Rural America Threatened by Twin Drug Epidemics: Opioids & Meth

By Paul Gaita 07/06/17

While the opioid epidemic has taken center stage, meth use is sharply rising in states such as Ohio, Wisconsin and Texas.

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Law enforcement and health officials in America's midwestern and southwestern states, whose resources are already taxed by combating the opioid epidemic in their regions, are facing a second and equally deadly drug threat from a resurgence in methamphetamine use.

Rural areas in Ohio, Texas and Oklahoma, among other states, are experiencing substantial increases in meth use among its residents; a study commissioned by Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel estimates that meth use has increased 250 to 300% between 2011 and 2015. With increased use also comes a host of other problems, from higher rates of overdose death and prison populations to spikes in HIV and child custody cases.

Schimel has compared the fight against both epidemics to a sinking boat, with police and treatment providers bailing out rising water as fast as they can. "But there's a big hole in the bottom, and it's only going to be patched with prevention," he said.

Though meth sales and distribution were initially curbed by the Combat Methamphetamine Act of 2005, which restricted the sale of over-the-counter cold medications like pseudoephedrine used to manufacture the drug, the closure of homegrown American meth labs like the ones depicted in Breaking Bad led to the rise of "superlabs" in Mexico, which mass-produced cheap, pure and extremely powerful meth that was smuggled into the country through its southwestern border and distributed to dealers in Middle America. 

The sudden influx led to a huge decrease in price, which in turn nearly doubled the number of meth users from 314,000 in 2008 to 569,000 in 2014. With those skyrocketing numbers also came increases in overdose deaths from meth—4,500 in 2015, up from 3,700 one year prior—as well as the amount of meth seized by state, federal and border officials, which rose from 7,063 kilograms in 2006 to 44,077 in 2015. Federal prison sentencing for meth offenses soon overtook penalties for all other drugs; in the south, Midwest and western states, meth offenders comprised the highest proportion of drug offenders in federal prison in 2015.

The destructive impact of meth upon communities in these regions—especially rural areas already struggling with financial woes from the loss of local industries and the decline of farming—has even trickled down to intensely personal levels. County Human Services departments in Wisconsin have reported almost untenable increases in the number of custody cases involving out-of-home placement for the child of parents with substance use issues. In some cases, government agencies have simply run out of homes to place these children.

As federal and state officials attempt to fight the meth and opioid epidemics on twin fronts, they are also discovering that users of one drug are also delving into the other. Authorities have already documented meth users adopting heroin as a means of blunting the impact of that drug's overpowering high, while heroin users have taken up meth use in the belief that they will face a lesser risk of overdose with that drug.

State officials like Schimel have found that tackling both problems may require a new approach that focuses on treatment, not incarceration. "We will not arrest our way out of a drug problem," he said. "We need to take on awareness and prevention in a powerful way. We need to look at treating AODA (Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse) issues just like treating cancer or any other medical issue."

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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.