Cranked Up

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With more young people getting caught in the maelstrom of methamphetamine abuse, school and community leaders are struggling to come to their rescue.

If it hadn't been for the help of her high school counselor, Charla Witcher believes, crank would have killed her.

Though she's been clean for more than a year, the 18-year-old senior at Natrona County High School still wakes up every morning with scars on her arms and cravings for the drug—physical remnants of a powerful addiction that turned this middle-class teenager into a dropout, a vandal, and a burglar before she finally broke the choke-hold that methamphetamine had on her life.

She visits Jim Johnson's tiny office on the third floor of the high school once a week, sometimes more, in an effort to stay straight.

"I want to help people the way Jim helps people," says Witcher, who hopes to go to college to become a teacher after she graduates this year. "In a way, he saved my life."

While Witcher's story is dramatic, it is by no means unique in Casper, a commercial hub of 45,000 residents in the center of a rural state with three times as many cattle as people. Like their counterparts in many other towns in the West and Midwest, community leaders here have been working to conquer escalating methamphetamine use over the past several years. While meth, or "crank," as it is commonly known, is still mostly abused by adults in their 20s and 30s, law-enforcement and school officials say the potent stimulant has found its way into the hands of many teenagers—often with devastating results.

"This stuff is so strong and so debilitating that kids who use it go downhill so quickly," says Wayne Beatty, the safe-schools administrator for the 12,000-student Natrona County district. "They drop out of school and end up in the criminal-justice system.

"With counselors trained in how to deal with substance-abuse issues in every high school and junior high, and education programs that tell teachers how to spot early signs of drug use, district officials here say they are working to get help as quickly as they can to the students who need it. Local instructors for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, program and other teachers also talk about meth during drug education classes. They hope students will steer clear of the drug once they learn about its consequences.

While marijuana and alcohol are still far more popular with young people here, school officials say methamphetamine use—even among a relatively low percentage of students—is simply too destructive to ignore."

Meth gets a hold of kids, and by the time you find out, they're very harmfully involved," says Patricia Silva, a nurse at Natrona County High School. "It's a very rapid downward spiral."

Charla Witcher knows all about such downward spirals. She says she started experimenting with marijuana at age 13, then graduated to meth two years later when her father introduced her to the drug.

She watched him shoot up in front of her, she recalls, and wanted to experience it herself.

"It was a really neat high at first—you did it and it was just this explosive amount of energy," Witcher says. "My Dad's philosophy was if I was going to do it, and I did it in front of him, it was OK."

Attempts to reach Witcher's father for comment were unsuccessful.But the early highs soon plunged into crippling lows, and by the time she was 16, Witcher was doing meth nearly every day just to get out of bed in the morning. Without it, her body ached and even everyday tasks became difficult. She was working with her counselor, Johnson, at the time, but became concerned that teachers and fellow students knew too much about her drug use. She dropped out of school.

Though she is almost 6 feet tall, Witcher dropped to 120 pounds, and her skin turned gray.

‘As a parent, you sit there and think, ‘Is she alive or is she dead?’’

Elene Medicraft
Charla Witcher's mother

She began stealing from family and friends to support her habit, and later burglarized a local antiques store, intending to hawk the wares in Denver so she could buy more meth. Arrested for the crime, she then broke her probation agreement and ran away from Casper with a boyfriend and another friend.

Witcher's mother, who is divorced from her father, said the time when her daughter was missing was perhaps the hardest of all.

"You don't sleep," says Elene Medicraft, who works as a computer clerk at the high school. "As a parent, you sit there and think, 'Is she alive or is she dead?' I really thought I was going to get a call in the spring, when the ranchers do their fence lines, and hear that they had found her body."

She got a call from her daughter instead. Witcher had been abandoned by her traveling partners across the state in Rock Springs and wanted to come home. When she arrived, she was arrested and sentenced to attend the Wyoming Girls' School, a correctional facility for juvenile offenders. She stayed drug-free during the nine months she was there, but slipped up after she was home for a month and exposed to her old life. Johnson and her mother and teachers held a meeting with Witcher to intervene, and she got the message. She says she has been clean ever since.

"Every day I wake up with the pain and the memories," says Witcher, who has served on several local panels in an effort to educate community members about the drug. "I try to make them understand what it does to people."

Wyoming law-enforcement officials say that the current wave of methamphetamine use first reared its head in this community and elsewhere in 1993, though it is hardly a new phenomenon. The drug once carried the street name of crystal meth, or "ice," and was also popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Crank is a powdery upper that can be injected, snorted, smoked, or even eaten—options that make the drug more socially acceptable to users who wish to steer clear of needles.

Part of meth's appeal to some young people is that the drug works by stimulating the nervous system like cocaine, making people at first feel euphoric, capable, and full of life. Users can initially stay up all night and still function and concentrate the next day, even perform better on tests than they did while not using it, said Dr. Berton J. Toews, a local psychiatrist who serves on the Natrona County district's safe- and drug-free schools advisory panel.

