When meth addiction crosses generations

A recovering addict describes getting hooked on meth as a teen after watching her father and grandmother struggle with the drug. Watch "This is Life with Lisa Ling" Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Posted: Sep 29, 2018 11:35 PM
Updated: Sep 29, 2018 11:35 PM

For Capt. Mark Wollmershauser Jr. and the Tulsa Police Department, the late-2000s and early 2010s were an extremely dangerous time.

In Oklahoma, a state that is no stranger to the scourge of methamphetamine addiction, those years were the heyday of the "shake and bake" method -- a rudimentary way of making meth using just cold medicine, some toxic chemicals and an empty two-liter bottle.

The technique is simple enough that many addicts can cook their own meth, but with one tiny misstep, the chemical reaction that occurs inside can cause deadly explosions.

By 2011, Wollmershauser and his narcotics unit were finding and dismantling hundreds of these vessels in meth labs around the city.

"People were not just burning themselves while cooking meth but were causing damage to other residents that had nothing to do with methamphetamine," he said. "It was a really horrible time."

When new laws were enacted to limit access to pseudoephedrine -- an allergy drug used in making meth -- the proliferation of these mobile labs waned. After responding to a high of 431 meth labs in 2011, his department encountered just 19 last year.

But Wollmershauser said that didn't spell the end of Tulsa's meth problem. In fact, officials across the state say they are seizing meth that is purer, cheaper and in greater quantities than ever before, with most of it coming from south of the border.

And while much of America is focused on combating the devastating impacts of opioid addiction, some states like Oklahoma are struggling to fight a new battle against an old foe.

The role of Mexican 'superlabs'

Richard Salter has been with the Drug Enforcement Administration for 27 years, most recently as the special agent in charge for the state of Oklahoma.

He said the meth problem in Oklahoma is getting worse, and points to Mexican cartels -- in particular, the powerful Sinaloa cartel -- as the reason.

As it became more difficult and dangerous to produce meth in the United States, cartels recognized an opportunity to fill the void.

"They came in with much purer, much cheaper meth and just flooded this region of the country," Salter said.

Salter said in 2012, the DEA was buying meth undercover off the streets for $1,100 an ounce. Today, his agents are regularly getting ounces for just $250 to $450.

"That's as cheap as I have ever seen methamphetamine my entire career," he said.

The reason for the drop in prices is the scale of production that the Mexican cartels have achieved. Whereas "shake and bake" labs could turn out lots of small batches, so-called "superlabs" in Mexico produce hundreds of pounds daily.

Salter said most of the meth his agents seize first comes across the US-Mexico border in California or Arizona, before making its way through the interstate highway system and temporary stash houses on its way to Oklahoma.

Along the border, officials with US Customs and Border Protection also report a steep increase in the amount of meth they are seizing.

Anne Maricich, deputy director of field operations for the agency's San Diego ports of entry, said her field office has seen a 50% increase in the amount of meth seized compared to this time last year.

"The other hard narcotics like cocaine, heroin and fentanyl, we see them -- they're prevalent at our border crossings, but nowhere near the quantities that we see of meth," she said.

On the streets of Oklahoma, this influx of cheap and powerful meth has had deadly consequences.

The number of lethal meth overdoses in the state has more than doubled in recent years, rising from 140 in 2012 to 335 deaths in 2016. In 2017, there were 327 meth overdose deaths, but that tally is incomplete and the actual number is likely higher, according to Mark Woodward, spokesman with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.

"There's so much attention -- not just in Oklahoma, but nationwide -- on the opioid crisis," said Woodward. "But our single most deadly individual drug is methamphetamine."

Perhaps no city has been hit harder by this latest meth epidemic than Tulsa.

In just the first six months of 2018, Wollmershauser said his Special Investigations Division has already surpassed the amount of meth they seized in all of 2017 by 30 pounds.

He can't explain why the problem is more severe here than in other parts of the state, but he doesn't think incarceration is the solution.

Wollmershauser said his department is trying to use more "front end diversion" tactics to help addicts get treatment without getting the criminal justice system involved, while also aggressively pursuing the cartels and other large-scale distributors.

While the amount of meth his officers has seized has risen, he said his department is on track to reduce the number of arrests by 40% this year.

"I think we're definitely targeting the right folks that are taking advantage of our city and citizens, but the addiction is strong and it's difficult," Wollmershauser said.

How meth fueled a crisis behind bars

Lindsay McAteer's struggles with anxiety and depression led her to self-medicate as a teenager.

At age 14, her boyfriend at the time introduced her to meth.

"I immediately liked it," McAteer said. "It gave me a false sense of identity and a false sense of accomplishment."

It was the beginning of a 20-year struggle with the drug that nearly ended with a life sentence.

After using meth for several years, she said she stopped for a brief period, but after she was laid off from work and had her house foreclosed on, her addiction spiraled out of control.

"I had nothing," McAteer said. "I was losing everything, and meth was able to make me feel like everything was OK, despite the fact that nothing was OK."

