ANNAPOLIS – Jay Scorza is no stranger to the allure of drugs. As a teenager, he experimented with marijuana, cocaine and speed, sometimes staying awake for a week at a time.
When he moved to the Washington, D.C. area 12 years ago, he discovered methamphetamine, also known as crystal meth, ice or crank, which gave him a high 20 times stronger than any other drug he’d tried.
Then he found an even greater high – concocting the super-charged drug himself in his basement out of cold medicine, water and phosphorous. He sold it at D.C. raves and Baltimore clubs, making around $3,000 in a single week.
“I was enamored of it, to have that kind of power,” said Scorza, now 32 years old and living in Northern Virginia. In the meth world, “there is no higher status than to be a cooker. And to be involved in that at 20 years old, that was a real ego boost.”
But the business backfired, and he spent nearly three years in jail for distributing the drug before falling back into his old habits. He eventually wound up at Second Genesis, a Crownsville drug rehabilitation clinic, for a 10-month treatment program.
As meth inches into Maryland, drug abuse treatment centers in the state are seeing a surge of patients like Scorza who are looking for help. While the drug has swept through the Western and Midwestern states, Maryland law enforcement and health officials have only recently begun to see the signs of its eastward encroachment.
Nevertheless, club-goers and young professionals discovering meth in Washington, D.C., Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, are increasingly seeking help in Maryland to fight the addiction.
“Users will go to clubs in Dupont Circle or use it at chichi parties in D.C., but they come back to live and get help in Maryland,” said David H. Shippee, executive director of Chase Brexton Health Services in Baltimore. “We get the fallout.”
Linda Auerback, assistant substance abuse prevention coordinator at Junction, Inc., a Carroll County outpatient treatment program, said her facility is grappling with the rising demand for meth abuse treatment, and some patients are crossing the border from Pennsylvania.
“Crystal meth has grown up and we’re seeing more use in the general population,” she said. “That means we need more counselors and more treatment options.”
The number of meth-related admissions to Maryland treatment centers has more than tripled since 1999. That’s a small rise compared to the number of patients seeking rehabilitation for other drugs, said William Rusinko, research director at the state’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Administration in Catonsville.
“But it’s slowly growing,” he said. About 18 percent of those cases come from outside the state, nearly four times more than patients seeking treatment for drugs other than meth.
While cocaine, marijuana and heroin are still the dominant drugs used by Marylanders, meth is working its way into the mix, according to national treatment data. Meth is typically used in conjunction with several other drugs, but meth’s intense side effects – in some cases, psychosis and mental disorders – often drive people to seek treatment, said Cathy Martens, executive director of Second Genesis.
“You’re probably not going to find a client that just uses meth,” she said, adding that about a quarter of the center’s patients report experimenting with the drug in addition to others, such as alcohol and ecstasy. Very few, though, list meth as their primary drug, so some providers don’t get a clear picture of the problem. “Folks in D.C. and Maryland are starting to worry that we aren’t prepared for this.”
Compared to other states, use of meth in Maryland is still very low – less than 1 percent of the total drug use, Rusinko said. Treatment centers may be seeing more patients because the state receives many patients through the courts systems in both Maryland and Virginia. Maryland’s centers may also absorb some overflow from surrounding states that don’t have enough resources to treat the meth problem.
“People possibly develop the addiction outside the state and then just cross the line into Maryland for treatment,” he said.
The fear of an impending meth epidemic is also prompting lawmakers and police to push for harsher penalties for manufacturing meth and restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine – the chemical commonly found in over-the-counter cold medicines and used to make the drug.
Currently, the maximum penalty for manufacturing and distributing meth is a five-year sentence with a maximum fine of $15,000. For other drugs, such as cocaine and heroine, the penalty is a 20-year-sentence and a fine of up to $25,000.
“Here in Maryland we see meth as an emerging drug and we need to get ahead of it before it becomes a much larger problem,” said Captain Vernon Conaway, who heads the drug enforcement division for the Maryland State Police.
This year, four labs have been seized by state police, which is double the number of labs found two years ago. Compared to neighboring states, though, “Maryland’s lab seizures seem very low,” he said.
“But if it’s in our neighboring states, and people are coming here to use it and get treatment, then it’s only a matter of time,” he added.
Lisa Gladden, a Baltimore assistant public defender and Maryland state senator, is trying to push legislation to restrict the sale of products containing pseudoephedrine or ephedrine. Some drug stores have voluntarily moved cold medicines and diet pills that contain the chemicals behind the pharmacy’s counter, and Virginia now prohibits customers from purchasing more than three packages of such items at a time with photo identification.
Meth “is still more expensive and less accessible than crack or heroine, but as the distribution system matures we’re going to have a problem,” she said. “If people are getting killed in the streets over crack, do you know what they’ll do for crystal meth?”
Not all treatment providers have seen the increase in meth-related admissions. At Mann House, a substance abuse program and halfway house in Bel Air, heroin is still a much bigger problem than meth, according to Executive Director Greg Haywood.
“Obviously, crystal meth is on the rise, but I haven’t seen the increase I thought we would,” he said.
Less than 60 miles away, however, meth has taken a firmer hold.
“Every week we get more people who use it,” said Auerback of Junction, Inc. in Westminster. “A year and a half ago, we weren’t getting any.”
In Cecil County, more patients are reporting that they’ve experimented with meth even if it is not their primary drug of choice, said Karen Winkowski, the county’s alcohol and drug abuse program director. Bordering on Pennsylvania and Delaware, “we are more susceptible to drug trends . . . problems that go on in other states don’t stop at the border.”
Inevitably, she said, meth “will continue to infiltrate.”
Chronic relapse is common among meth users, and people addicted to other drugs often get hooked on meth because it offers a long-lasting high and reduces inhibitions more effectively, said Amy Bullock-Smith, director of mental health at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C.
“I’ve treated clients who come in with a crack cocaine dependency, and I’ve seen them return addicted to crystal meth,” she said.
About 70 percent of the clinic’s patients have abused the drug, and meth outranks alcohol and crack cocaine as the primary drug of choice. Bullock-Smith said she has seen a sharp increase in meth use since 2000 and “by 2001, every other client was a meth user.”
In Washington, D.C., five Crystal Meth Anonymous groups have begun, catering particularly to users in the growing gay communities there. Two additional 12-step programs are starting in Baltimore, according to notices posted outside the groups’ Dupont Circle meeting place.
Maryland treatment centers are focusing on outreach programs to educate potential users about the dangers of using and “cooking” meth. At Baltimore’s Chase Brexton, addiction program manager Elizabeth Disney hosts monthly educational groups focused on club drugs, particularly meth. With patients, she’s experimenting with different treatment techniques to “get ahead of the epidemic.”
“I don’t think we can stall it very long,” she said.
The state’s rural counties have the highest risk of developing meth users and labs, according to the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland. In those areas, support groups for parents and teenagers are forming. Weekly meetings are held in Carroll County, and Charles County is putting together an awareness campaign.
At Anne Arundel’s Second Genesis, patients participate in community outreach programs as part of the treatment process. For the past year, Scorza has been sharing his story with local middle and high school students.
He tells them what it’s like to be high for eight days straight days, and how “cooking” the volatile chemicals for 30 seconds too long can blow up a house.
Increasing education and treatment, he said, are the only ways to keep a lid on meth’s “exponential growth.” “I don’t tell them not to use drugs, I just tell them what will happen if they do,” Scorza said. “I tell them not to throw their lives away for a cheap high.”