Feature: Wednesday, October 6, 2004
Walker ‘hit bottom’ on ice, but she’s been off it for seven months now. (photo by Scott Latham)
‘I’ve just never seen people behave like ice makes them behave.’
Christina found ice’s euphoria too much to handle, even as a former heroin user. (photo by Scott Latham)
Roberson knew he had a problem when he started doing ice at work.(photo by Scott Latham)
‘With ice, you will have destroyed yourself within a year.’
Former addicts run a long-term drug rehab facility at Cenikor on South Main Street in Fort Worth. (photo by Scott Latham)
Ice Burn

A new form of meth is sending users’ lives up in smoke.


Chris Mann was at a three-day motocross rally a few years ago when he realized what a powder keg the organizers were sitting on.

“I was speaking to one of the guys putting it on, and I said, ‘You’ve got 3,000 people here for three days doing drugs and getting dehydrated and no medical facilities? Are you crazy?’ He said, ‘OK. Why don’t you do something about it?’”

Mann, a Fort Worth physician and professor of sports medicine at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, took up the challenge. He founded MedEvent, a volunteer group whose members attend large public gatherings and watch for people who are having bad drug reactions. “We keep an eye out for people whizzing out. We don’t fool with them. We know the symptoms of a range of drug overdoses, and we check their vitals and get them out of there,” he said.

Through his MedEvent work, Mann has become more familiar than your average family practitioner with the vibes and fads of the North Texas drug scene. A lot of his volunteer work takes place at gay dance clubs, which are often the first place in town that a new drug hits, and where the recreational substances of choice frequently are those that ramp up sexual enjoyment. That’s where he first ran into “ice.”

“About two or three years ago we began to see a change in attitude on the dance floor,” Mann said. “The ecstasy crowd ... was a lovey-dovey, huggy sort of crowd. This [new] crowd is angry, pissy, aggressive. That changes the attitude of the social environment.”

The difference was the arrival of ice, a highly refined methamphetamine that’s pure enough to smoke and, as a result, is often done in social settings, with people passing around the pipe. In the places he goes, Mann said, the majority of people who are using drugs are handling them well. But ice is different. “People have short tempers when they’re on it, and they’re very sexually aggressive,” he said. “And where with meth you might be high for four to six hours, with this you’re high 10 to 12 hours, and it’s several times stronger than meth.”

In short, he said, the introduction of ice has changed Fort Worth’s social drug scene significantly. In many cases, he said, even people who were long-time meth users and then turned to ice went up like torches.

“It just seems to take people over like nothing I’ve ever seen. They can maintain their lives for years with meth, but with this they forget about their jobs, their families, everything,” the physician said. “The only thing that matters is ice. I’ve talked with chemists and medical people and even people who make it, but no one has been able to explain why this is so much stronger. It just is.”

What’s particularly worrisome, he said, is that during the last six or eight months he’s been seeing it move into the straight clubs, “and those people have no idea what they’re in for when they do this. The straight crowd isn’t doing a lot of meth anyway, so it comes right out of left field for them. And that’s going to cause some problems.”

“I just hit the bottom,” Lisa Walker said. “Twenty-three years of meth and the last five with ice, and I just had no place to turn anymore. The last straw was a nine-day ice binge.” The binge, she said, left her feeling worthless, hating herself, totally paranoid, and in conversation with people who were not actually there.

Walker is living at Cenikor on South Main Street in Fort Worth now. It’s a long-term rehab facility run by former addicts as a nonprofit company. Unlike many Cenikor residents, who were ordered by the courts to undergo treatment as an alternative to prison, Lisa, 39, came to the therapeutic facility on her own. She’s been clean for seven months; unlike many long-term meth users, she never developed the gaunt, skeletal appearance that’s associated with the drug.

