When it comes to the rising popularity of methamphetamines, the City Different isn't.
Cocaine has long held the distinction of being the City Different's drug of choice. And, because her parents preferred the drug, coke has long been a favorite of 27-year-old Amber, who grew up in Santa Fe. A former bartender, Amber was only 8 years old when she first sampled her parents' coke stash. Though her parents weren't privy to her coke experimentation, they would later include Amber in their pot-smoking sessions. Perhaps inevitably, as Amber aged, she would try a smorgasbord of drugs, among them methamphetamine at the age of 14. In her teens, Amber's meth use would never blossom beyond a flirtation, for nothing about the substance moved her like cocaine did. As much as she enjoyed coke, Amber refrained from liberal use of that drug also. Thus, while a dabbler in substances, Amber did not consider herself an addict.
After meeting a junkie during a low point in her mid-twenties, however, Amber's drug use heightened. She began using meth daily.
Having only become addicted to the drug last year, Amber exemplifies an emerging trend of New Mexicans who traditionally favor cocaine or heroin but resort to meth because of its low price, lengthy high and accessibility. She also illustrates how emotional trauma, family history and abusive relationships can make people more prone to abusing drugs.
SFR first made contact with Amber at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. In compliance with NA guidelines-and at her request-only Amber's first name will be used in this article.
Though meth is commonly linked to California, where it's reportedly the rage among professionals in high-stress jobs and low-income folks alike, officials say the drug is making inroads here. "We've been watching trends across the state in regards to meth," Santa Fe Police Chief Beverly Lennen says. "We're aware of the problem. We know it's coming." Local meth stats don't reflect crimes involving meth's "precursors"-components-which include cold and allergy medicines, red phosphorous and iodine. According to Lennen, "Precursors are being stolen and purchased at stores throughout the community."
The Department of Health reports that the drug-while far from eclipsing coke or heroin statewide-is surfacing in parts of New Mexico that have typically been substance-free. "Traditionally the occurrences of drug abuse have been most drastic in the northeastern
part of the state-centered on Rio Arriba County and Albuquerque," Michael Landen, assistant state epidemiologist for the Department of Health, says. "What we're seeing is that the northwest and the southern part of the state is having increasing problems with drug abuse, and about 10 percent of the overdoses in these areas are caused by methamphetamine."
The Department of Health also is finding that young people statewide are developing a fondness for meth. In a 2001 youth survey, 5 percent of respondents said they had used meth in the past year. By 2003, the number had reached 8 percent. "In New Mexico, there's a sense that because of our proximity to Mexico, our supply of methamphetamine is increasing, and the ultimate consequence of that ends up being abuse," Landen says.
Of course, the ultimate consequence of abuse is overdosing. And, in 2004, meth overdoses resulting in death doubled from the previous year.
As for Amber, while her story demonstrates that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction, the Santa Fe Police Department has substantiated some of the circumstances Amber found herself in during the past year as a result of her involvement with meth.
"During a month's period, I had a bunch of big, traumatic things happen," Amber says. "My first boyfriend, who had been my friend for 12 years, he killed himself. Then my roommate where I was living got killed…Between that time another really close friend of mine died also." Adding to Amber's trauma was the disappearance of her cats. "I don't know if they got killed or ran away, so I was pretty screwed up and depressed, drinking every night and walking around in the rain looking for my cats."
Though she's wearing shades, the inflections in her voice and shifting facial expressions make it clear that Amber still mourns her losses.
Despite the grief, Amber continues discussing her personal tragedies because she feels they are more to blame for her subsequent meth addiction than, as she says, foolishness or lack of smarts. "I'm an intelligent person," she stresses. In fact, Amber brings to mind novelist Zadie Smith's description of a character who seemingly swallowed an encyclopedia and a gutter at the same time. Keenly insightful, Amber relies heavily on four-letter words to describe her experiences. With her long, blonde hair pulled back and a gray turtleneck and black slacks highlighting her Rubenesque build, Amber oozes sophistication. One would hardly guess the frequency with which she curses or that she would make easy prey for a long-term meth user.