In addition to using meth, McAteer began selling the drug. She was eventually arrested for trafficking and found herself staring at a possible sentence of 12 years to life.

Mass incarceration is also an issue in Oklahoma -- particularly among women -- and lengthy sentences for drug offenses are a major contributing factor, according to analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. The state has the nation's highest female incarceration rate, with 149 out of every 100,000 women locked up, more than double the national average.

But even for those like McAteer who face time in prison, there are sometimes alternatives to a life behind bars. Women in Recovery, or WIR, is an intensive program for women who are looking at lengthy sentences for drug offenses in Tulsa County.

With the door of a prison cell the only other option that was open to her, McAteer entered WIR in August 2014.

Mimi Tarrasch, the executive senior director for WIR, said that many of the program's participants are multi-substance users, but at least 60% have seen their addictions lead them to meth.

"Early on, because it's a stimulant, they feel wonderful and it makes them productive and motivated," said Roxanne Hinther, clinical director for WIR. "But ultimately, they can't take care of their children and they lose everything they have."

Tarrasch said that most of the women in her program have been battling addiction for 13 to 15 years, which takes a huge toll on their health and wellness, and that of their family. Many have also experienced traumatic events, from childhood abuse to sexual assaults and domestic violence.

Using a range of treatments, training and education, the program gives women who would be spending time behind bars a second chance at a productive and fulfilling life.

McAteer graduated from WIR in 2016 and has now been in active recovery for more than four years. Today, she works as a housing compliance specialist for the Mental Health Association Oklahoma.

Since Women in Recovery began in 2009, 390 women have graduated, with 6.7% of graduates relapsing or falling back into criminal activity.

"I can say that recovery is definitely possible, and I can say that treatment is the answer versus punishment," McAteer said. "It's not foolproof -- I can't say that everyone is able to use this [program] the way it's designed to work, but the vast majority of us do."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 144544

Reported Deaths: 3729
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto956999
Hinds9541193
Harrison6825105
Jackson6068116
Rankin523796
Lee480294
Madison4602102
Forrest367185
Jones344687
Lauderdale3343142
Lafayette313347
Washington3088106
Lamar281849
Bolivar237883
Oktibbeha237760
Lowndes228362
Neshoba2171113
Panola211047
Marshall207247
Leflore200789
Pontotoc193227
Monroe189577
Sunflower189554
Lincoln183964
Warren172157
Tate163349
Union160125
Pike160058
Copiah158840
Yazoo150638
Scott149929
Coahoma147342
Itawamba145533
Alcorn143724
Simpson143553
Pearl River142967
Prentiss139526
Grenada136344
Adams135948
Leake131643
Holmes124461
George121623
Tippah120930
Covington117234
Winston115824
Wayne115722
Hancock114137
Marion110746
Attala106233
Tishomingo106042
Newton102829
Chickasaw102332
Tallahatchie94727
Clarke88253
Clay86726
Jasper81121
Walthall74328
Stone72314
Montgomery71925
Calhoun71213
Carroll70514
Lawrence69914
Noxubee69017
Smith68616
Yalobusha67926
Perry65225
Tunica59519
Greene58422
Claiborne57416
Jefferson Davis54117
Humphreys52518
Amite50814
Benton48217
Quitman4786
Webster41614
Kemper40815
Wilkinson38422
Jefferson34011
Franklin3185
Sharkey30617
Choctaw3057
Issaquena1114
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 234080

Reported Deaths: 3459
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson30620491
Mobile19306358
Tuscaloosa12501148
Madison12410146
Montgomery12040232
Shelby980576
Baldwin826984
Lee753964
Morgan618247
Calhoun5997113
Etowah590564
Marshall581953
Houston507038
DeKalb463535
Cullman412636
Limestone404544
St. Clair398455
Elmore393961
Lauderdale382953
Walker349096
Talladega335942
Colbert296341
Jackson291924
Blount276336
Autauga263439
Franklin244833
Coffee233415
Dale226654
Dallas220231
Russell21803
Chilton216937
Covington212533
Escambia194431
Tallapoosa169290
Chambers168048
Pike155514
Clarke155419
Marion134535
Winston123723
Lawrence122436
Geneva11748
Marengo116924
Barbour116110
Pickens115318
Bibb114217
Butler113741
Randolph99821
Cherokee98924
Hale91631
Washington90018
Clay89423
Fayette84416
Henry8426
Lowndes78729
Monroe76811
Cleburne74414
Crenshaw70330
Macon70020
Bullock69019
Conecuh66814
Perry6686
Lamar6267
Wilcox62418
Sumter55322
Choctaw41713
Greene40217
Coosa3074
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Few Clouds
58° wxIcon
Hi: 66° Lo: 56°
Feels Like: 58°
Columbus
Scattered Clouds
58° wxIcon
Hi: 66° Lo: 55°
Feels Like: 58°
Oxford
Clear
57° wxIcon
Hi: 62° Lo: 54°
Feels Like: 57°
Starkville
Scattered Clouds
57° wxIcon
Hi: 66° Lo: 53°
Feels Like: 57°
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather