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Oklahomans fight on drug war’s front lines

ANADARKO, Okla. – The physical long-term effects of methamphetamine abuse are becoming too well–known throughout America:

Massive weight loss. Sunken face. Insomnia. Jitteriness. Scratching from feeling as if bugs are crawling under the skin’s surface.

Sometimes these symptoms have variations that depend on how methamphetamine is used, whether they be the burned-out teeth variety from smoking “ice,” or track marks from intravenous drug use.

Beyond the individual effects, methamphetamine’s ripples in the waters of life are also far-reaching. These range from ripping apart families and the raising of crime levels in order to obtain meth, to pollution from meth labs and the uninhibited spread of sexually transmitted diseases while high.

The ready availability of over-the-counter cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine, which is used to make meth, before 2004 contributed to Oklahoma having one of the nation’s highest rates of meth production.

On April 6, 2004, Oklahoma’s House Bill 2176 took effect, which limited the sale of cold medicines. This law also required a signature and proper identification for each purchase. According to statistics from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, this law caused the drop from an all-time high of 1,254 meth labs in 2002 to only 274 in 2005. Out of those 274, OBN stated that most are instances of equipment seized at dumpsites.

No matter how many meth labs are seized, there are always the casualties, whether they be the addicts or the children of addicts. One person who has seen the direct and indirect results of meth addiction is Scott BigHorse, Osage/Cherokee, who has worked in Osage County juvenile corrections for the past seven years and became a consultant after being recently elected to the Oklahoma state House of Representatives. BigHorse said that the open spaces and distance between communities in Oklahoma’s largest county, the Osage Nation’s 275-square-mile Osage County, make it a “haven” for meth production. BigHorse did add, however, that there had been a significant decrease in meth labs due to the 2004 law, but there had been several mobile meth labs and meth-making equipment found in state parks.

BigHorse said that few juveniles with whom he has worked have been meth users, but that “a lot of these kids came from homes where one or both parents used meth,” he said. But out of those few who did use meth, the symptoms showed – weight loss, fidgeting, grinding of teeth and jaws, and “eyes as big as silver dollars,” said BigHorse. “There’s a lot of telltale signs there.”

From the standpoint of working with juvenile corrections, BigHorse said that the best way to fight drug abuse was to have them hear the message about the dangers of drugs not just once, but repeatedly.

“It’s all about education,” he said. “Education is the only thing that can make a difference at all. They’ve got to hear the message every day.”

While those in juvenile corrections help the youth recreate and restructure their lives, there are the adult addicts who struggle to rebuild their lives from the bottom up. Oklahoma’s Caddo County is part of seven tribal jurisdictions: Kiowa, Comanche, Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, Fort Sill Apache, Caddo, Western Delaware and the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes. And within these tribes, community leaders struggle to keep people from returning to the darkness of meth addiction.

Tim Keechi, Western Delaware, is a counselor with the Consortium Against Substance Abuse, a program co-sponsored by the Western Delaware Nation, Apache Tribe of Oklahoma and the Fort Sill Apache. According to Keechi, 90 to 95 percent of CASA’s clients are either meth addicts or problem users, with alcohol and other drugs consisting of only 5 – 10 percent.

“Labs have gone down, but the abuse and addictions have stayed the same,” said Keechi, citing other sources of meth coming from surrounding states with less stringent laws and meth smuggled in from Mexico.

Many CASA clients have been referred by either Indian Child Welfare or the Oklahoma Department of Human Services as a way for addicts to not only get the help they need, but also as a road to eventual reunion with their children through outpatient therapy such as family counseling and Narcotics Anonymous. Many of Keechi’s clients are also part of the court system that includes random drug tests and an employment requirement.

However, Keechi said funding was a major problem in treating meth addiction in Caddo County, with facilities only able to provide 28 – 30 days of treatment rather than the preferred 90 days needed for treating meth addiction on an inpatient basis.

Keechi and his colleagues said they feel they make the most difference through their volunteer prevention efforts, such as speaking at local junior high schools. With these age groups, there is not just the danger of illegal drugs but also of abusing over-the-counter drugs such as cough syrups containing dextromethorphan.

“We don’t have much funding for abuse as it is,” said Keechi. “We’re doing prevention on our own. That’s something that’s needed.”