Crumpling under emotional trauma, prey was exactly what Amber became for a stranger visiting the Oregon recycling center she worked at in October 2003. "He was trying to sell some shit [meth], and so he came in and said, 'hey, I know your friend,'" Amber says. "I was, like, 'oh yeah, cool, I'll buy $20 off you. That would help me stay up and look for my cats.'"
In addition to buying meth from the stranger, Amber gave him her phone number. Before long they were dating. Without a roommate, though, Amber needed to move out of her home. Desiring to leave her past behind her and capitalize on her budding romance, Amber moved from coastal Oregon to Portland, where the man she'd been dating lived. However, a more pressing matter influenced Amber to move: She was pregnant.
"I ended up staying with him in a house where he was staying with these people who totally had no regard-it was all about getting shit for free. It was all about drugs," Amber says.
"They had all of these DMV programs and seals and stuff, and they were printing checks, printing IDs." Still mourning her friends and cats, Amber says she isolated herself from her boyfriend's roommates. "I kind of just hid out upstairs and smoked all this dope," she recalls. "I…kind of shut everybody around me out. I didn't want to deal with my life. I didn't want to take charge of doing anything."
Though she used contraception, Amber says she became pregnant after sleeping with her boyfriend for the first time. "Anyhow, I had an abortion and [my boyfriend] paid for it-which he would never let me forget-because I wasn't working for the first time in my life." After the abortion, Amber says months passed in a blur because she was using meth daily. Despite her addiction to the drug, Amber doesn't remember it fondly. "It burns. It hurts," she says. "It's not a good feeling. There's really nothing too redeeming about it."
Among other effects, methamphetamine causes sleeplessness. "People stay up for two and three and four weeks at a time," Recovery from Addictions Counselor Daniel Craig says. "Meth has the same effects as speed, but it's like superspeed. You have increased heart rate, increased awareness. It increases brain activity to a degree but only short term." Craig adds that the drug can be consumed via smoking, snorting, swallowing and injecting. Injection supposedly gives users the greatest rush. "My impression is that it gives a feeling of euphoria, and you get that feeling quicker if you shoot it," Craig says.
Amber says she never had to seek meth out, as her boyfriend kept a streaming supply. "I don't know if it was premeditated or not, 'keep her high and she'll be around,' but I think it probably was," Amber says. Amber's favorite thing about meth was the amount of energy it gave her. "I can go to work, go home and paint
my house and reorganize my closet and go to work the next day." Amber also liked meth because it made losing weight easier. "I've always gained 20, 30 pounds back and forth, never really thin, never really fat, but I got pretty skinny and that was probably 70 percent of why I liked it, and coke, too. But coke, you have to do more. And this stuff you do some, and it's stronger."
While the daily access to meth allowed Amber an escape from her troubles, soon reality hit. "I found out [my boyfriend] had been sleeping with his ex-girlfriend the whole time." Because of her boyfriend's infidelity, Amber moved back to Santa Fe where she hadn't lived since 1994. After the move, her boyfriend continued calling her. Then she found out that, despite using contraception, she was pregnant again. Though she knew she would also end this pregnancy, she told her boyfriend about her predicament. He decided to join her in New Mexico, arriving "with a bunch of crystal." But Amber says he wanted a New Mexico connection. Accordingly, after dropping her off at the Planned Parenthood in Albuquerque for an abortion, he took her car and searched the streets for dealers.
How does one go about finding a meth dealer? "Pretty much what he would do is just drive around and look for the sleaziest looking people, people walking around all skinny with no teeth," Amber says. "It was ridiculous." Ridiculous, maybe, but the efforts of Amber's boyfriend proved successful. She emerged from the abortion to discover that her boyfriend had taken off in her car. "I called him," Amber says, "and he was like, 'oh yeah, I met some people.' Anyhow, that's how it started that we knew people here."
