Recovery experts fear Alaska’s meth epidemic getting worse

James Savage at his Fiend2Clean office in Wasilla (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)
James Savage at his Fiend2Clean office in Wasilla (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Methamphetamine appears in Alaska at greater volumes than ever before.

Opioid crisis is making meth’s negative health impacts worse, allowing it to reach new users and being used in riskier ways.

People working at the ground level warn it’s getting worse.

James Savage works at Fiend2Clean, a recovery support nonprofit based in a one-story Main Street building in Wasilla.

The first time he used meth, the 30-year-old said sitting at his desk, was to get off painkillers.

“I was absolutely miserable in all facets of my life,” Savage said of his years abusing drugs.

Doctors first prescribed Savage pain medications when he was 19, he fell off a ladder and broke his foot.

The former wrestler grew up in Alaska.

Savage is big guy. Doctors gave him high doses of strong opioids early in his treatment.

He spiraled into addiction with years spent circulating through pain management clinics in Anchorage and the Valley.

A prescriber eventually flagged Savage for doctor shopping and his prescription was cut off.

Some people usually turn to heroin in similar circumstances. But Savage did not.

He hates needles. Savage was reticent to try replicating a high-potency pharmaceutical high with street heroin.

Instead, a drug buddy said he could detox by using methamphetamine.

“You have a lot of folks that are under the impression that their addiction is bad enough with heroin,” Savage said. “They decide go to methamphetamine to try and wean themselves off.”

Savage went into a days-long meth induced mania, followed by two or three days of coma-like sleep. He bypassed the debilitating pain and discomfort of opioid withdrawal.

Seven months of “white knuckle sobriety” followed he said and eventually, Savage relapsed.

Instead of returning to opioids he started using meth, “all day, every day.”

Savage entered a treatment program in 2015 and has been recovering for almost three years.

Now he works at Fiend2Clean.

While opioids are getting a lot of media and policy attention, meth never left Alaska after its last devastating iteration in the early 2000s.

One of the most public manifestations of the problem — meth labs — stopped appearing. The supply merely shifted without demand ever fully going away.

People increasingly are using meth alongside opioids to cope with the drowsy, narcotic effects that can go along with high doses of heroin and painkillers.

“Someone who typically passes out or falls asleep after injecting heroin will be able to stay awake,” Savage said. “They’ll feel the effects longer, without falling asleep or having an adverse reaction to the amount of heroin they’re using.”

The combination balances out the powerful drugs allowing the user to stay functional for those trying to hold down jobs or mask their addiction by not nodding off in public, according to Savage.

The combination also makes for an intense rush.

In the past, combining shots of heroin with cocaine or other amphetamines was called a speedball. Now, meth has eclipsed other uppers as the most common accelerant.

The health calamities associated with meth are rising in Alaska, in part because the drug itself is more potent all the way down to the street level and because of how it is being used in combination with other drugs.

The rate of meth-related overdoses increased by more than four times in less than a decade, going from 1.4 fatalities per 100,000 persons during 2008–2010 to 5.8 per 100,000 between 2014–2016, according to a 2017 report by the state’s Division of Public Health.

Of the 193 lethal overdoses caused by meth in that period, 54 percent also involved an opioid, such as heroin.

Those closest to the drug problem are alarmed.

Ron Greene is in charge of one of the state’s only methadone programs for treating opioid addiction. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)
Ron Greene is in charge of one of the state’s only methadone programs for treating opioid addiction. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Narcotic Drug Treatment Center clinical director Ron Greene has spent 30 years in the treatment field.

The downtown Anchorage facility is one of the state’s only methadone clinics.

“We see as much methamphetamine use here as we see opiate use in this clinic,” Greene said from behind his cluttered desk.

As early as 2003, Greene forecast the current heroin crisis when he saw the drug of choice among people seeking treatment shifted away from prescription pills to potent black tar heroin.

From his current vantage point, meth is “out of control.”

Based on drug test results among people entering treatment, he estimates 60 to 70 percent of the people seeking care for opioid addiction also have meth in their system.

Tje overlap is consistent with what similar methadone clinics are seeing outside of Alaska, too.

“We’re seeing the exact same thing: Intravenous drug use, heroin, methamphetamine,” Greene said. “We’re seeing the same thing as our counterparts down there in the Lower 48.”

Across the country, meth is the cheapest and more pure than it has ever been.

Over a decade ago, most meth in Alaska and across the Western states was manufactured in small domestic operations within houses, RVs and apartments.

But since federal legislation in 2006 limited access to many of the essential ingredients, production has moved abroad.

Nearly all the meth arriving in the U.S. is made in industrial labs by drug cartels in Mexico, according to the most recent threat assessment from the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Agency.

The international production model has pushed quality and consistency way up,  even as prices have gone down.

The U.S. market is awash in inexpensive, potent methamphetamine, according to the DEA.

Anchorage Police Department Lt. Jack Carson said it has been a long time since they’ve seen a “mom’n’pop” meth operation.

“We just don’t see that that often any more,” Carson said, explaining that buying the finished product from suppliers in Mexico or Lower 48 is significantly cheaper than trying to collect the necessary precursor ingredients in Alaska.

“What we are seeing is meth coming in bulk from the source states in Lower 48, coming into the mail system, then getting distributed down,” Carson said.

Alaska’s market is exceptionally lucrative for suppliers who can get drugs into the state.

Street prices in Anchorage remain several times higher than in Lower 48 cities, both for meth and heroin, though the potency of both has risen.

When drugs move out to smaller Bush communities or commercial fishing towns, the price goes up again.

The size of the shipments that Law enforcement agencies intercept has risen significantly the last few years, too.

Federal drug cases used to be built on 1-pound shipments they interdicted. Now 5-pound packages trafficked into Alaska isn’t uncommon.

Federal officials don’t anticipate the trend reversing any time soon.

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