“I started partying with meth when I was 17, you know, like a lot of people,” she said. “It made life so clear, so focused. I liked it. But then, sort of on a dare, I began to shoot it up. That was much faster, much more of a rush than eating it or snorting it. And it wasn’t long before I was using every day.” She’s not fidgety as she talks; in fact she almost seems too controlled, like someone still getting to know her body after a long absence.

She married twice, divorced twice, and has one son. “With meth, I guess I was lost but still functioning. I raised my son ’til he was eight, and we maintained a good relationship for years. But then along came ice, and that was the end of that. He was old enough to disapprove of what I was doing and who I was becoming, and he did,” she said plainly, without self-pity. “We’re working on that though, now that I’m here.”

She explained that she preferred to shoot ice the way she’d shot meth. “Ice was something else. Where with meth, after 18 years or so I had to keep bumping — shooting up — when I started using ice I just shot once, and I was good all day. That’s how strong it was. I always say that when I shot ice I was instantly tripping out. It took me days of doing meth nonstop to get to that same place. And once I found a cook for ice, I was gone.”

The cook was her boyfriend, who made the drug at a house in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that’s since been shut down. He’d start by getting hold of several pounds of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine — products routinely found in diet aids, cold remedies, energy pills, and asthma medications — and reduce them down until he’d isolated the stuff that chemists call the d-isomer. But where most meth cooks quit there (a process that takes as little as 8 hours), cooking ice requires additional refining, often an extra day or more of work. “It was clear shards, and it was hard to break it down to be able to shoot it,” Walker said. “I managed, though. And not having to pay for it, I could do all I wanted. After a while of shooting ice, I could do a couple of grams a day if you gave it to me. I was an animal.”

The house she lived in had dozens of visitors daily, coming to cop their ice and split. But ice was expensive, so while Lisa got it free, most of the people who came by the house, she said, were involved in one type of criminal activity or another, selling ice to others, fencing stolen goods, anything to pay the ice bill. And all of them, maybe a couple of hundred altogether, were in and out of jail. “We’d see them every day for three months, then they’d be busted, and we wouldn’t see them for a year. Then they’d be back out for three more months, and we’d be the first place they came.”

The house also became a sort of voluntary prison for Lisa, as she began to find it more and more difficult to venture out into the world. “I didn’t go out much the last five years. I just stayed home and did housecleaning or yard work or stayed on the computer all night. Whatever I did, I was very, very focused. Until I became sort of dysfunctional, you know, the point where you need it [the drug] to make life worth living. I’d be in a room talking with people that were plain as day but who weren’t really there at all.

“The sex is unbelievable, though, until the habit takes over, and the drug becomes more important than the sex. And you get very, very edgy when you’re coming down on this. Tempers flare. I’ve gone off on people, and they’ve gone off on me. But the thing is that even the paranoia of ice is magnificent. You can get consumed by the idea that someone’s following you, that someone’s a snitch, that you have to hide in your house to not be seen.

“I guess the real problem with ice is that if people try it they’ll want it. But it just burns you up.”

Amphetamines have been setting off human pleasure centers since they were first synthesized in Germany in 1887. Methamphetamine was synthesized in Japan in 1919, and in just a few years manufacturers had begun using it in “stay-awake” drugs and diet medicines. For recreational drug users, meth was a legal alternative to cocaine, which had effectively been outlawed in 1914. In World War II, both Germany and Japan supplied amphetamines and methamphetamines to their troops to keep them focused and give them a euphoric, driving edge — a practice later adopted by the U.S. military, particularly for fighter pilots and members of long-range reconnaissance patrols.

In 1950 an amphetamine-based drug called Ritalin was patented for use in treating people suffering from narcolepsy, a condition in which sufferers fall asleep involuntarily. The drug was later tried on children suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and since the early 1990s, the use of Ritalin for such children has ballooned — though many in the medical field question the wisdom of such prescriptions.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, amphetamine and methamphetamine use skyrocketed. On the one hand a subculture of meth users developed among bikers and long-range truckers, particularly in rural areas. In other neighborhoods, a whole generation of women was taking doctor-prescribed, amphetamine-based pills for weight loss as well. Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs used the drug and wrote about it, and college kids took the pills to help them focus on studying and to get through tedious assignments in no time at all.