Before long, Amber's boyfriend made Santa Fe contacts.
never expected to find them in her home. But, after returning from a late-night catering gig, there they were. They had guns, stolen cars in the driveway and pungent-smelling chemicals. Moreover, "They had all these beakers and hoses and gas masks," Amber says.
"These guys had set up a lab in my fucking house." While they had asked her boyfriend for permission to set up the lab, Amber says he had never asked her for permission. "I was like, holy shit, this cannot be happening," Amber says. "I live in a duplex, my neighbors had a little kid." Amber's boyfriend told her they only needed to make an hour-long batch. They ended up taking until noon the next day. Too afraid to cause a confrontation, Amber says she shut herself in her room.
While certainly not common, Landen says so-called mom and pop labs are on the increase. "No one wants to think methamphetamine is being used in a neighboring apartment or the house down the street, but labs are appearing more often."
According to DEA Special Agent Finn Selander, the number of local labs is small but growing. In 2002, no labs were found in Santa Fe County. By 2003, there were two labs and, by 2004, three. However, as Lennen points out, incidents of people purchasing meth precursors are more prevalent than labs. "One of the key elements in stopping this trend is if local stores track how much of a precursor customers buy," Selander says. "Most all pharmacies have a limit as to how much cold medicine you can buy."
Shortly after the meth-makers visited her home, Amber says they were arrested by an officer who later
would enter her life. "In August I made a traffic stop and discovered a meth lab in the vehicle," Santa Fe Police Officer David Smoker recalls. "I found glass products and chemicals in the car."
Meanwhile, Amber was searching for a way to leave her boyfriend. "He'd been doing this stuff [meth] for a really long time," she says. "He hears voices. He would record me. He would hide videotapes on me. He'd check my phone. He'd follow me to work, wherever I'd worked. I really didn't have the opportunity to try to get away from him."
Amber says that her boyfriend was a 14-year meth user. The length of his addiction may explain his behavior. Meth "makes you hyper-vigilant to the point of paranoia, you're so amped," according to Craig. To boot, "psychosis and schizophrenia result from lack of sleep."
Alarmed by his irrational behavior, Amber thought she had the perfect chance to split from her boyfriend when he moved to Albuquerque for fear police were pursuing him. But after
his move, Amber's boyfriend returned to Santa Fe one night. After seeing his car in the area, Amber's relatives called police because they believed she was in danger. By the time police arrived, Amber's boyfriend had escaped. However, Officer Smoker-among the authorities at the scene-detected Amber was in bad shape. "On that particular day that her boyfriend ran away, she just looked like someone on meth," he remembers. "She was very pale, almost bluish.
People who use or smoke meth will have very chapped lips. Their fingers and hands will be black. You'll notice a lot of sores on their body. You become very paranoid and feel hallucinations. You think there are bugs on your skin so you pick yourself until you get a sore." Smoker says items in Amber's home also pointed to meth use. "They had a propane torch," he says. "Most people don't have a propane torch in their house." The search that followed revealed no drugs, just the stolen IDs of her
boyfriend. On the run, Amber says her boyfriend made threatening phone calls to
her until she ended up at his Albuquerque home. "He was basically stalking her," Smoker says. After a week in his apartment, Amber left in the middle of the night and took the interstate until stopping at a motel in Amarillo, TX.
When Amber's boyfriend discovered she had fled, the threatening phone calls resumed. "The threats were getting worse and worse," Amber says. "You know, like, 'I know where your grandparents live. I know where your mom lives.'" Amber says her boyfriend had leverage over her because she had the title to his car. "His car was in my name because [he used aliases], and I had the title with me. He was saying 'you owe me this and whatever,' so I said, 'if you want your shit, come to Amarillo, I'll give you the title to your car.'" Additionally, Amber withdrew $500 from her bank account because her boyfriend claimed she owed him for the abortions. When he arrived at Amber's hotel, however, he
refused to leave. What's more is that Amber says he had been tape-recording her in the bathroom to ensure that she wouldn't call authorities. This prompted Amber to flee to Oklahoma City once her boyfriend fell asleep. Upon discovering Amber had fled once more, her boyfriend left messages for her in which he pretended to overdose, slurring his words and
dropping to the floor. Because she feared his suicide attempts were serious, Amber finally answered her phone. When she did, her boyfriend told her that he just needed to hug her once more, and Amber disclosed her whereabouts. After ending her phone call with him, however, Amber learned she had not listened to the last messages he left. "They were like 'I'm the best you got, you dumb bitch.'" By the time he ended up in Oklahoma City, the two argued and decided to part ways the following day. "Once again, I withdrew money and gave it to him and told him to leave me alone." When she departed for Arkansas the next day, she discovered her boyfriend on the road-following her. Too tired to fight anymore, Amber stopped in Fort Smith, Arkansas, her boyfriend trailing her. It was a stop that changed her life.
