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A Killer Lurks In The Shadows

March 5, 2006
Commentary By Susan Campbell

Connecticut's shelters are at capacity now, and so are the ancillary emergency shelters set up to collect the overflow. But just off in the distance broils a menace that promises to blow through the state's carefully constructed homeless programs like a tidal wave through matchsticks.

If shelters are crowded now, it's not hard to predict what will happen after the wave hits.

Standing on the shore are shelter workers, substance-abuse counselors, law-enforcement officials and researchers watching the wave set in motion by the highly addictive street drug methamphetamine. They can see the wave. They can see their clients. And they can see the devastation already left in its wake in states that have been hit full-force. And while they are all sounding the alarm, they know that eventually the heavy lifting, the mopping up, will fall to them.

By most accounts, the meth frenzy, which started in Hawaii and has steadily moved east, has already hit full-force in the Midwest. The bulk of America's meth, and materials used in its production, now come from Mexico, and the wave continues to rush east. It's been in New York clubs for a while, and last month an East Hampton man was sentenced in what was thought to be one of Connecticut's first meth-related arrests.

Count on there being more.

No one wants to imagine what will happen when meth hits here, but Brian Baker, assistant director at Hartford's South Park Inn, says it will have a worse effect among the homeless population than crack cocaine had in the mid-'80s. When that particular scourge hit Hartford and the surrounding area, the shelters - many of them new and ill-equipped to deal with the problem - sagged under the weight of their new clientele. In some ways, there has been no catching up.

According to Merrill Singer, Hispanic Health Council research director, crack hit both coasts simultaneously in the '80s, with scant preparation by the people on the front lines. HIV arrived the same way, with little in the way of preventive public health policy to meet it.

No one wants a repeat of that.

Because as bad as crack was and is, meth is deadlier, its effects longer lasting, and it is fairly easily made in the privacy of your home. "Fairly easily," except a bad mix can combust, and the runoff is toxic.

The governor has suggested longer prison sentences and moving some materials that go into the mix - such as certain cold medicines - behind the counter at pharmacies. But the people closer to the ground say that's not the answer. Attacking the supply side of illegal drugs is never as effective as attacking the abuse aspect.

The answer, says Singer, who with others has tracked the drug's spread for 15 years, is education. If this is your brain (a fragile egg), then this is your brain on meth (a hole in the bottom of the frying pan where the toxic egg has eaten through, ignited the burners beneath it and destroyed the house).

In its purest form, meth is called ice because it looks like glass shards. Ice is 97 percent to 99 percent pure, and it can be addictive from the first try. Even in less pure forms, users say the effect is like a macabre dance with the toothless child of heroin and cocaine, combining the euphoria of one with the intensity of the other. And unlike other drugs, the long-term brain damage delivered by meth use appears to be irreversible. It can be shot, snorted, smoked or eaten.

In preparing for such an epidemic (another word public-health officials use when they describe meth), the best defense is a wicked offense. Potential users need to know what they are playing with. People like Baker and others who run shelters in Connecticut pray that works. In a shelter, there is only so much space in the hallways once the beds fill up.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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