"Never make coffee in a cheap hotel room," the cop tells me. "Because at one time, someone probably used the pot to cook meth."
That one statement sums up the prevalence of a modern American scourge, but until I talked to addicts, I didn't fully understand the problem of meth addiction.
Bill Weir's piece on the Montana Meth Project marks the launch of our series "Key to Success" -- to show creative solutions to entrenched problems in this country. Have a solution to share? Post suggestions in the comment field on the right.
Sure, I've been to my share of parties, talked to more than a few "pharmaceutical majors" and read plenty of Bukowski and Burroughs, but I've never heard people describe a drug with such simultaneous reverence and revulsion as the meth-heads in Montana, where a PSA campaign has helped reverse the prevalance of this drug. (To watch the videos, click here.)
"You feel like God," one young woman told me about her experience with the drug. Another described feeling "10 feet tall and bulletproof." She cracked a guilty smile when she spoke, and I was able to count her six remaining teeth.
Methamphetamine was invented in Japan in the late 1800s, and years later, the Nazis mixed it with chocolate to keep their pilots focused in battle. A graph charting American meth use looks like a hockey stick; a low plateau through the '60s and '70s that cranks skyward.
By the '90s, it was no longer a fringe weight loss aid or trucker's buddy. It became a smokeable, snortable, shootable party drug that has devastated rural America.
Why here? For years, it was cheap — and everywhere. Unlike cocaine, heroin or marijuana, meth is not grown but mixed; a witches brew of cold medicine, antifreeze, drain cleaner and other store-bought or farm-pilfered chemicals.
One needs only time to cook it, and space to mask the fumes. The American West has plenty of space, along with plenty of small-town kids eager to experiment on a slow Saturday night.
But calling meth addictive is like calling water wet. As it floods the brain with dopamine and serotonin, it also explodes the vesicles that receive these pleasure-producing hormones in the future.
Soon, the only way for a user to experience joy is with more meth. "If someone tells you they're a recreational user, they're full of crap," a veteran drug cop told me with a wry laugh. What begins as recreation often ends in soul-crushing depression and physical decay.
Meth mouth — caused by an addict's poor hygiene and grinding teeth — is a tell-tale clue, along with Parkinson's-type shaking and self-inflicted scabs and scrapes.
In Montana, where there are more mountains than malls, hikers would find empty Sudafed boxes, piles of batteries and the smell of ammonia in the air.
New laws made those ingredients harder to come by, so makeshift labs are scarcer than ever, and the once-cheap drug is now as expensive as cocaine.
A trip to the Great Falls jail provided a vivid display of this human horror show.
The sheriff estimates that 80 percent of the people crammed inside are there because of meth. Fifty percent of the kids in foster care were taken from meth-using parents, and it costs the state $100 million per year.
When the problem became obvious, legislators scrambled to cut off the supply for those who mixed the drug, putting Sudafed behind the counter and cracking down on the sale of other ingredients.