Despite the best attempts by law enforcement to corral amphetamine and methamphetamine use since then, the subculture folks have continued to find ways to get their medication of choice, through prescriptions or via the clandestine ether-stinking, explosion-prone meth labs that dot the countryside in many states.

Ice is a relatively new kid on the methamphetamine block. While meth is generally a powder or tiny crystal, ice is the same drug refined to a very pure hydrochloride — salt — form, which can be grown into large crystals. Made right, it looks like glass shards or rough-cut diamonds. Made any way other than nearly pure, the crystals won’t grow as well, so while street meth may have a potency of 10 to 30 percent, ice is generally 80 to 90 percent pure. It first appeared in east Asia, perhaps Korea or Taiwan, and about 15 years ago someone figured out that it could be smoked, which maximizes its potency. From there, the drug made its way to Japan, a country known for its methamphetamine use, and thence to Hawaii around 1990. A couple of years later it reached California’s meth circles, and in about 1999 or 2000 it hit Dallas and Fort Worth. Because ice is so expensive, it didn’t hit hard — not like crack, that hit as an epidemic, with little $2 vials all over the streets.

But it hit hard enough to be noticed and strong enough to be dangerous, even to long-time meth users like Walker. And to be noticed by law enforcement. Last spring a North Texas drug task force busted a gang of Aryan Brotherhood members from around the Metroplex with 23 pounds of the stuff. In July, a Fort Worth bust netted 22 pounds that came into town from Mexico, which traditionally produces meth rather than the more refined ice. It’s still not on the street per se, and according to Lt. J.T. Morgan of the Fort Worth Police Department’s narcotics division it won’t be, so long as the price stays where it is.

“We’re finding it in groups that were already in the meth scene,” Morgan said. “The price is keeping it confined to that group. It’s at least twice the price of meth, so we have not seen it in poor sections of town like we did when crack hit. To be honest, you are not going to find a $10 bag of ice out there. You may find it, but it won’t be ice.”

A former North Texas resident who was part of the local drug scene here for years agreed. “You’ve pretty much got to get it from a real dealer, someone who knows a cook or a distributor,” he said. “Because ice heads won’t share, and they don’t want to give it up. It’s too precious.”

Mann said he’s seen ice at straight clubs in Fort Worth for the last six or eight months. Christina, a local writer who asked that her full name not be used, said she’s seen it at strip clubs for twice that long. “The men like to give it to the girls instead of money,” she said. “If the girls smoke they’re liable to be much more turned on.” Christina, a former heroin addict, said that when the opportunity to smoke ice came up a year or so ago at a straight dance club, she joined the gang. “Very overwhelming. Utterly euphoric,” is how she described its effect. “But I was still high 18 hours later, and that was no good at all. I wouldn’t think most non-drug-users could handle it. It was just too much, even for me, and I was a pretty hardcore heroin addict.”

In Mann’s estimation, the use of ice at gay clubs is already on the wane. “I think it peaked about six months ago, after just a couple of years, in part because of how fast it took people down, and in part because the gay community, because of AIDS, has a strong infrastructure. People saw what was happening to their friends with ice,” he said.

“I mean, with meth, people use it for years, on and off, and function. Actually, they’re often unwittingly self-medicating for adult Attention Deficiency Disorder, to focus themselves. But with ice you will have destroyed yourself within a year. This becomes so overwhelming so quickly that you spend your money, you forget your job, you become aggressive, you become impatient, you don’t get along with people, you skip work when you crash after a binge. It costs you in so many ways.

