Meth Use by Women on the Rise

When Kim Justice-Meyers' storybook life came crashing down and she decided she "wanted to go play," she didn't realize how much power her new toy had.

She'd lost her California plant nursery business, her home, her husband and then her father, and when some neighbors offered her some methamphetamine, she tried it and she liked it. Then it took over her life.

"I smoked some on a foil and I thought, 'Hey, that's pretty cool,'" she said. "It takes all the pain away. I wanted to go play. I didn't want to be respectable. I didn't want to feel anymore. I didn't want to be a mother anymore. I ended up saying I'm going to go away for a little bit, but that little bit turned into six months and then a year and then two years, then three years, then four years."

What she found was what a surprisingly high number of women put themselves in a position to learn -- that methamphetamine might seem like the answer to their problems, but quickly becomes a bigger problem than anything they faced before.

While government figures indicate that women make up less than one-third of the people who abuse most drugs, for meth it is more evenly divided between men and women.

According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report released in May, 45 percent of the patients admitted to state-licensed treatment centers for care in 2002 who said meth was their primary drug were women.

By contrast, women made up 33 percent of cocaine users, 31 percent of heroin users and 24 percent of marijuana smokers admitted for treatment, according to the Treatment Episode Data Set.

And meth use overall seems to be up, according to various indicators. For example, the number of people admitted for treatment for meth addiction rose from 1 percent of the total of all those entering treatment in 1992 to 7 percent of the total in 2002.

And the number of meth labs busted nationwide has risen steadily over the years, according to Justice Department figures.

In some states that have been hit particularly hard by meth, the percentage of women users is even higher than the national average. For example, in Montana, the state health department's Addiction and Mental Disorders Division reported that for the period July 2003-June 2004, women made up 49 percent of meth users in the state, up from 40 percent for the same period two years earlier.

"The drug addresses several issues that are central to many women, as well as the pressures brought to bear on women, both inside the home and outside the home," said Dr. Glen Hansen, director of the Utah Addiction Center and a senior adviser with the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

"It's got a triple benefit," he said. "You lose weight, and as we know to be beautiful you have to be emaciated. On top of that, you feel like you've got energy. And then the euphoria that comes with it. You view the world as being much more positive, and certainly view yourself much more positively. You feel like, 'I can do anything, I look great.' Those are the reinforcing effects of the drug. But those effects go away."

That feeling of being able to do anything is gradually replaced by the feeling that everyone is against you, your husband is cheating on you and your neighbors are plotting against you, Hansen said.

And in moderate to high doses, meth can affect the brain, creating the same kind of damage seen in victims of Parkinson's disease, he said.

Annette McCullough, 33, said she got started because "it made me not feel," which she wanted because she is bipolar.

"I didn't have to deal with everyday life," the mother of two said. "I felt energetic. I felt like I could do everything."

She said she realized how false that impression was when the local child protective services took her children away.

"My kids weren't abused physically by me, but they were abused mentally," she said. "They weren't in school, they weren't getting the attention they should get. I didn't think I was doing anything wrong. That was my awakening."

Justice-Meyer said she got into meth for the euphoria. She said she owned one of the largest nurseries in San Ramon, Calif., in the early 1990s, before a road construction project that dragged on for two years killed her business and then, in a one-week period, the bank took her business and house, and her husband left her.

She struggled to make ends meet and raise her four children for a year before her husband said he wanted to come back. But she said she soon realized he was "fooling around" on business trips, and they split up again.

This time, some neighbors suggested she try smoking some meth. She did and she liked it, but it wasn't until her father died a week later that she decided, as she said, that she "wanted to go play."

If she thought her life had hit bottom, she was wrong. Over the next four years she lost her children, saw countless friends arrested and even worked in an escort service.

Somehow, she felt she was managing to hold on to some self-respect, but admitted that maybe that was just an illusion.

"I had jobs. I did it once a day. I didn't rob or rip off people," she said. "I always thought I was a little higher than everybody else."

Then one day, two of her children came to visit her in the dive where she was living. They couldn't come up to her room because of how rundown and dirty the place was, she said, so they went out to lunch.

"I told them, 'Just love me. Don't try to change me,'" she said. "I went back to my room and it was ransacked. I fell down on my knees and said, 'God, I accept who I am. I accept that this is me.' And you know what? Within three months, I was in a clean and sober program."

Now she works with her twin sister, Karen Justice-Guard, in Safe Havens for Little People, a program to help former drug addicts and victims of domestic abuse, It was started in 1999 by Justice-Guard, herself a former drug addict and abuse victim.

Safe Havens currently has four houses for women and their children in the Concord, Calif., area. They are not for women in rehab, but for those who have been clean for at least 90 days.

The program is self-sufficient, supported by businesses -- a cafe, catering, a store, an aromatherapy products company, a plant nursery, a home mortgage company -- that also provide job training and employment opportunities for the women.

"We keep these women busy, moving and being productive," Justice-Guard said. "You look back and you've got six months sobriety, you've got your kids back, you're making money. If you're sticking a needle in your arm, you really don't have any self-esteem, so it's about building that back up."

That self-esteem can be a problem for some women, because of the unrealistic pressures they are placed under -- by themselves and by others, Hansen said.

"Women are expected to have a career and compete in the marketplace, and they're expected to be a homemaker, make sure the kids get to the right place at the right time, and be a caregiver," he said. "That's two conflicting full-time jobs, and the pharmacology might seem to help them with that."