CHICAGO – Already known as a rural scourge, methamphetamine (search) is becoming a problem in a number of U.S. cities. Meetings of the 12-step group Crystal Meth Anonymous have increased in Chicago from one night a week a few years ago to five a week.
In the Atlanta area, methamphetamine users account for the fastest-growing segment of addicts seeking treatment. Rehabilitation centers there are seeing an uptick in the number of women meth addicts, while officials in Minneapolis-St. Paul say they're treating an alarming number of meth users younger than 18.
"Most people just think it happens in the farmlands and the prairies or out back behind the barn," says Carol Falkowski, director of research communications at the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota. But that's not the case anymore.
Falkowski found that meth addicts now represent about 10 percent of patients admitted to drug treatment programs in the Twin Cities (search), compared with 7.5 percent a year ago and about 3 percent in 1998. About a fifth of those meth users who sought help in the last year were minors.
She and other experts who track urban drug trends for National Institute on Drug Abuse (search) are meeting this week in Long Beach, Calif., to present their findings. Some have noted a big jump in the use of meth — particularly in its potent crystal form — in the past six months to a year.
"It's the new major drug threat," says Jim Hall, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse at Nova Southeastern University in Florida. He monitors drug use for NIDA in Fort Lauderdale and Miami, where crystal meth is often more sought after than Ecstasy and cocaine.
"Here, it's almost like the early days of cocaine, when cocaine was the chic, expensive champagne of street drugs," says Hall, noting that many users come to Miami's trendy South Beach strip in search of the purest, most expensive meth available.
Methamphetamine — long a problem on the West Coast — made its way across the country in the last decade, often taking hold in rural areas, where it's usually made because the process creates a noticeable stench. Increasingly, drug enforcement officials say that mass quantities are also being shipped cross country from "super labs" in the Southwest and Mexico.
Experts say the drug started to catch on in urban areas in the club and rave scenes and sometimes among particular populations, such as gay men. That's been the case in such cities as Washington, D.C., and Chicago, says Thomas Lyons, a research associate with the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Often, he says, meth use has been associated with increases in sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
One recovering addict who helps organize Chicago's Crystal Meth Anonymous meetings confirms that the gatherings are frequented by gay men — but he says that, increasingly, he's seeing people from other backgrounds.
"It's become more common that I cross paths with people who say, 'This is my drug of choice,'" says Mike, a 34-year-old former meth user whose organization does not reveal last names to protect group members' privacy.
Experts elsewhere say their populations of meth users are diversifying, too.
Claire Sterk, an Emory University professor who tracks Atlanta's numbers for NIDA, says that while meth users there have traditionally been white, there are early signs that meth is making its way into the city's black and Hispanic communities. Experts in other cities also have noted that some young women are using methamphetamine as a way to lose weight.
"It's definitely everywhere," says Adam, a 26-year-old former meth addict from suburban St. Louis who also asked that his last name not be used out of fear of embarrassing his family.
"Though I'm not using anymore, I'm sure it would only take me three phone calls to find it" says Adam, who works in the retirement benefits industry and is getting a business management degree at Saint Louis University.
He also speaks on behalf of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which launched education campaigns in St. Louis and Phoenix last year to try to combat growing meth problems there. The nonprofit plans similar campaigns in at least four other states in the next year, says spokesman Steve Dnistrian.
"Our fear has been that meth will catch on with a new generation of kids who haven't heard about it," he says.
But in some cases, that's already happening, says Dr. Rob Garofalo at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
"It's the drug that makes me cringe the most," says Garofalo, who's come across a growing number of meth users among the patients he treats at the hospital's clinic for older youth.
At first, he says, these young meth users see the drug as a "brightener" — one that helps them concentrate, stay up for hours and feel in control. In time, however, users become increasingly paranoid and aggressive.
It's also highly addictive — "such a slippery slope," Garofalo says. "You can't just dabble in crystal meth."