Methamphetamine use surges in Oregon again

The Register-Guard, Nov. 18, 2015

Nate Mart

Nate Mart

To the outside world, Nate Mart had his life together.

He attended Southern Oregon University; he played football; he had a job.

But Mart kept a secret: He was an addict — smoking pot, drinking alcohol and using cocaine.

Every dollar he made working different odd jobs he spent on drugs. And as his need for drugs increased, cocaine became too expensive.

So he turned to methamphetamine.

“As a stimulant, it’s the strongest, and it instantly overtook everything,” he said. “I was working just to use drugs. I didn’t care about anything. Two weeks of pay was gone in eight hours.”

Mart said he eventually stole money from his parents and then from his employer to help pay for his addiction. He was caught, arrested and eventually spent two years in prison on theft charges — something he now says was “the best thing that could have ever happened” because that’s where he turned his life around.

Now clean and sober for nearly 10 years, Mart uses his own experience to help others with drug addiction as he works toward his master’s degree at Northwest Christian University in Eugene. He also works as an outpatient manager at Serenity Lane, the Eugene-based alcohol and drug treatment center.

While opiate addiction — which often begins with prescription pills and leads to heroin use — is the most common drug addiction Mart currently sees at Serenity Lane, he calls meth a scary drug that’s taking a toll as it makes an apparent comeback.

Some law enforcement authorities, researchers and prosecutors use other words to describe the rising use of methamphetamine: it’s an epidemic.

The exact level of meth use in any given community is hard to quantify, given that arrests happen infrequently and reveal only a small population of users. Arrests of users and dealers can also depend on how much effort a given law enforcement agency devotes to cracking down on the problem.

But according to an annual report released by the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, task forces within Oregon — including the Lane County Interagency Narcotics Enforcement Team — seized more than three times the amount of methamphetamine in 2014 than they did in 2007.

Last year alone, 578 pounds of crystal meth were seized in Oregon.

“There’s more methamphetamine available now than when I first started doing this in 2002,” said Erik Fisher, an Oregon State Police detective who serves as president of the Oregon Narcotic Enforcement Association. “Then, for a dealer to have a couple ounces of meth, that seemed like a big case for us. And now, it seems like everybody has ounces.”

On average, the street price for a quarter of a gram of crystal meth is around $20, or $80 for a full gram, according to several online sources, including

A pound of methamphetamine in Eugene can cost from $9,000 to $16,500, depending on quality and purity, according to Narcotic News.

Manufacturing down

It wasn’t supposed to work out this way. The manufacturing of methamphetamine, after all, has plummeted in Oregon in recent years — ever since a state mandate required pharmacies to demand ID cards and prescriptions from customers trying to buy any medicine that contains pseudophedrine, a key ingredient in the making of meth.

Oregon became the first state to require a prescription for pseudo­phedrine with the Legislature’s passage of House Bill 2485, which went into effect in 2006. The Oregon law was specifically intended to curtail the manufacture of methamphetamine, and it seems to have done that in impressive fashion.

The number of “incidents” involving meth-making labs in Oregon — in which a lab was closed or chemicals and glassware were seized — has declined dramatically, from 448 in 2004 to nine in 2013, according to the federal trafficking report, citing the Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association and state police.

Prior to the Legislature’s action, the Oregon Board of Pharmacy in 2004 had made it mandatory that anyone purchasing medication containing pseudophedrine show photo identification. Those medications, including Sudafed, were kept behind the counter and could be sold only in restricted amounts.

A few months later, an additional rule required pharmacies to keep a log of each sale. That simple step, according to the Oregon Alliance for Drug-Endangered Children, produced a dramatic reduction in methamphetamine lab incidents.

Imported drugs

But now, the drug instead is being imported into Oregon from places like Mexico, or from California and other states. Nearly six times as much meth was confiscated from drivers on Oregon highways in 2014 — 266 pounds — than in 2008, when 41 pounds were confiscated, according to the federal trafficking report.

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant that is abused for its euphoric and stimulant effects. Chronic meth abusers exhibit violent behavior, confusion, insomnia and psychotic characteristics, such as hallucinations and paranoia. Statewide, methamphetamine is regarded as the region’s most serious drug threat, according to the federal program’s annual report.

Methamphetamine doesn’t only contribute to drug-related arrests: it is the most linked contributor to violent crime and property crime.

More than 60 percent of law enforcement officers in Oregon identify meth as a drug that serves as a primary funding source for major criminal activity, according to the federal report. That’s because addicts often resort to crime to support their drug habit.

For example, in the first 12 days of November, 44 people have been booked into the Lane County Jail on charges related to possession or use of methamphetamine. Of those, 23 were booked on charges alleging another crime, including theft — the most common secondary offense — as well as trespassing, robbery and driving under the influence of intoxicants.

Difficult to quantify

While Fisher, who leads the Lane County Interagency Narcotics Enforcement Team, has no doubt that meth’s use is on the rise, he said it’s hard to quantify the extent of that increase.

“I don’t really look at arrest statistics, because those are really driven by how many people you have working” in law enforcement in any year, and what level of priority is placed on battling drug use, Fisher said.

As an example, Fisher recalled that when Oregon State Police sustained major budget cuts in 2003-04, “we went from 20-some drug detectives in the state to four. So drug arrests seemingly go down, but what’s driving the reduction in those arrests? Is it lack of cops or lack of criminals?”

In both Eugene and Springfield, the number of arrests for methamphetamine possession has climbed in recent years.

In 2011, Eugene police made 368 such arrests, compared with 588 in 2013. That decreased slightly to 556 arrests last year, but that’s still nearly 200 more than in 2011.

Eugene police report that the largest percentage of those arrested for methamphetamine possession are in their 20s — 36 percent. The second largest age group is in their 30s, making up 29 percent of all arrests. More than 1 in 5 — 22 percent — are in their 40s.

Springfield police also report a bump in arrests for possession of methamphetamine, reaching 399 last year, compared with 245 in 2011. Police in Springfield have already made more than 300 such arrests this year.

Rather than arrests, Fisher says he pays more attention to what drives the market — price, purity and availability. And he says the scales tip between heroin and methamphetamine as the most popular and most used illegal drugs in the state.

In Fisher’s view, using methamphetamine and distributing the drug are two different things — which is why he and the rest of the narcotics enforcement team focus on the latter. Even so, it’s nearly impossible to avoid seeing the users and how the drug has so dramatically affected their lives.

“We target drug traffickers and the (drug) organization,” he said. “We focus on who we think are the bigger dealers, the bigger organizations. It’s not effective if we arrest people for possession for user amounts of methamphetamine and fill the jail with them, because it doesn’t get them into treatment, it doesn’t change their problem. All we do is plug the system.”

Instead, detectives try to “strategically investigate and arrest people who are prolific and have a bigger impact. That’s kind of our strategy for how we work cases.”

Distribution networks

Last year, the enforcement team arrested a number of alleged distributors, stemming from an investigation into an address on C Street in Springfield.

Cercensiano “Chris” Gonzalez, 40, was already on parole for previous convictions of drug distribution when he and two others were busted at the residence in September 2014 for possession and delivery of methamphetamine.

Before he was sentenced, however, Gonzalez was out of jail awaiting trial. He was pulled over in April by police and again found in possession of an ounce of meth and a small amount of cocaine, police said.

Arrested with Gonzalez during the 2014 bust were Robert Joseph Londo and Bryn Caitlin Eichengreen, both 32. Londo also was on parole at the time of his arrest, and was sentenced to five years for meth distribution; Eichengreen pleaded guilty in April and is in the state Drug Court’s jurisdiction to oversee her treatment.

Gonzalez ultimately received a prison sentence of nearly 14 years. Police say his sentence reflects a recent trend of removing Lane County’s worst drug trafficking offenders from the community for long periods of time.

Other lengthy sentences include a 10-year sentence handed down to Stephanie Ann Gustine, 52, in April 2014 for her role in distributing methamphetamine in Lane County; a 15-year sentence given to Marcus Owen Hatridge, 26, in January for distributing heroin; a 10-year sentence given to Jason Michael Davis, 44, in March for his role in distributing methamphetamine; and a 15-year sentence given to Philip Howard Brown, 57, for distributing heroin.

Fisher said the biggest case he can recall during his time with the narcotics team happened in 2012 with the seizure of 52 pounds of crystal meth from a “stash” house in Springfield.

Meth comeback

Mart said when he first started his work at Serenity Lane five years ago, he saw meth addicts almost exclusively. Opiates then began to dominate, though Mart believes he’s seeing meth creep back up in popularity. He estimates that 20 to 40 percent of those who seek treatment at Serenity Lane are hooked on methamphetamine. Most of the rest are addicted to opiates or alcohol, he said.

Mart and Fisher come from very different places when it comes to assessing the scourge of meth addiction. But they agree on a common thread: People addicted to drugs often feel trapped and deserve grace.

“We’re all human, we all have flaws and make mistakes. That’s just the way it is,” Fisher said. “But I think there’s a huge message of treating everybody (like) they are human. And having compassion and grace and walking alongside somebody who’s got a drug problem and seeing what we can do to fix it.

“Let’s be real, there are some people who don’t want to be fixed,” Fisher said. “And that’s why we separate the user population from the dealer and distributor population.”

Also, Fisher said, distinctions can be made about the motivation of dealers: “You can have an addict who sells to support their habit, or you have the distributor who sells for profit and gain.”

Mart said he tries to remind families and friends of those struggling with meth or other drug addictions that the user is caught up in a personal hell.

“They need help,” Mart said. “They’re not bad people for using drugs; they’re sick.”