Focus On Opioids Led To The Rise Of Meth In Western Kentucky

By Paul Gaita 05/02/18

"I think the prime reason we don't have an opioid problem here is because our people are addicted to meth," one sheriff said.

man sitting holding head in hands

While opioids continue to wreak havoc in the state of Kentucky, where overdose deaths among residents and non-residents in certain counties is five times the national level, one region finds itself under assault from another illicit substance: methamphetamine.

A report from the Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro, Kentucky—the fourth largest city in the Bluegrass State—found that meth continues to be the drug of choice for dependency and trafficking in the region.

Additionally, law enforcement has found instances of meth mixed with the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which creates a new and deadly factor in Kentucky's overdose death rate.

As David Thompson, director of the Pennyrile Narcotics Task Force, stated, "Meth is a big deal. It's dangerous and it's all over the place."

Opioids have a presence in the Owensboro region, but according to Sheriff Keith Cain, meth is the dominant drug in the area.

"People say, 'Why do you not have an opioid problem? Why does Daviess County not suffer the same problems?'" said Cain. "I'd like to say it's because of progressive police work. But I think the prime reason we don't have an opioid problem here is because our people are addicted to meth."

The drug has been allowed to flourish in Owensboro and other parts of western Kentucky for a number of reasons: education campaigns regarding the dangers of opioids appear to have had an effect on people who use drugs.

"I ask them about heroin, and they'll say, 'No, that stuff will kill you,'" said Trooper Corey King, public information officer for Kentucky State Police Post 16 in Henderson.

As a result, treatment facilities like RiverValley Behavioral Health have reported a drop in the number of opioid and heroin-related cases. But, as RonSonlyn Clark, director of substance abuse services at RiverValley, noted, "We are seeing an increase in meth," with as many as 35% of the clinic's clients reporting a dependency on the drug.

Police report that homegrown efforts to manufacture meth have decreased, but the drug remains present in the region due to the influence of large drug cartels. And funding to fight these operations is no longer an option, with the majority of state grants diverted to the opioid crisis.

"From 2000 to 2006 or 2007, a significant portion of our budget was methamphetamine grants," said Sheriff Cain. "Those funds started to dry up about the time we started to get a handle on the clandestine methamphetamine labs."

Adding fuel to the fire is an increase in the number of cases involving meth laced with fentanyl. The combination has already been reported in other counties, and punctures the abiding notion among users in the region that meth is "less dangerous" than opioids, or that somehow the two drugs would cancel each other out, since as the Messenger-Inquirer noted, meth is a stimulant and opioids are depressants. 

"They're not going to counter each other at all," said Trooper King. "The reality is, it's keeping your body addicted. People using meth do not even know opiates are playing on their brain receptor sites. For people who are slaves to these drugs, it's going to be extremely hard " for them to achieve abstinence from them, he noted.

There are also a host of health issues related to meth use, including convulsions, psychosis, increased risk of heart attacks and strokes, malnutrition and permanent damage to the brain, as well as increased risk of exposure to HIV and hepatitis if injected.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.