When Concord Police Sgt. Marc McGonagle used to talk about methamphetamine, he had to use pictures of meth addicts from the Midwest to illustrate the before and after effects of the drug. Now, he only needs to click in his own department’s database.
“I can just look at our own booking photos now to see the transformation of people,” McGonagle said.
Methamphetamine is often hidden in plain sight. In soda bottles by the railroad tracks. In backpacks abandoned on the road side. In trash bags inside a small apartment bedroom.
In recent years, though, local police and emergency responders are seeing the drug more and more frequently. It’s visible with the scabs on users’ faces from scratching when they feel like bugs are crawling under their skin. It surfaces in strange, psychotic episode-like calls about people who are high, including at least one person running around naked on Clinton Street in Concord.
The most obvious signs are the explosions and house fires ignited in city neighborhoods and rural homes from meth-making gone bad.
Less obvious is how to deal with the growing meth addiction. While there’s individual and group therapy and support groups like Meth Addicts Anonymous, fewer options exist to treat methamphetamine users, than those who use opiates. There’s no equivalent to methadone or Suboxone for methamphetamine.
“I do think it’s going to present a challenge and it is harder because we don’t have the pharmacotherapy,” said Dr. Molly Rossignol, who treats addiction at Concord Hospital.
But like with any other substance, Rossignol said treatment providers will have to treat the root causes of meth addiction and work to reduce triggers for relapse.
“That’s the strategy we have to take,” she said.Meth use on the rise
Concord in particular has seen a staggering rise in meth use. In 2013, Concord police recorded just seven criminal offenses related to the drug. Two years later, that number rose exponentially to 107 meth-related offenses.
In 2014, McGonagle’s undercover drug officers didn’t make a single meth purchase. A year later, the flow of meth started, with police officers making 32 undercover buys in Concord in 2015. That number has more than doubled to 65 in 2016.
“We’re probably buying more meth than heroin right now,” McGonagle said. “Meth, between 2015 and 2016 is spiking enormously for us. It’s blowing my mind, to be honest with you.”
State numbers also reflect the rise.
The New Hampshire State Crime Lab tested for meth less than 100 times in 2014. By Aug. 31 of this year, meth had shown up in the lab over 350 times.
Twenty miles south, Manchester is not seeing the same problem. Though police there netted the largest meth bust in the state’s history in July, they have not seen the drug showing up regularly on the streets.
Manchester’s primary drug fight remains heroin and fentanyl. “Meth doesn’t seem to be prevalent in the Queen City,” said Manchester police Lt. Brian O’Keefe.
From what McGonagle has seen in Concord, he said meth is not a blip on the radar.
“Going from nearly nothing to a little bit more to where we are today, it shows this gradual trend,” he said.Tracking the problem
As New Hampshire continues to grapple with the grip of a deadly heroin and fentanyl crisis, other drugs have flown under the radar.
Meth’s footprint is harder to track. Unlike fentanyl, it doesn’t kill hundreds of users every year – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t even keep a tally of meth-related deaths.
Out of the six drug deaths in New Hampshire involving meth in 2016, five also involved fentanyl use.
Meth is a strong chemical cocktail, with ingredients including pseudoephedrine, acetone, lithium, toluene and hydrochloric acid.
In powder or chunky crystal form, meth is a stimulant, the opposite of depressants like heroin and fentanyl. It can be snorted, injected or smoked.
The drug is known for its incredible high. It boosts dopamine – a neurotransmitter in charge of the brain’s pleasure and reward centers.
For instance, using heroin can raise dopamine levels 200 times above normal. Meth makes them skyrocket up to 1,000 or 2,000 times the normal level.
“It’s unbelievable. That kind of high and euphoria cannot be replicated by anything,” Rossignol said.
Like with most drugs, the high eventually wears off, but the addiction lingers. With meth, the descent is sharp.
Meth can cause extreme paranoia, anxiety and violent behavior. McGonagle can spot a meth user when the person can’t sit still, can’t complete a coherent sentence and is talking a mile a minute, “almost like gibberish kind of talk.”
“It’s difficult to describe other than ants in your pants,” added Laconia Police Department Detective Sgt. Kevin Butler.
Meth gives users the ability to stay up for days on end; when they eventually crash, they sleep for days. It can be next to impossible to wake a meth user who is sound asleep in one of the Concord Police Department booking cells, McGonagle said.
