Meth, ‘the Devil’s drug,’ is back and killing more people than ever

Before news of an opioid crisis tore through national media, Tori Holcomb knew the dangers of painkillers. She got addicted after a softball injury at North Gwinnett High and saw others around her struggling, too.

Before the resurgence of heroin caused alarm, Holcomb knew it was getting more popular. She fell into the drug, and the bleak new world that came with it, when doctors stopped writing her prescriptions for Percocet.

It is the afflicted who are first to know about every epidemic.

Now, Holcomb knows something else most people don’t: Methamphetamine, a drug that lawmakers fought with success in the 2000s, is back — and it’s more popular, plentiful and lethal than ever.

While the opioid crisis takes the spotlight, prosecutors and police say they also have been coming to grips with the devastating rebound of meth, which is killing more people in America today than in the mid-2000s when it was the national problem everyone was talking about.

Deaths related to stimulants — mostly meth — were up nationwide by more than 250 percent from 2005 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Georgia, deaths involving meth have increased every year since 2010, more than tripling from 65 in 2010 to 200-plus last year, data from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation says. And those numbers don’t even include Gwinnett, Fulton, Cobb and DeKalb, where the data is tracked differently. But Atlanta U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak says the metro area also is seeing an alarming jump in the number of people using and a significant increase in deaths.

The GBI collects data on the drugs most commonly found in the system's of drug overdose victims. In 2016, methamphetamine took the lead. The statistics don't include deaths from Gwinnett, Cobb, Fulton or DeKalb, where data is tracked differently.

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In one 12-month period ending in 2016, for example, 89 people died meth-related deaths in those four counties.

The reason for the resurgence is maddening.

Experts say lawmakers, police and prosecutors got better and better at curtailing the country’s meth manufacturing in the 2000s, until they drove the vast majority of production out of the U.S. and into Mexico. There, cartels make a more potent and cheaper iteration of the drug. In America, their product is now so widely available — dealers sometimes give out free samples, one official says — that a drug once mostly used by working-class white people is spreading to every demographic.

“It’s the Devil’s drug,” says Jason Prince, a user turned dealer turned federal inmate, who is serving 10 years in prison in South Georgia.

And while the nation was busy watching one epidemic, another was regenerating.

King Meth

At North Gwinnett High more than a decade ago, Holcomb saw friends broken by meth, a drug with awful side effects. Her friends picked at sores on their faces compulsively, and their behavior was erratic. Some had bouts of psychosis. This isn’t all meth can do. It can rot teeth. It make the user gaunt and look like death. Over time, it can even lower a user’s IQ.

Holcomb considered it a filthy drug. She tried to help her friends and talk them through it, partly because she’d watched her grandfather die of cirrhosis of the liver from alcohol abuse.

Tori Holcomb last month.

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Holcomb says she understood having a void to fill. She’d always had a nagging feeling of being “less than,” especially in high school, and addiction had blighted her family tree for generations. But she didn’t yet understand addiction. She wondered why her friends couldn’t just stop.

Most people didn’t understand meth.

It’s a highly addictive, super-charged cousin of amphetamine. Amphetamine, developed in Japan in 1919, greatly energizes the user, so Japanese and German soldiers took it to power through World War II. It also induced euphoric feelings. By the 1980s, biker gangs on the West Coast were using meth after they discovered it could be made with household products, including the key ingredient ephedrine, or pseudoephedrine, which is found in many cold medicines.

In the ensuing years, labs appeared in houses and trailers and garages across America.

By 2005, news of meth’s ravages were on display in the national media.

As it happened, Holcomb was more concerned with opioids, which hadn't yet been declared an epidemic. She learned about addiction when her doctor stopped giving her Percocet, the opioid prescribed for the softball injury. The doctor, she says, had never told her how bad the pills were, or rather, how good they would make her feel, how they'd grip her.

At least I'm not doing meth, Holcomb told herself as she turned to heroin, an opiate and common substitute for opioids.

Newsweek declared meth “America’s Most Dangerous Drug.” It was so widespread that newspapers used the term “Meth Capital of the World” to describe no less than 70 locations across the country, according to Nick Reding’s best-selling book, “Methland.” Labs, which use volatile chemicals, seemed to be literally exploding everywhere and burning people to death. Cookers showed up at pharmacies and plunked huge amounts of cold medicine down at check-out counters.

A Georgia meth user being examined by a dentist in 2007.(Kimberly Smith / AJC staff)

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Pak was an assistant prosecutor in the Atlanta U.S. Attorney’s Office and says he watched meth become “king” in the district, taking the throne from cocaine.

Congress and state lawmakers across the U.S. set out to legislate away the epidemic by making it drastically harder to buy cold medicine, especially in large quantities.

“The legislation worked,” Pak says. “It worked.”

In the GBI's 2010 analysis, alprazolam, or Xanax, was the most common drug found in the system of drug overdose victims. The statistics don't include deaths from Gwinnett, Cobb, Fulton or DeKalb, where data is tracked differently.

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In the next few years, the national conversation died down as the number of domestic labs plummeted. For the most part, the only American cookers left were making small batches, prosecutors recall.

But the industry was building back up, this time in Mexico. The government there also made the ingredients harder to get, only to have the cartels import them from China and India, authorities say.