“I’ve just never seen people behave like ice makes them behave,” Mann said. “I don’t mean violently, not that, but they will lie to their families, they’ll cheat, they’ll steal to get it. That’s generally a myth with most drugs, put out by prohibitionists, but it really is a truth with this.”

James Roberson can testify to the accuracy of Mann’s assessment. Like Lisa Walker, Roberson is a resident of Cenikor. “Cocaine was my drug of choice ’til I ran into ice,” he said. “I used it to dance [because of] all the energy it gave me. With coke, I was always running to the bathroom to have another couple of lines, but with ice, smoke a little and I was good to go.”

Roberson, now 29, was a military brat. His dad is a U.S. Air Force colonel, his mom an educator, and he was raised with a work ethic “that said if I was not working, I was doing something wrong.” He thinks that ethic helped keep him from going down any harder with ice than he did.

He was managing a local restaurant when he first got introduced to ice. “It was the best. Ice delivered on its promise,” he said. “If drugs are broken down into male and female, this one is definitely male. It’s like it says: ‘Here’s the deal. You know what you’re getting with me. Now take it or leave it.’ I decided to take it.”

Why? “Smoking it was so smooth, and the rush was so intense, I just wanted to jump out of my skin,” he said. “Everything was so clear, so alive. And then there was the sexual nature of the drug. I was definitely into seek and destroy, sexually. And a conquest didn’t satisfy that. I wanted another conquest. And another.”

Taking the drug didn’t cost him his restaurant manager job, but it changed the way he worked — and not for the better. “I was all over the floor, talking with everyone. And in the restaurant, you know, it wasn’t hard. It was coming and going through the place, and I was going to find it there.”

Roberson said that while he didn’t binge like so many other ice users — “who went down a lot faster and went to a lot worse places than I did” — because of his work ethic, he still managed to do about $150 worth of the drug nightly. “I was making good money, and I was real good at math, so I knew how to cook the books easily enough,” he said. “You know, tell the boss you comped a table when you didn’t, send the waiters home early and do their job as well as my own to get their tips, trade free meals with my dealer. There were all sorts of ways to get what I needed, and at the time it seemed all right. And I thought I could keep it up, like I had with coke or regular meth. But this was different. I was able to say ‘enough’s enough,’ unlike a lot of other people who couldn’t and who lost their jobs and everything else. But then I noticed I was doing it at home, staying on the computer all night, and finally I was doing it at work, and that’s when I knew I had a problem. And then I had a minor incident with the law and decided that was it. So I checked in here.”

Roberson, who has been clean for 15 months, said he doesn’t regret his dance with the drug but is glad it’s over. “I am going to look at it as a period of my life that I went through. It was something I did when I was young and dumb, and it’s part of my story. But I don’t want to repeat it.”

You could say ice is creating jobs for the local economy. Steve Black — not his real name — who runs a drug lab and works with drug users in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said that for the last two years people have been coming to see him in droves for help in getting cleaned up from their ice habit. “This is a new ball game. It’s not your cat-urine-smelling type meth, this is a high-grade ride,” he said. His clients come to him for a variety of reasons, including getting help in staying clean long enough to pass drug tests, which makes him privy to their real drug habits. A lot of his customers come from the well-heeled end of the gay community, but he’s seen straight business people and athletes at his door as well. “This has an enormous rush, and a lot of people who get on this stuff simply cannot shake it,” he said. And yes, Black said, a lot of ice heads talk about the sex. “That’s the main thing,” he said with a smile. “And if you’re already a sexaholic and you do this, you’re liable to nail yourself to the floor.”

He paused and grew serious. “You know, people burn themselves out all sorts of ways, from working too much to drinking too much to too much nothing,” he said. “But ice, from what I am seeing, turns you into such a raging, focused maniac that you will burn out faster, and probably harder, than anything you can imagine.”

Ice does seem to have a violent component to it, but it’s caused nothing like the bloody turf wars associated with the crack epidemics of late 1980s and early ’90s. Fort Worth Police spokesman Lt. David Sullivan and Lt. Morgan, his colleague in narcotics, said most of the violence they see in connection with ice is domestic.

