Meth cooks up citywide menace

Destructive drug tightens its grip on Portland, destroying lives and increasing crime

In a small, inconspicuous house on Southeast 78th Avenue, a frail woman peeks out of lace curtains and tears up at the mention of her son, who in 1999 died at age 33 of a massive cerebral brain hemorrhage related to longtime methamphetamine use.

Emotions are different down the road on Southeast 67th Avenue, where an elderly woman stands outside her home and says defiantly that she hasn't missed her husband of 40 years a day since he died. He'd been hooked on meth for 20 years, she says, 'and it was hell.'

'If he didn't have his drugs,' she says, 'I was bruised from head to toe.'

From Brentwood-Darlington to St. Johns, and everywhere in between, thousands of people in Portland are affected daily by the drug. Meth, as it's commonly called, continues to hit the city hard, destroying lives, turning neighborhoods into eyesores and increasing crime rates in some areas by as much as 300 percent from last year to now.

Police say 99 percent of the city's burglaries, car break-ins, shoplifting and identity theft cases are committed by people who use meth Ñ addicts desperate for any amount of cash to buy their next hit.

'It's sort of the bane of our existence out here in east (Portland),' says Rosanne Lee, an east Portland crime prevention specialist. 'It's so cheap and easy to make, it's hard to avoid. I scratch my head and wonder what we're going to do.'

Because of its proximity to Canada and Seattle to the north and Los Angeles and Mexico to the south along the Interstate 5 corridor, Portland has always been a transit point for drug sales, including meth.

Each week, 15 to 25 people in the city are arrested on meth sale, possession or manufacturing charges, and police raid one or two small labs Ñ each of which produce a few ounces. While some labs these days are small enough to be toted around in a backpack, larger labs often are located in rural parts of Washington and Clackamas counties and weekly produce up to 20 pounds of meth Ñ most of which is sold in the city.

'People who live out in Estacada (or) Vancouver (Wash.) are coming here because they know the market is here,' says Scott Partridge, a drug analyst hired three years ago through a federal grant to track meth for the Portland Police Bureau. 'It's a commuter thing.'

Meth first was used decades ago as a way for soldiers to stay awake during wartime. Biker gangs in California began using it on the streets in 1960s, and it spread from there Ñ exploding in the last five to 10 years on the West Coast and quickly moving east.

Last year, Oregon ranked seventh nationwide in the number of meth labs seized. More than 500 labs were seized in the state, with 54 of those in Multnomah County. California was ranked No. 1, followed by Washington state.

'I personally think that meth is probably the biggest danger we have in the drug world right now because it's so easy to make,' says Capt. Cliff Madison, supervisor of the Portland Police Bureau's drugs and vice division. 'The plan of attack is, we're trying to have a network of communication out there Ñ find out who's cooking and who's selling. With limited resources, I think we're making headway in the Portland area.'

But law enforcement efforts may not be enough to stem the tide.

A unique high

Methamphetamine is a love affair like no other. It's snorted, injected or smoked in a small glass pipe, providing the ultimate rush. Enough of it can make a person go sleepless for two weeks straight, have an unlimited sense of energy, feel invincible and experience a high that surpasses any other drug, according to police and medical experts.

Hard-core users Ñ commonly called tweakers, crankers or meth freaks Ñ seldom die of meth overdoses. Instead, they die from heart attacks and car crashes, of diseases like hepatitis C and AIDS, obtained from sharing needles or sex.

They abuse their partners, neglect their children and run from police. They cost taxpayers enormous expenses in unpaid property taxes and land cleanups at sites that once housed toxic chemicals.

Crack cocaine and heroin were once kings of the hard drugs. In the last decade, while police were hunting down those drugs and their suppliers, meth began taking over. It's now as easily obtainable on the street as marijuana.

'When you're on a run, all you have time to do is get high on meth or commit a crime to get meth,' says Portland Police Sgt. Dale Larson, who began focusing on meth users in the city 20 years ago. 'It steals your possessions. It steals your health. It steals your morality Ñ the things that make you a moral, social being. You lose your freedom because the police lock you up. You lose everything.'

Larson says meth is hard to overcome because it becomes a lifestyle. Dr. Karen Gunson, the state medical examiner, says meth is physically addictive because it causes chemical changes in the brain.

'They start out getting these wonderful highs, and they have to take more and more to get the same high,' she says. 'It's almost like a wave effect. Finally, they have to take methamphetamines just to not be down.'

Meth Ñ known on the streets as crank, zip, glass, crystal, chalk or speed Ñ is the fastest growing drug in the country. Use is surging partly because of the growth of the Internet, which has made it easier for people to obtain recipes and supplies that are illegal in the United States but legal in Canada and Mexico.