Once in Arkansas, Amber's boyfriend needed a meth fix.
wanted some dope, so he had his friend in Oregon send it to me because I'm the one with the ID."
Waiting for the package's arrival, Amber and her boyfriend spent a few days in Fort Smith. One day, her boyfriend gave her a stolen credit card, which she used at Office Depot.
Amber didn't know, however, that she and her boyfriend had been videotaped using the stolen charge card. So, the next day, she headed to Michaels craft store. Coincidentally, the detective investigating the credit card transaction was in the same mart that housed
Michaels. He spotted Amber's car and called for backup. "So when I came out of the craft store, I had like 17 cops around me. They were like, 'Amber get out of the car!'"
The police may have sought her out because of the credit card transaction but a search of Amber's car yielded an enormous quantity of methamphetamine. After locating her boyfriend, authorities questioned the two at the police station. Amber says that the police told her they suspected the drugs belonged to her boyfriend. However, when "the arresting officer said, 'all right, who's taking the charges for the dope,' he didn't say anything," Amber says. "I was just looking at him disgusted. I said, 'it was in my car.' I wanted [my boyfriend] to have no reason to ever have to mess with me again." Among four other felonies, Amber was
charged with intent to distribute. Arkansas has mandatory sentencing laws for drug offenses.
In New Mexico, The Drug Policy Alliance is working on a bill that would provide treatment instead of prison time for first and second-time possession, according to Alliance Director Reena Szczepanski. "One year in prison costs on average about $30,000. When you combine one year of treatment and one year of probation, you're looking at about $3,300. That's with outpatient. With inpatient it's obviously a little bit more expensive." If the rise of meth in New Mexico follows the pattern it has in
California, such laws could become important."
Meth is definitely the leading drug offense," Sacramento Alliance Deputy Director
Simeon Gant says. "We find that every so many years there's a shift in which drug is popular. Meth is now that drug. It's a nationwide trend."
Amber's boyfriend won't need progressive legislation to help him. After the Arkansas incident his charges were dropped, and he's now on probation, according to Amber. Already sore that her boyfriend faces no real penalties for his involvement in the methamphetamine in her car, Amber became even angrier when she realized that claiming the drugs was not enough to make her boyfriend leave her alone.
"He's been threatening my mom since he's in Oregon now," she says. "I'm sure he has another girl now, but he feels I've wronged him because I won't take his calls, even though the whole reason that I took the charges was for him to leave me alone. I don't owe him anything now."
On Feb. 9, Amber says she will return to Arkansas to issue a plea. "The next five to 10 years of my life are going to be pretty screwed," she says.
"It's so humiliating for me to have gotten here, and it's humiliating for me to blame it on [my boyfriend], but I really knew [the meth] wasn't mine." Amber says that she's never tolerated poor treatment from anyone. As a bartender, she took abused women to her home. "I'd say, 'you're going to sleep on my couch. Don't go home with him.' I was always the one who wouldn't stand for it."
Thanks, in part, to Officer Smoker directing her to treatment programs Amber has been active in Narcotics Anonymous since October. She now sees how drugs not only altered her mind but also her life. "More than anything, all the things that happened, all my problems, all my friends that died, and all that, I could have probably dealt with it just fine had I not chosen to not deal with it by staying high."