Meth ‘Has Come Back With A Vengeance’ In Colorado

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Ben Markus/CPR News
Lisa Raville is the executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, Denver’s needle exchange program. She has seen meth’s rise and wants to inform users of its risks.

For 10 years Hunter Hobbs was a heroin user. That’s what was big in North Carolina where he’s from. Then he moved to Colorado, where methamphetamine was more widespread.

“It was everywhere, and it was very easy to get,” Hobbs said. “I would buy other drugs and the person I was buying them from would provide meth as well, just kind of give it to me.”

Meth is cheap. Hobbs has been sober for years now, but back when he did use, it only cost $20 to buy about a gram, enough for a day’s use. Today, he can see that Denver’s problem is getting worse just walking around downtown. It’s easy for him to spot the behavior. He can see it in the way a person moves or carries themselves.

“I can see it from a mile away,” Hobbs said.

Meth hasn’t grabbed headlines like opioids have, but it has flooded cities throughout the Southwest over the last five years. Law enforcement now says the region is in the midst of a meth crisis. Denver Police reported 1,468 possession arrests in 2018, a 217 percent spike since 2014. Meth possession arrests outnumber cocaine and heroin arrests combined in the city.

“The methamphetamine problem has come back with a vengeance,” said Jason Dunn, Colorado’s U.S. Attorney.

Dunn said methamphetamine is coming across the border from Mexico, carried by cartels. In fact, the cartels have gotten so good at production they’ve put domestic labs out of business. The cartels can utilize a global supply chain, import vast quantities of precursor chemicals from China and pump out meth on an industrial scale.

Law enforcement and the Mexican government have actually had some successes in taking down “huge production facilities,” Dunn said, but it hasn’t made a difference. Authorities have seen “no increase in price on the street in the U.S., or a drop in quantity.” 

Dunn said cartels have shown an extraordinary ability to open new facilities, especially since the production of meth doesn’t rely on harvested plants as heroin and cocaine do. They’ve also improved the potency and purity of the product. Meth seized during a recent, large bust in southwest Denver was 99 percent pure in lab tests.

The byproduct of that improved supply chain is a dramatic increase in deadly meth overdoses in Colorado.

“While we’re making some progress on the opioid front, we’re still losing ground on the methamphetamine front,” Dunn said.

In 2017, fatal meth overdoses exceeded heroin for the first time in a decade, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. All opioid overdose deaths combined, including fentanyl, heroin and prescription pills, still outnumber meth.

Some heroin users are actually switching to meth, “because they don’t think that you can overdose on stimulants, and you can absolutely overdose on stimulants,” said Lisa Raville, the executive director of the Harm Reduction Action Center, which is Denver’s needle exchange program.

Meth can be either injected or smoked. Raville said half of the people she sees use meth and half use heroin. Many, she added, use both. Meth overdoses “present a little different, more as a heart attack, stroke or seizure.” 

Raville wants to get those who come through the needle exchange better information about meth’s risks. She noted that stimulant overdoses are up in Denver and the state.  

Denver’s homelessness issues could also partly account for the city’s surge in meth possession arrests.

“When you’re unhoused, you’re very public and you’re always trespassing, and so obviously the first thing that’s probably going to happen is you’re going to come into contact with law enforcement,” she said. “They’re going to pat you down and you’re going to have some sort of possession.

Alongside the jump in possession arrests, law enforcement has found an increase in other types of crime, such as theft of items from cars. Hunter Hobbs said meth keeps you up and moving, and when he was using, petty crime was a part of the lifestyle.

“I know for myself,” Hobbs said. “I was just trying to take anything that wasn’t bolted down, to try to sell to somebody to support my habit.”

Hobbs was eventually arrested, and incarceration led to him to realize that he needed to get sober. Those experiences gave him an inside look at many of the problems that ail Denver.

“Drug use, crime, homelessness, mental health, it’s all kind of intertwined,” he said.

He said meth’s abundance and cheap price tag will make addressing any related issues more difficult.