The drug has a serious impact to physical health, causing rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure and risk of clots in the brain and eventually, stroke.
A 2014 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report shows nearly 100,000 emergency room visits nationwide related to meth use were reported in 2011.
In Franklin and Concord, the one-pot cooking method, or the process of making meth in small containers, are the most common. That’s what caused the first meth lab fire in Franklin in 2010, and what Franklin officers continue to find in the form of abandoned soda bottles with an explosive crystalline substance inside.
Concord Sgt. McGonagle said the ingredients are readily accessible and batches can be made in several hours, yielding enough to use and some to sell on the side.
It’s more of a rural drug, and it’s something Franklin police Chief David Goldstein said he sees among people mostly at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.
“It’s cheap, it’s easy to make,” Goldstein said.
He added that meth originally came to the state in the 1980s and 1990s through biker gangs visiting the Lakes Region for New Hampshire Motorcycle Week. While the meth in Franklin appears to be more locally-made, Laconia is once again seeing large quantities and dry ice-like chunks of crystal meth.
“It doesn’t look like it’s being made around here any more,” said Laconia’s Butler. He guessed it came from more sophisticated labs in Mexico or California.
“It seems to me it’s definitely making a resurgence,” he added. Hazardous drug
It’s not the health effects from meth that concern emergency responders most. It’s the explosions and fires it can cause.
“We’re trying to fight fire hazards and conditions,” Franklin fire Chief Kevin LaChapelle said.
Franklin had one of the state’s first documented meth-lab fires in 2010.
“That was the anchor point of, ‘all right, we have a problem,’” LaChapelle said. “To roll down to the end of the street with 25 DEA agents and undercover officers with weapons ... it legitimized our problem.”
News reports from 2010 describe a police raid after an informant tipped off Tilton Police about the lab several nights before. About 10 a.m., local, state and federal law enforcement officers put on protective face masks and descended on 164 Central St. property, just on the outskirts of Franklin’s downtown.
Within 30 seconds of walking inside, officers yelled at each other to get out.
One part of the house had suddenly burst into flame after a meth pot exploded. One onlooker described seeing a mushroom-like cloud of smoke pour out of the roof.
“It was really fast,” said Goldstein, one of the police officers who hurriedly exited the house.
Around 100 firefighters responded to the scene and battled flames for hours, and Franklin High School was put on lockdown. Police made two arrests.
In another Tilton raid, LaChapelle said they found people making meth in a grandmother’s small bedroom. They were using a heating blanket to speed up the process, and “there was a child on the bed next to the one-pot cook,” LaChapelle said.
In another high-profile meth bust on Perley Street in Concord this past summer, police removed a 4-year-old child from the premises, too. State response
Despite the trend of meth on the rise in some New Hampshire communities, a coordinated response is still wanting.
Franklin Chief Goldstein is often at the State House on behalf of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, and he said meth is on the back burner while heroin and fentanyl are killing hundreds of people every year.
“We sort of forget what’s in the wings,” he said.
This is reflected in the treatment community, too. Though many treatment programs have opened in response to the opiate problem, the capacity to treat all addictions is important, experts say.
“The important thing is to have a coordinated response to substance abuse as a whole so we’re not waiting for the next big rise of meth,” said Kate Frey, deputy director at the advocacy organization New Futures. “There’s always going to be the next big thing.”
But meth is not unrelated to the opioid epidemic. Concord Sgt. McGonagle and Concord Hospital’s Rossignol said they see the people who use both drugs.
“I’ve got people with many cross-addictions,” Rossignol said.
Meth can be used as an upper to reverse the slow-down one feels from using heroin, fentanyl or other opioids. In fact, some people use the drug as a way to stave off opioid withdrawal sickness.
“It becomes a cycle of back and forth now,” McGonagle said, adding, “we’re probably going to be playing catch up once these folks start hitting the rehab.”
Goldstein suggested all of these issues that feed into one another – meth addiction, opioid addiction, child neglect, poverty – need to be addressed together. But public health, he added, is done through a triage model. And treatment and recovery are often prioritized over prevention.
“We’re really slow out of the gate when it comes to actual primary prevention,” he said.
(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ella_nilsen. Elodie Reed can be reached at email@example.com or 369-3306.)