"It's the ultimate child abuse," says Dr. Mark Ivey of women who use methamphetamines and other drugs during pregnancy. "To have that little baby growing in them, and to deliberately expose them to drugs is criminal. Absolutely criminal."
Ivey, a past president of the Arizona Medical Association and delegate to the American Medical Association, operates his family practice in Payson where so-called "meth babies" are "common," he said. "How common? I can't say. But even one is too many."
One like the baby born Dec. 18 to a 20-year-old Payson woman who admitted to using methamphetamines during her pregnancy and who now may face drug and child abuse charges for her candor.
According to local physicians and members to the Gila County Narcotics Task Force, methamphetamine use is, in the words of one narcotics agent, "absolutely out of control in Payson, and very few people here recognize that fact."
Although none of those interviewed for this story could wager a guess as to how many meth babies have been born in Payson, they all agreed that whatever the number is, it will rise in direct proportion to the soaring increase of local methamphetamine use.
And each one of those births will be accompanied by human tragedy, Ivey said, because a meth baby's entry into life beyond the womb is never easy, and often horrific.
"They can go through immediate withdrawals, nausea, vomiting," Ivey said. "They can have problems with their thyroids, with their sugar levels, with their kidney and liver functions. They are generally born smaller than normal, and they have significant problems which can affect their brain and the rhythm of their heart. They can die."
According to a spokesperson for the National Drug Information Treatment and Referral Hotline, when methamphetamines are used during pregnancy, babies can also tend to be asocial, incapable of bonding, have tremors, have birth defects and cry for 24 hours at a time without stopping. There is also an increased risk of child abuse and neglect of children born to parents who use methamphetamines.
But this drug doesn't just harm or kill babies. Just ask Eric Wiltz, a physician's assistant in the Payson office of Dr. Christopher Lesueur, whose experience with local meth-using patients has convinced him that "meth use is more prevalent in this area, per capita, than in the Valley."
Meth itself, however, isn't what's concerning him most right now.
"About six months ago, we admitted a woman about 38 with a couple of kids into the hospital ... it turned out that she had shot some meth, she developed an infection and died," Wiltz said. "Last month, another lady was admitted with a severe infection in her hand, which she almost lost secondary to shooting drugs. And two weeks ago, a young lady, 29 years old, had an infection in her hand and said she'd been bitten by a spider. Her drug screening comes back positive: she had shot crystal meth."
Each of those three Payson-area patients, Wiltz said, had used contaminated crystal meth.
"Crystal meth is a big problem here," he said. "It seems we're getting more and more people who are using it especially the age group between the mid-20s and 40s. These people need to know there are bad drugs out there.
"If you are a drug user and you develop an infection, don't sit around thinking you've been bitten by a bug. You need to get medical attention, and you need to be honest with the physician about your drug use."
Methamphetamine is a powerfully addictive stimulant that dramatically affects many areas of the central nervous system. The drug has a high potential for widespread abuse because it can easily be made in clandestine laboratories from relatively inexpensive over-the-counter ingredients.
The effects of methamphetamines can range from a sense of well-being to severe depression to convulsions to a nightmarish variety of internal disorders to death.
But the most common symptom, say Gila County Task Force agents, is that those who become addicted to methamphetamine will do anything to keep themselves supplied with the drug.
(Because these agents work undercover, their actual names cannot be published. For purposes of clarity, they will be referred to as Agents Smith, Johnson and Jones.)
"If you are a user in a rural area, you commit crimes to support your habit," Johnson said. "In this area, deaths are going up, auto thefts are going up, burglaries are skyrocketing. Last year, the burglary rate shot up by 200 percent. That's all related to drug use."
And most of that drug use is meth use, Johnson said.
"I'd say probably 85 percent of (our) arrests are related to meth problems," he guessed, "and last year we had about 360 arrests. Bear in mind, that number doesn't include arrests made by the sheriff's office or Payson Police Department or the Department of Public Safety. That's just us."
The worst case scenarios of meth abuse are reported in the national news all the time, the agents agreed. It's just that they aren't reported as being meth-related.
Remember the mother in the southeast United States who drove to a lake with her two children asleep in the back seat, put the car on a boat ramp, and watched it roll into the water, drowning both kids?
"That was meth-induced," Johnson said.
Remember the fellow who was driving eastbound on I-40 a few years ago when he suddenly decided to cut his 10-year-old son's head off and throw it out on the highway?
"That was meth," Agent Jones said.
Remember the huge 1995 case in Yuma where a narcotics agent became hooked on meth he'd stolen from confiscated evidence, then shot and killed two fellow officers and tried to kill a third to cover up his crimes?
Jones worked with all those men.
"That's how badly meth can affect the human brain," he said. "It rearranges the chemicals in your brain and, in high quantities leads to psychosis. It is absolutely tearing up this society. So fighting it is something all of us really believe in"
While these officers have never seen anything locally to compare with the headline-generating stories they recounted, they've each witnessed plenty of meth/human tragedy.
"We go into a lot of houses, and all you see is utter filth," Smith said. "All they care about is the drugs; everything else washes out the window, including their kids. Their kids don't have a chance to live a drug-free life ... You can't imagine what it's like to walk into a house that's just the filthiest, most disgusting place you've ever seen, with piles of dog feces in every room, dishes that have been in the sink for weeks. This is what these little kids have to look forward to when they wake up every day," Smith said. "That, and seeing mom and dad shoot meth into their veins."
The Payson meth explosion
"The meth problem in Payson is bigger than you can imagine," said Smith, who grew up in this town. "It's huge ... We've seen (users) as old as maybe early- or mid-60s. We had a 13-year-old at the high school selling meth on campus. We're starting to see greater concentrations of teenagers dabbling in meth and that's becoming more prevalent every day.
Johnson, a 16-year local task force veteran, says the meth explosion in Payson and all over Gila County is no new thing. He first noticed the trend in the late 1980s.
"Back then, it was coming mostly from the Valley, or from up north," Johnson said. "Now what were seeing comes from all the little 'bathtub labs,' where people rent motel rooms overnight or use their own homes to make meth right there in the bathtub. The chemicals they need are readily available to them. You can get everything you need right here in town."
The current street price for meth, the agents said, is $20 or $30 for a quarter-gram and the cost of producing that amount, Johnson said, is "maybe a dollar, maybe 50 cents. The markup is 500 percent. It's incredible. An ounce, which might cost $100 to produce, can go from $600 to $12 or $1500."
That's why crime eventually becomes so irresistible to addicts, the agents said. But stopping users from funding their craving via criminal acts, they agree, is no easy task.
"I'd say for every arrest we make there are three arrests we don't get," Johnson said. "We have a 98 percent conviction rate. But is it working? No. We see repeat offenders all the time; the same families, the same names. I'd say the chances they go back to meth after being busted is 75 percent."
Part of the reason the system isn't working as well as it might, Johnson said, is that "in addition to us, all we have handling this problem are five or six DPS guys; the sheriff's office has a handful of guys; Payson PD's the same. There's a critical lack of manpower, and everybody's feeling the crunch. I just don't know what the answer is."
Johnson paused a moment, then changed his mind.
"Actually there is one thing we can do: get the public involved," he said. "If they see something going on, if they smell something, if they witness child abuse, tell them not to turn their backs. Tell them to give someone a call any law enforcement agency and tell them what's going on and what you're seeing.
"If they report it and it's unfounded, nobody's hurt," the agent said. "But if there is something going on, we might be able to save a family. Or a child."