"It's an incredibly powerful drug," Toews says. "There's probably nothing in the world that feels better than your first use of coke or meth."

But unlike a cocaine high, which lasts for a couple of hours at most, a crank high often lasts for a full eight to 14 hours. In addition, the drug initially enhances sexual feelings and works as an appetite-suppressant—a side effect of the drug that makes it alluring for body-conscious young women who would do just about anything to lose weight.

Johnson remembers a girl who thinned down significantly in the early stages of a meth habit, and feared that stopping her use of the drug would bring the pounds back."

She said, 'I do meth because guys like me now that I'm so skinny,' " Johnson says. "Two weeks later, she was gone. She just dropped out."

Methamphetamine is also much cheaper to buy than cocaine and some other drugs. For just $60 a gram, "you can be up night and day," says Bryan Gimbel, an 18-year-old who attends the district's Rebound School, an alternative program for students who can't attend traditional high schools for disciplinary or personal reasons. "Last summer, I probably slept just three weeks out of the whole summer."

And though the drug is perhaps not as easy to come by as alcohol, students here say they don't have to look too long or far to find it.

Sabrina Schossow, an 18-year-old attending the Rebound School, says many students see meth as a natural next step when they want to get high more cheaply and quickly than they can with marijuana."After pot, you do crank," says Schossow. "There's usually somebody who knows somebody who knows how to get it."

State officials say their efforts to beat back the onslaught of meth are made more challenging because the drug takes multiple routes into communities and into dealers' hands.

Wyoming's wide open spaces and blustery winds make it fertile ground for meth production.

Much of the local meth supply is imported to the state from California and Mexico. But the drug can also be cooked up easily by local dealers, who can buy several hundred dollars' worth of such ingredients as over-the-counter cold or asthma medicine, drain cleaner, battery acid, and iodine to produce several thousand dollars' worth of meth. Recipes for the drug are widely available on the Internet. And while meth labs might be more readily detectable in densely populated areas—the cooking process emits a strong stench similar to that of cat urine—Wyoming's wide open spaces and blustery winds make it fertile ground for meth production.

"You can be a high school dropout at age 16 and cook up $500 worth of crank for $20 in materials and make a pretty good living," says Carol Eckstrom Hardy, the supervisor of New Horizons, a local residential drug-treatment center. "And here, you can drive up and down the interstate and cook it in the back of a van if you want to. It's been done."

Wyoming's law-enforcement agents have clamped down on meth dealers and producers over the past several years. They expect to break up at least 50 meth labs throughout the state this year, compared with only two such busts in 1997. In addition, state lawmakers recently approved a $5.5 million anti-meth initiative for the upcoming biennial budget cycle, most of which will go toward treatment and prevention education.Schools and other community organizations must play a role in decreasing the demand for the drug, state leaders say, if the state is ultimately to win its war on meth."

If you don't cut the demand, you don't solve the problem," says Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer. "Schools are among the first to know if something is wrong with kids. Parents are among the last to know."

To that end, the state division of law enforcement is now piloting a comprehensive, multiyear life-skills curriculum that addresses methamphetamine and other drugs. State officials say they hope the program will fill the gaps left by DARE programs, like the one in Natrona County, that serve students in only one grade."You can't expect that a 16-week program will be enough to keep a kid off of drugs for life," says Thomas J. Pagel, the director of the state's criminal-investigation division. "It has to be a consistent message that builds from year to year."

Beatty of the Natrona County district acknowledges the limitations of the DARE program, in which local police officers talk to 6th graders about the dangers of drug use. But he says the school system's program is strengthened by the fact that drug education is also woven into life-skills education in other grades. When districts believe that all they need is DARE, he says, they're setting themselves up for failure.

Timothy McIntire, an officer with the Casper Police Department who teaches DARE classes at five elementary schools, says he often brings in popular 9th graders who don't use drugs or alcohol at parties to serve as role models for the 6th graders. He also discusses meth, using a display board to show students what the drug looks like and describing its toxic ingredients and crushing impact on users. Because meth overstimulates and thereby weakens the heart, users run the risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke long after they've stopped using the drug.

"It's out there, it's easy to get, and it's just so addictive," McIntire says. "We even have junior high school students using it. That's the really scary thing."

Thomas James, a 17-year-old junior at the Rebound School, sees the district's DARE program as a waste of time and money. Providing information about drugs to students interested in doing them, he says, is only going to pique their curiosity.

"The thing that DARE does is give kids a selection," he argues. "It's like a menu for drugs."

But at the Wyoming Girls' School, where 59 percent of the school's 90 students say they have used meth in the past, 17-year-old Tara says she never knew what exactly crank was when she was doing it—and that the information might have made a difference to her."

I cannot believe I smoked that stuff and shot it into my veins," says Tara, whose 25-year-old then-boyfriend supplied her with the drug when she was 16.

Her classmate, 17-year-old Erica, agrees. School administrators requested that the girls' last names not be used.

"I never even heard about meth when I was young," says Erica, who started using the drug when she was 12. "I think if younger kids had information on it, it might get them to think."

