showing, with methamphetamine.”
In the realm of substance abuse treatment, the ebb and flow of substances, excluding alcohol, appears to be tilting locally toward meth, according to Jacqueline Skramstad, a licensed clinical social worker and regional director for Mind Springs Health, one of the few mental health and substance abuse treatment providers in the region.
“We didn’t have as many people for a period of time seeking treatment related to meth … but then that seemed to cycle back up again, and I would say right now we are in the middle of one of the surges of methamphetamine probably in the last year and a half,” Skramstad said.
Officials are quick to say that Garfield County’s meth problem is not entirely unique or necessarily more severe than for other communities. An analysis by Colorado Public Radio earlier this year showed the number of methamphetamine possession arrests in Denver, Aurora and Colorado Springs all trending upward since 2010.
“I wouldn’t at all say it’s an epidemic,” Vallario said of the situation in Garfield County. “It’s obviously very impactive because of crimes that are committed and resources that are needed to combat that.”
NOT A VICTIMLESS CRIME
Those far-reaching societal impacts run counter to the misconception that substance abuse in general is a victimless crime.
Griffin J. knows those impacts well. Today he lives in Carbondale and works as a certified addiction counselor for Mind Springs Health in Aspen. It is quite the contrast to his life a little more than two years ago when he was homeless in Austin, Texas. The Post Independent is withholding Griffin’s last name to allow him to speak openly of his addiction.
In early 2012, Griffin said he had a good job and two cars. He had already gone through treatment for abusing a range of substances that included Xanax, oxycodone, Valium, Ativan, methadone, Suboxone, cocaine, alcohol and Vicodin. From 2006 to 2010, Griffin said there wasn’t a six-hour period of his life that he wasn’t on pills.
“Over that time period I started engaging in things like stealing and dealing drugs and things like that in order to maintain a habit,” he said. “Really when you’re on that much stuff and you’re addicted to that many substances you cannot afford it. That’s a three, four hundred-dollar a day habit, and where are you gonna get the money to do that? You’re going to steal, you’re going to do whatever you can.”
In 2010, he entered a 30-day detox treatment and left feeling “pretty good.” He relapsed after a stretch, but managed to get sober again and maintain that for another nine months. That was until he met a woman and began a rapid descent. The first night they went out drinking. The second night they bought some cocaine. When he came home from work the third day of their relationship, she had a pipe and bag of methamphetamine, which at that point Griffin said he had never tried.
“From that moment on my whole life became centered on methamphetamine and everything it encompassed.”
Over the course of 14 months, he was fired from his job and lost his apartment, along with a significant amount of weight. He did not sleep and rarely ate. His two cars were repossessed. He stole from his family and others, as well as defrauded the IRS.
“I literally had one pair of clothes … and a vicious drug habit,” he said.
In the summer of 2013, still in the throes of meth addiction, he had enough and his father was willing to throw him one last lifeline. He checked into Carbondale’s Jaywalker Lodge in June 2013. Now, with the clarity that accompanies two-plus years of sobriety, the viciousness of methamphetamine addiction is not lost on Griffin.
“More so than any other drug I’ve ever done (methamphetamine) takes you into that flight or fight mode, you know? ‘I need this drug to live or I’m going to die,’ which is actually a false belief system … but what it does to the brain is it literally tells you it’s right up there with food, it’s right up there with sexual desires and right up there with basic living needs. … It’s flight or fight and it becomes king and there’s nothing you can do to stop it unless you get clean.”
CHALLENGES TO TREATMENT
Providing effective treatment for substance abuse is a challenge. Part of that problem in Colorado, said Skramstad of Mind Springs Health, is that the state does not provide Medicaid reimbursement for residential substance abuse treatment, in effect forcing that population to pay out of pocket.
“Most folks who have that serious of an addiction, it’s really impacted their ability to work and make money so they don’t have the thousands of dollars to pay out of pocket for that level of treatment,” she said.
Rural areas, such as Garfield County, experience additional barriers in the form of transportation. Mind Springs has offices in Glenwood Springs and in Rifle that provide expanded outpatient care, which consists of twice-weekly group meetings and other services. However, if a drug abuser, who may not have a driver’s license or vehicle, lives outside those areas, it can be extremely challenging.
Adding further to the hurdles in Garfield County is the lack of a detox facility, which for many people is the first step in recovery. Years ago, Mind Springs, then known as Colorado West, operated a facility in Glenwood Springs, but the funding model was not financially viable, according to Skramstad.
As the community engaged in dialogue over the needs for detox, the service shifted to the Garfield County Jail, where Vallario said he offered a small corner of the facility to Mind Springs. But that move was intended to be a temporary “Band-Aid,” Vallario said, and as broader talks fizzled, the decision was made to pull the operations in October 2012.
The lack of a detox center leaves the question of where to send intoxicated people.
Some end up in local emergency rooms, where they can pose safety issues to medical staff in cases involving methamphetamine, said Dr. Matt Skwiott, director of the Emergency Department at Grand River Health. The stimulant can make people anxious, paranoid and aggressive. In one instance, a nurse was punched in the face.
“The physicians and nurses working there, they’re painfully aware,” Skwiott said of the prevalence of cases involving methamphetamine.
A number of community stakeholders, including health care providers and law enforcement, still support bringing detox back to Garfield County. A team made of representatives from Mind Springs, Valley View Hospital and Grand River Health plans on approaching the county commissioners in November to try and resuscitate those efforts, Skramstad said.
HOLDING THE LINE
Years after efforts such as the Colorado State Methamphetamine Drug Task Force (which has not released an annual report since 2011), and locally the Garfield County Methamphetamine Task Force (which no longer exists) were formed in the mid-2000s, use of the drug and the impacts that accompany it persist.
For law enforcement, the effort is geared toward removing large quantities from the supply chain, which it has had some success in doing. In April, TRIDENT, in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, seized 3 pounds of methamphetamine and arrested a man believed to be Rifle’s main meth dealer. While significant, such busts typically have a limited effect.
“Obviously when there’s supply and demand and there’s a lot of demand out there people are going to find suppliers,” Burris said. “So somebody gets taken off, they’re out of action for a little while and somebody else seems to step up.”
Similar to drunken driving, domestic abuse and other crimes, law enforcement is never going to be able to end drug use, Vallario said.
“We’re never going to eliminate drug usage as long as there is a demand and supply,” he said. “We have to recognize it exists and be there to hold that line and combat that. That’s what law enforcement does.”
The continued success of TRIDENT — which has seen federal funding all but disappear since it was first formed in the 1990s — as well as efforts outside of law enforcement, such as the 9th Judicial District’s long-running Drug Court, which offers an alternative to the standard criminal justice process, serve as examples of the continued effort locally to address drug abuse, Vallario added.
“We’re not afraid to recognize a problem and go after it and specialize in focus, and I think that’s why, although you’re always going to see drug usage, we’re able to keep the water level at a steady pace in Garfield County,” he said.
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