WINCHESTER — While fentanyl and heroin remain the deadliest drugs in the area, methamphetamine has increasingly become the drug of choice.
Through September, the Northwest Regional Drug and Gang Task Force seized 3,435 grams of meth, according to Joshua T. Price, task force coordinator and a state police special agent. That's down nearly 37% from the 5,444 grams seized through September of last year — about 6,000 grams were seized for all of last year — but 408% higher than the 675 grams seized in all of 2017. Besides Winchester, the task force covers Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties.
A gram of meth costs about $80 on the street, according to the website rehabcenter.net. A single dose, about a quarter of a gram, costs $20.
Price told the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition at its Sept. 26 meeting that stricter regulation of pseudoephedrine sales (an ingredient often contained in nasal/sinus medications and other over-the-counter drugs) has had unintended consequences. Rather than using home-cooked meth, of which pseudoephedrine is a main ingredient, addicts are increasingly using crystal meth — defined as methamphetamine with an 80% or higher purity rate — smuggled in from Mexico.
He said the task force has only made two seizures involving homemade meth this year. The task force has also seen an increase in crack cocaine use and seizures of it in the last few years.
The meth increase is part of a national trend in regions designated as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. Winchester and Frederick County are part of the Washington D.C./Baltimore HIDTA region.
Last year, 67,757 kilograms of meth were seized in HIDTA regions, according to National Public Radio, which cited numbers provided by HIDTA task forces. The seizures were a 142% increase from 2017. A July 10 report by the Drug Enforcement Administration on increasing Midwest seizures said crystal meth has made a "deadly resurgence" in the U.S., with large loads smuggled in from Mexico each day.
"Gone are the days of domestic super-labs and one-pot labs whose product often averaged 60% purity with potency varying upon the manufacturing method," "Today's methamphetamine from Mexico comes from mega-labs capable of producing hundreds of pounds of the drug in a single cycle, all with a purity in the upper 90th percentile and potency not far behind."
Amphetamines have been around over a century. They were created in Germany in 1887 and synthesized into methamphetmine in 1919 in Japan. Due to their ability to allow subjects to have high energy and go without sleep, amphetamines were used by Allied and Axis soldiers in World War II.
Amphetamines were prescribed in pill form as a diet aid in the 1950s and 1960s in the U.S. and truckers used them to stay awake on cross-country trips. Amphetamine and methamphetmine use was banned in the U.S. in 1971 due to its highly addictive nature and deadly long-term effects. Meth use effects include violent behavior, changes in brain structure, extreme weight loss, anxiety, memory loss and paranoia.
"I would lose my mind," said Brenna, a Jefferson County, W. Va., resident who didn't want to give her last name, about her meth-using days. "I would go into the psych ward and be acting like a crazy person and it wasn't that I was crazy, it was that my brain was mush at that point."
Brenna, sober since 2014, said she went from 150 pounds when she first used meth in 2008, to 92 pounds when she stopped. She her first meth use was smoking crystal meth — nicknamed "ice" for its resemblance to glass shards — in Texas when she was 17.
Brenna said the initial high made her feel euphoric and indestructible and the high lasted four to eight hours. But within weeks, her body built up tolerance and she had to switch to snorting and then injecting to still get high.
Brenna recalled once going without sleep for 14 days. Her body began easily bruising and she saw "shadow people" — hallucinations of people or objects coming at her out of the corner of her eyes — and she experienced extreme paranoia. After three relapses, she got sober at rehabilitation clinics in Florida. She moved to West Virginia to sever her ties to people connected to meth in Texas.
In addition to wanting to survive, Brenna, a mother of three, credits wanting to be a good parent for being able to maintain sobriety. While withdrawal isn't like the excruciating experience of heroin withdrawal, Brenna, now a drug recovery coach in Martinsburg, said she still experiences side effects from meth.
"It settles in your brain," she said. "I have 5½ years of sobriety and I still see shadow people. My memory is awful and I have problems with my eyes from the continuous dilation."