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A fall from grace: The allure of meth

Robert Chavarria walks back to his cell at the San Benito County Jail. Chavarria has spent the past 2 1/2 years in jail because of his meth use.

For 30 consecutive days in 1996, Joel didn’t sleep. Not one
minute. He had other priorities.
Instead, Joel and a friend repaired cars day and night. They
were thinking economically, and time was precious.
But they weren’t thinking as businessmen. They thought as
desperate methamphetamine addicts. And they would sacrifice
anything for another supply of smoked comfort.
For 30 consecutive days in 1996, Joel didn’t sleep. Not one minute. He had other priorities.

Instead, Joel and a friend repaired cars day and night. They were thinking economically, and time was precious.

But they weren’t thinking as businessmen. They thought as desperate methamphetamine addicts. And they would sacrifice anything for another supply of smoked comfort.

Joel said that 30-day session wiped him out physically.

“I got down to 160 pounds. Man, I looked like a toothpick,” he said. “It’s what you call ‘spun-out.'”

Even though Joel worked as a mechanic from 1996-98, he lived homeless. After all, money wasted on rent for an apartment could go toward another 8-ball of “crank” – one-eighth of an ounce of meth.

“I was staying here and there, living in a barn, because I chose the drug,” he said.

Now, he’s no longer conflicted about finding a place to sleep, or even the drug. Joel, 37, lives in a San Benito County Jail cell – pondering his mistakes, reading the Bible, thinking about his wife and four children.

The jail’s revolving door has frequently sheltered Joel for seven years, for a single reason – methamphetamine addiction.

“The minute I got out the door, I was walking around and getting high,” he said.

Joel is not alone. Meth has dominated the county drug scene during the past five to six years, according to Lt. Patrick Turturici of the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department.

Joel said at least 75 percent of inmates in jail had used meth before incarceration.

Of all the mental health needs at the jail, Turturici estimated that 60 to 70 percent of requests stem from methamphetamine withdrawal.

As a nurse for Mental Health Services, Tara Larkin visits the jail weekly.

“It’s definitely a problem here,” Larkin said.

Meth labs and addiction are growing problems throughout the state, said Cmdr. Bob Cooke of the Unified Narcotic Enforcement Team.

“There’s more manufactured in California than any other country in the world,” Cooke said.

And since the county is largely rural, law enforcement officials said meth labs have diffused rapidly here, like a frenzied hatch of flying ants.

Sydney Portrum counsels drug users at the San Benito County Substance Abuse program. He said 80 percent of clients seek help for meth addiction.

“Everybody started making it,” Joel said. “I’d get away from it and then I got people just giving it to me. It just follows you, everywhere you go. If I go to another county I run into somebody just offering it again.”

Meth doesn’t cater to any specific demographic, according to county jail inmates and law enforcement officials. Although it’s a comparatively cheap drug, this isn’t just a poverty issue.

Joel’s parents, who live in Santa Clara, are wealthy, he said. His father is a successful accountant and his mother works for Marriott Hotels. They recently spent $10,000 in attorney fees for Joel’s troubles in court.

“I’ve seen all types of people,” Turturici said. “I’ve seen the blue-collar person to the street gang person. It affects everyone.”

Cooke compared meth’s mental effects to those of cocaine. But while a methamphetamine “rush” lasts eight to 24 hours, a cocaine high lasts only 20 to 30 minutes, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

While cocaine is derived from the coca plant, meth is man-made and can include such ingredients as over-the-counter medications, battery acid and antifreeze.

“It’s garbage in, garbage out,” Larkin said.

And meth is much less expensive than cocaine. Joel said two 8-balls cost about $100 while a quarter-ounce of cocaine usually costs $500 to $600.

Both are in a class of drugs called psychostimulants, according to NIDA. And both can cause paranoia, hallucinations, mood swings and violence.

Chemically, methamphetamine produces an artificial pleasure in the brain, according to the Koch Crime Institute. When a person makes a habit of meth use, the brain’s reward center can no longer differentiate between the drug and the “natural chemical messenger.” That results in dependence, according to the KCI.

Cooke said some people use it once and are immediately hooked.

“The first high is so incredibly high, so intense, they get addicted,” Cooke said.

Portrum also said first-time meth users often become addicts. At that point, a fall from grace is often unavoidable.

Portrum recalled an affluent family man three years ago, then 43, who entered the program. Before his addiction to meth, the man worked as a successful engineer in San Jose. The addiction diminished his ability to work. His attention span fizzled.

“He came here trying to get in a long-term program,” Portrum said.

Eventually the man found himself living on the streets because his family couldn’t handle the addiction.

“He killed himself,” Portrum said. “He died of a heart attack while being arrested. It was a direct effect of meth.”

Spouses often leave meth addicts out of necessity because the addict’s main concern is always the next high, Portrum said.

“Family and everything else is out the window. … You’ve got to get them (addicts) out of the community, get them away.”

Robert Chavarria, 30, tried to get away from Hollister’s meth scene several times. He started using the drug in 1994, the same year of an arrest that sent him to prison for three years.

“I got caught up using,” Chavarria said. “I let it take control of my life.”

He finished the jail sentence in 1997. Chavarria then married and had two children. He and his wife made a conscious effort to flee the county, from the temptation-filled environment where his meth-using buddies regularly hung out.

The family moved to Placer County and only occasionally visited Hollister, where Chavarria’s mother and an older daughter from another relationship both lived. On each return, though, he ran into his old friends. And each time he’d drink a few beers and end up getting high on meth.

When Chavarria’s mother became seriously ill, his family moved back to Hollister permanently. Chavarria tried prudently to avoid the drug scene. He held a respectable job as an electrician and the family began saving money to buy a house.

“But I got pulled right back in,” Chavarria said.

And the family suffered from his bizarre behavior. Chavarria would often drive through town in the middle of the night.

“You get grumpy, you get grouchy,” he said. “You don’t want to hurt these individuals. You don’t want to be snappy at them because you love them. But the only way you’re going to be at peace is if you’re high. Sometimes you’ll do anything.”

In July 2000 – three weeks after Chavarria’s wife and kids left him, and the night before a planned morning trip to Salinas to start a meth treatment program – police arrested Chavarria for meth possession. He’s been incarcerated since. And he said he’s still “looking at a lot of years” in prison.

Others in the county have sunk through the same sand as Chavarria. Many could even tell the same story. Only the names would change.

A meth problem has infested the county. Like deadly weeds in a garden, it doesn’t cease with a single pull or even two. The addiction is persistent, the vulnerability lurking.

“It devastates the family structure,” Portrum said.

Chavarria said the extent of use – and who’s using – would shock most local residents. Turturici agreed. So did Cooke.

Portrum said the population of users has even “triculated down” to the adolescents – 10- and 12-year-olds, he said.

“The first thing people think when they hear the word ‘addict’ is somebody sleeping out in the street or somebody of low income,” Chavarria said. “It’s not like that.”

Chavarria said he remembers hanging out at the homes of meth dealers when a wide array of white-collar users stopped in. Businessmen, he said. Teachers.

He described one night in a dealer’s living room: “Someone (at the house) says to me, ‘You wouldn’t believe who that is. That person teaches over at…'”

Both Chavarria and Joel have recently turned to the Bible for guidance. Joel still faces at least two years of prison time, and another 10 if he’s convicted again.

“I don’t want that life anymore,” Chavarria said.

Neither does Joel.

But avoiding another lapse will take an effort far beyond words, maybe even far beyond desire.