'I know they're aware of what it's doing to their system, but they don't care,' says Sgt. Keloy Krohn, who oversees the special crimes unit at East Precinct. 'When you see somebody come out on the street that looks like the night of the living dead, that's someone on methamphetamines.'

Neighbors help in hunt

Finding a meth lab is a hit-or-miss process. In recent years, meth cooks have developed a new method to produce the drug, using a compound called red phosphorus that doesn't yield as much of the foul smell that used to give meth labs away.

Now, complaints about suspicious activity often tip off the police. That was the case last week when officers received information about a rather ordinary-looking apartment in the 10800 block of Southeast Bush Street.

According to East Precinct senior neighborhood officers Tracy Chamberlin and Mark Martin, a 5-year-old girl answered the door, and an adult inside granted them permission to search the place.

The place was filled with junk, they said, and they immediately smelled ether Ñ an agent used to thin meth as it's being cooked to create a purer substance.

Trained officers in protective suits spent the afternoon recovering and documenting items from inside: chemicals, propane tanks and glassware used in the manufacture of meth. Mattresses, dirty laundry and junk littered the floors, they said.

In the 1980s, before police realized the health dangers associated with meth labs, they went in without protective gear, and many are now suffering kidney, esophageal and other problems. One of the most volatile elements used in meth labs is anhydrous ammonia, a compressed liquid gas that cooks use to distill ephedrine during the cooking process. It's so volatile that a drop on the skin will burn it to the bone.

Cleaning up the Bush Street house will cost about $2,000 for the removal and incineration of the materials by a private contractor hired by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Larger cleanups can cost up to $10,000. The apartment itself will be unoccupied for several months while the landlord has it professionally cleaned.

Officers said the girl, who attended kindergarten across the street at Earl Boyles Elementary School, had been sleeping on the couch for the previous month while her bedroom was being used as a meth lab. Officers decontaminated and arrested three adults in the house. The girl and the two older children who lived there Ñ ages 13 and 14 Ñ are in state protective custody and will be placed with family members.

Earl Boyles Principal Barbara Kienle says the 5-year-old often was late to school and often was picked up hours late; Kienle had to walk the girl home several times at the end of the day. She says she was surprised Ñ but not shocked Ñ to hear the girl lived in a meth lab.

'She looked like she slept in the clothes she came to school in,' Kienle says. 'We'd check her hair for lice. She ate free lunch and breakfast at school, and she looked like she needed to eat.'

Dealing with children of drug-addicted parents is an ongoing issue, she says:

'We've seen a lot of it in this school.'

'It took over'

There are about 4,000 hard-core users in the city, many of whom are part of Portland officer Larson's mug-shot collection of a few hundred of East Precinct's meth addicts he's had contact with since the early 1980s.

On the back of each mug shot Ñ filed in a small, expandable box that looks like a baseball card collection Ñ he's recorded every arrest, every knock on a door, every police pursuit of a suspect.

The files are arranged in alphabetical order and divided by gender and race. Ninety-five percent are men; a few dozen women make the files. About 95 percent of the people in the files are white.

Larson has had David Wiley's mug shot on file for a while. He says Wiley Ñ a former commercial painter with a high school degree Ñ was once the third-largest manufacturer of meth in Portland.

Now, he's awaiting trial on charges of manufacturing a controlled substance after allegedly walking into a house under surveillance last year and purchasing 9 pounds of iodine from an illegal supplier. Police say he was cooking his meth in an old garage on Southeast Duke Street. He faces three years in federal prison if convicted.

Wiley told the Tribune last week that he's been sober and completely out of the business since his arrest last year, but in his heyday, he brought in about $5,000 a day. He's been convicted only once before Ñ five years ago on a felony charge of possession of a controlled substance.

Helping the habit

Wiley, 39, says he began cooking meth when he wanted to make more money to support his habit. Everyone in the meth world knew of him, he says, and sometimes he'd have as much as $12,000 in his pocket at once.

'In the beginning, it gave me everything I wanted,' he says. 'As it progressed, pretty soon it became my life. It took over everything I did.'

He'd get ripped off here and there, he says, but he never went after people for money. He guesses that he probably gave away as much as a $1 million during his seven-year span in the meth world.

Wiley says he was arrested several times during the years, but he never served more than a few days in jail, which he said he now regrets.

'It was just a game,' he says. 'When the feds came and got me, it was over.'

Buyers and friends used to come by his house every night, at all hours. Now, the street is quiet. As he talks, his wife pulls up to the house, sees a police car outside and her eyes grow wide.

'Don't worry, it's a good police talk,' Larson tells her. 'Oh, good,' she says, rushing inside with groceries.

'I almost ruined my marriage,' Wiley says, with a deflated sigh. 'I've done everything I never should have, 100 times over. I made sure they always had food and money, but I was always gone.'

Contact Jennifer Anderson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..