Soon, the cartels were increasing production at “superlabs,” experts say, and a flood was coming for America.

‘It’s everywhere’

By 2010, Holcomb had been a heroin addict for several years. She worked at restaurants and frequently got fired, she says, because she always seemed to be late. She felt dragged down by the opiate. She needed more energy.

So she turned to meth.

The first hit had the desired effect: euphoria, energy pulsing through her body. She rose from lounging endlessly in her recliner and felt she could live again.

But after a few days, she was ashamed. She’d done the dirty drug; she felt dirty. She turned on the faucet, took soap in her hands and scrubbed. Her eyes told her there was nothing there, that chemicals bounding in her brain couldn’t be washed away with soap on her hands. But she couldn’t stop scrubbing.

As time passed, more consequences came. She felt rage, had too much energy. She screamed. She started shoplifting. Once, she thought she’d slip in and out of a store undetected, but got caught and later discovered she’d never left. She’d been wandering around the store for hours.

When she found out she was pregnant, she faced a choice.

Holcomb says she managed to sober up to have her son in early 2014. But she had never dealt with the self-doubt that had facilitated her drug use. She faced postpartum depression. She went back to meth to cope. She thought the energy would help her be a better mother.

Meth was getting cheaper and more plentiful, fast.

Back in 2005, her friends from school might’ve paid $200 for a gram. In 2015, a user could get about seven grams for that in Gwinnett, as Holcomb remembers. But she was friendly with dealers and got it even cheaper.

The cartels were shipping the drug out in liquid form, which is easier to conceal during smuggling. Think water bottles, fire extinguishers, mason jars.

The Drug Enforcement Administration recovered four gallons of liquid methamphetamine on I-85 near the airport Wednesday. (Credit: Channel 2 Action News)

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The liquid goes to “conversion labs,” often run out of houses, where it’s turned into crystal. Metro Atlanta is home to most of the state’s conversion labs, says Jamie Jones, special agent in charge of the GBI’s Southeastern Regional Drug Enforcement Office in Statesboro. He says dealers from across Georgia and the Southeast get supply from these labs.

“It’s everywhere,” he says.

In Middle Georgia, for instance, crack cocaine, which used to be popular, has become extremely hard to find, Jones says. But meth, a natural replacement since it’s also a stimulant, abounds.

Jones’ agents see it wrecking countless lives.

In Holcomb’s case, it nearly ended hers.

Competing epidemics

The opioid epidemic, of course, deserves attention. Opioids are still involved in more deaths than any other drug type in Georgia. But data suggests that meth, even now at its new historic height, is a growing crisis.

From 2011 to 2016, the Drug Enforcement Agency found the average price per gram in the U.S. fell from $98 to $58, though Holcomb recalls the drug being even cheaper in Georgia. Meanwhile purity rose from 85.5 to 93.5 percent, making it stronger and deadlier.

This comes at a time when lawmakers and authorities are cracking down on opioids, sometimes leaving people who’ve become addicted turning to other substances. The GBI says overdose victims are increasingly dying with meth and prescription drugs — often opioids — in their systems.

Both meth and heroin can cause heart failure, and Holcomb was testing the limits in February 2015.

Her boyfriend kept threatening to keep their son away if she didn’t stop using. Sometimes, he would find Holcomb passed out in her recliner. Sometimes, washing her hands over and over, her knuckles dry and cracking.

On Feb. 24, she’d been up for five days on meth and heroin when she dozed in the chair. She hardly had a pulse when her boyfriend found her.

Paramedics gave her Narcan, which can reverse opiate overdose, and she came to. At the hospital, drugs fell out of her clothes and staff told police. She ended up at the Gwinnett County jail.

She entered the county’s drug court program and moved into a halfway house. Nine months after her overdose, she and a friend from the halfway house relapsed.

Three months later, the same friend overdosed and died.

Holcomb knew it could’ve been her.

Will it ever end?

The path forward to combat the latest meth crisis is hazy.

Pak, who became the Atlanta U.S. Attorney in 2017, expects it to get worse before it gets better. He looks at the American meth problem not as a disease that can be cured, but one that must be managed.

The way to do that, he and other officials say, is to cut the supply by going after high-level distributors and their organizations. People ask him if it’s hopeless, because the supply comes from outside the U.S.

“If there was no enforcement,” Pak says, “this problem would be 100-fold.”

After Holcomb’s friend’s death, she didn’t use again. She confronted that “less than” feeling. She prayed. She dieted and got healthier. She went to Narcotics Anonymous. She and her boyfriend are raising their son, 4, together.

Holcomb refers to her drug period as “death” and her sobriety as “life.” She knows she is among the lucky. She knows many die from meth or stay addicted for decades.

She works for Navigate Recovery, a Lawrenceville non-profit. One of her duties is to go to emergency rooms to talk to overdose patients, to relay her own experience.

“There is life after death,” she tells them.

The program focuses on opioid overdoses. She knows the temptation to go back to escaping with pills, that it is easier. She knows if the patients feel slowed down by painkillers, they can easily find meth to reinvigorate themselves.

She tells them to keep in touch, even if they aren’t ready to stop yet.

Tori Holcomb last month.

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