Natrona County school officials say that teachers—who have regular contact with students but lack the emotional involvement that can skew parents' perceptions—are in an ideal position to recognize drug use in teenagers and intervene while it is still in the early stages.

The district is working to increase the possibility of such interventions by offering a five-evening course several times a year for teachers on how to recognize potential drug abuse by students. Teachers can sign up for the voluntary 3 1/2-hour classes to fulfill professional-development requirements or gain college credit.

In one recent session, Beatty brought in a panel of students who were knowledgable about drug use in the community to talk about the scope of the problem among Casper's teenagers. The 54-year-old safe-schools administrator, whom many characterize as a powerful force behind the district's drive to combat substance abuse generally and methamphetamine use in particular, also leads a session specifically focusing on crank. He tells teachers to look for common side effects that meth users—sometimes known as "tweakers"—often share: rapid weight loss; unusual acne, welts, or skin blemishes; and erratic or cranky moods. He acknowledges that this last symptom can be tricky to distinguish from typical adolescent behavior.

‘The hardest thing I have to deal with is the indifference of parents and the denial kids have about their abuse.’

Jim Johnson,
Natrona County High School

Teachers who spot signs of drug use are encouraged to talk to school administrators about their suspicions.

"We need to make those connections so that everyone is helping and watching, and everyone is responsible," says Stan Olson, the district's superintendent.

Despite such efforts, the district has rarely cracked down on students for possessing meth, or being under its influence. Last school year, by contrast, the district took action against 114 students for having or using marijuana in school, and 69 students for using alcohol. Only one student was reported for meth, and there were just three meth-related reports the year before.

But district administrators say such numbers don't reflect what they hear anecdotally about meth use, and know about it from state statistics. Recent school surveys show that meth use among students in Wyoming is approximately three times the national average, says Page l of the state division of criminal investigation.

"It's easy for a district to hide its head or turn away in the face of information like that," Pagel says. "You have to give the Natrona County school district a lot of credit. They've been right out in front in dealing with this."

School officials typically suspend students they suspect of any drug use or possession during school hours, and they give parents information about arranging for a drug test if a student wishes to contest the school's charges. Students facing drug charges for the first time would not be suspended for more than 10 days, and then would be given a chance to correct their behavior.

By referring suspected drug users to in-school counselors who meet with such students regularly and confidentially, district officials also say they are working to treat substance abuse as more of a health concern than a disciplinary matter.

The Natrona County district has a $320,000 annual contract with the Central Wyoming Counseling Center, a nonprofit organization, to provide 18 certified counselors to cover the district's 33 schools. The junior high schools and high schools have access to counselors on an almost full-time basis, while the elementary schools share the counselors' time. In an era when some districts are economizing by cutting counseling, Natrona County increased its budget for counseling services by 14 percent from fiscal 1998 to fiscal 1999. Beatty says the budget boost can be linked to the social ills students are increasingly dealing with at home that are "related to, but not exclusively tied to, meth use."

But while relationships like the one between Jim Johnson and Charla Witcher exemplify the good that can come from counseling programs, not every drug user will be reached that way. Johnson must get approval from the parents of students referred to him before he can sit down with them—a hurdle he says he can't always clear.

"The hardest thing I have to deal with is the indifference of parents and the denial kids have about their abuse," Johnson says. "There are kids here who are drug users who avoid me like the plague."

The district also gives students another therapeutic outlet for help: support groups. High school and junior high school teachers who have been trained to guide such sessions sit down with interested students in different groups one period a week, during school hours, to help them cope with such problems as depression and parents' divorces. The district pays substitutes to fill in for the teachers for that one period, in addition to covering the cost of the teachers' training.

The district's primary goal for the program is to connect students with adults and peers who care about them, says Silva, the school nurse, who coordinates the support-group program at Natrona County High, known as Student Assistance in Life, or SAIL.

Students who meet with Johnson for substance-abuse counseling later get together in the so-called recovery support group.

Though district leaders consider the 11-year-old SAIL program a success, they have learned not to expect cookie-cutter results.

Success in the substance-abuse small group might mean that a student didn't drop out this year, passed three out of six classes, or cut back on the amount of drugs he or she uses, Silva says. It is less likely to mean that a student has stopped using all drugs or alcohol—something she says is rare.

"Abstinence may not be everything," Silva suggests. "My yardstick for whether these groups are successful is if the kids keep coming. If the kids keep coming, they're getting something out of it."

But Tara and other former meth users at the girls' school say that even their local schools' best-intentioned efforts fell on deaf ears. If you're a teenager bent on numbing yourself with chemicals, they say, you're not likely to be interested in accepting help.

"I was approached by teachers several times," says Tara, whose physical reaction to the drug was so consuming that she sometimes chewed off pieces of her own tongue.

"I could have had all the help in the world," she says. "I just didn't choose to use it."

Vol. 19, Issue 37, Pages 36-41

Published in Print: May 24, 2000, as Cranked Up
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