Black agreed. “Husband comes home and thinks his old lady is cheating on him. He’s tweaked up and beats the hell out of her. Or she comes home and sees he’s used the last of the stash, and the battle starts. But it’s all escalated with this to a very hyper level. Ice maxes things out for real.”

Fort Worth police have taken down several ice labs in Tarrant County in the last year. Sullivan said that turf wars haven’t developed because of the way ice is generally made. The labs, he said, are frequently in motel rooms and or in vehicles, while others are far out in the country. “How can you have a turf war when someone is renting a motel room for one or two nights to make a batch he’s going to sell in another city the next day? This is not like crack. There are no street corners owned by one group or another. With this, if you don’t know someone, you’re probably not going to get the real thing.”

That’s not to say that the ice trade is risk-free. Any time people deal with black market cash and use a drug that increases paranoia, things can get out of hand. As with the regular meth trade, arguments develop over money and delivery, or a lab blows up. One former local ice cook said that a few years ago a woman disappeared when a deal both he and she had been involved with went south. When her body turned up, “she’d been tortured, carved up. They did real bad things to her.”

Life-threatening overdoses are uncommon among ice users. Actually, the most frequent acute problem associated with both meth and ice use is what’s called amphetamine psychosis. It can be brought on either by consistent heavy use or a single large dose, and its symptoms are almost identical to those of schizophrenia: vivid auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions, or, as Walker said, “talking to people who were very real but not actually there.” Fortunately, the condition generally passes in a matter of hours or days, and there are no lasting physical effects.

The ice epidemic that was predicted to arrive in the U.S. on the heels of the crack epidemic in the ’90s never developed — maybe because ice burns out its victims so fast. Mann tells people simply to leave ice alone, regardless of its euphoric promises, simply because most people can’t handle it. To those who find friends or relatives in over their heads with ice, his advice is to simply let them burn out on their own.

“They have to fall, and they usually will fall fast. It’s terrible to watch, and you hold your breath, but most people get through it,” he said. “They don’t kill themselves. They may end up in a psych ward for a couple of nights, they may end up with skin infections, but they do get away. The problem is to get them away [from ice] and keep them away. In fact, if there is anything good about ice it’s the speed with which it will ruin you. You can start, get involved, lose everything, and be back on the road to recovery in a year,” he said, only half-joking.

Mann and many others familiar with ice and meth users say putting them in jail seldom cures them. “I watched a fellow I know get sent up for 23 years for cooking ice recently,” said Black. “He no more needed jail than the man in the moon. He had a drug problem, not a criminal problem. It was like watching them send someone to jail for having cancer.”

Mann agreed. “I believe that a lot of meth users are undiagnosed adult ADD patients who are self-medicating,” he said. “I think people should be educated to this possibility, and if they notice that they’re improved with meth, they might want to go get checked for Adult ADD to see if that’s their problem. Unfortunately, society’s solution is to try to catch you with the meth and put you in jail. ... Addiction is not a criminal act, it’s a medical problem. What we need to do is expand rehabilitation and stop incarceration.”

Unfortunately, most people seeking a free rehab bed will wait months for one, and during that wait, a large percentage of them will be criminalized and find there is no waiting line for a bed in jail.

A few of the lucky ones, like Walker, find a place to rehabilitate when they need it. “I’m content,” she said. “I’m even happy, and I didn’t think that was possible.”

One former North Texas speed freak, who is now clean and has moved out of state, said he had occasionally used ice but mostly steered clear of it. If it comes your way, he said, “you’re better off saying ‘no thanks’ than messing with it. Because if you do, odds are you are going to find yourself in a battle you’re not going to win.

“Cause whatever meth is, ice is 10 times that.”

Peter Gorman is a local freelance writer. He can be reached at peterg9@yahoo.com.

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