Thought Heroin Was Bad? Well, There's A New Demon In Town, And It's Caught Everyone By Surprise
Crystal Meth Produces Schizophrenia-Like Symptoms
Jake remembers the first time he saw the army people. High on crystal meth, he was well into his third day without sleep. Along with the boundless energy and heightened sense of alertness came the mind-bending hallucinations.
"One day I was so delusional... There were these trees on top of this overpass, and they looked like army people, dressed up with guns, marching down," the 19-year-old says between faint smiles and sips of strong coffee. "It was in the middle of the day, and I asked this truck driver, 'What's with all those army people?' He just looked at me. He was, like, 'What?' It was actually fun for me. I enjoyed the hallucinations."
But Jake started to notice that those visions kept happening even when he wasn't using meth, aka speed, glass, jib, crank, shards, and peanut butter. That's when he started getting scared.
"When the symptoms don't go away after you do it, it's no fun. That's when you know you're kinda hooped."
Jake is sitting in a hotel coffee shop in Tsawwassen on a deadly hot summer morning. He's just called local psychiatrist Bill MacEwan, asking for a refill of his antipsychotic and antidepressant medication. He'll take anything to counter the paranoia and delusions that continue to poison his thinking. Jake wasn't always so anxious. But that was years ago, before he started using crystal meth.
The soft-spoken youth started using cocaine when he was 13. He switched to meth at 16, looking for something more powerful, a high that would enable him to stay up for parties that lasted days. That's one of meth's draws: you don't sleep. Then there's the hallucinatory effect. Jake would think a group of people was standing in front of him. He'd walk up to them, only to see the figures dissolve before his eyes into the bushes they really were.
Wearing a baseball cap, baggy pants, and loose shirt, Jake shifts his tired chestnut eyes away when he talks about his methamphetamine addiction. He doesn't want his name printed, although his parents and friends are well aware of the dark place he's in.
"The paranoia kicked in," Jake says. "I'd be so lonely and paranoid. It was a horrible feeling....I'd be looking out my window every five minutes to see if someone was out there. The trees I had always seen looked like people. I was so freaked out one night; I swear to God there were people out there. I hopped out my window in my boxer shorts looking for these people. I couldn't find them, so I got dressed and walked around the block looking for people in bushes. Thank God my parents caught on."
Meth is an extremely dangerous drug. It's cheap, highly addictive, easily accessible, and can be made at home, providing you have toxic chemicals like Drano and battery acid on hand. It can cause structural changes to the brain and induce psychotic symptoms that resemble those of schizophrenia: paranoia, disorganized thinking, delusions, and impaired memory. In some people, those effects will never go away, even long after they stop using.
It's also Vancouver's new demon.
The city's problem is so extreme that last November, on their own initiative, about 120 people from a vast range of professions and interests formed a group called the Methamphetamine Response Committee. It consists of psychiatrists, doctors, nurses, social workers, cops, and bureaucrats. There are representatives from high schools, custody centres, and safe homes, and users themselves. They all say meth use in town has risen dramatically over the last two years. And they're worried.
If the very existence of MARC doesn't speak to the urgency of Vancouver's problem, perhaps Steven Smith does. He's program coordinator of Dusk to Dawn, the street-youth resource centre run by Family Services of Greater Vancouver. It's located in a rundown building at the back of St. Paul's Hospital and offers food, showers, and lockers for kids under 22. Teens can't use drugs in the centre, but they're not turned away if they're high.
"Every single social-services agency has had to sit down in the last year and say, 'Meth has affected us. We have to talk about this,'" Smith explains in his office. "Everyone's on a fast-track learning curve. There's not a whole lot of information out there. There's no denying there's a meth epidemic, and we don't have the resources to address it. I think it caught everyone by surprise."
Meth came to prominence during the Second World War, when Japan, Germany, and the United States gave the drug to military personnel to increase endurance. Later, doctors prescribed it to treat depression, obesity, and heroin addiction. Illicit laboratories emerged in San Francisco in the 1960s, and from there it spread up and down the Pacific Coast. In the '80s came a new method of the drug's production, which led to crystal meth, a crystallized, smokable, and even more potent form of MA. Now, no city or town seems free of meth's tentacles. News stories are emerging about the drug's prevalence in places like Smoky Lake, Alberta; New York City; and the state of Hawaii.
According to the World Health Organization, methamphetamine is the most widely used illicit drug in the world after cannabis.
On local turf, there are countless youths who hang out downtown, like Jake used to, and spend as little as $5 for a high whose effects can last days. The Granville-Davie corridor is notorious for meth. It's the drug of choice for street kids: because it keeps users awake, they can guard their stuff at night; the drug also saps their desire to eat, which is convenient for those with no cash for food.
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