Until her arrest, Sandra was running drugs for the Mexican Mafia in Placer and Nevada counties. Julia’s infant was stabbed to death in her sleep by debt-seeking addicts. Anna put her baby up for adoption, but Mary kept her two sons, and they too became drug addicts. Sharon’s spine is deteriorating after 40 years of use; her teeth are already gone. Renee’s best friend divorced her, and Athea dropped out of school.
These women are individuals, but their stories are largely the same: They were daughters, wives and mothers who lost everything they had to a drug that ransacked it all.
A dirty problem
Methamphetamine has been a fact of life for women in Placer and Nevada counties for more than 20 years, but when the addicts are mothers, the impacts are multiplied and magnified.
Many women try the drug because they want to lose weight and methamphetamine acts as an appetite suppressant. Others want the extra boost of energy that the drug can provide.
“It’s easy to use ” you could get your chores done and raise a family,” said 42-year-old Sandra Hunter, a user who will finish her eight-month sentence in Nevada County’s Wayne Brown Correctional Facility next week. “It makes you lose weight. You’re more spunky and women like that, but it isn’t a true reality.”
And some just give it a whirl because the high is so euphoric ” nearly 10 times as powerful as an orgasm and able to last all day.
But the drug shackles many users from dose one, and after continued and excessive use it can lead to unpredictable mood swings, overwhelming anger, cardiovascular disease, skin infections, bone deterioration, psychosis and a slew of other ailments.
“The problem is that it is so dirty. There is nothing organic or positive about it, and it really hurts the entire person,” said Barbara Hopkins, a therapist and program manager at Sierra Family Services in Lake Forest who has been treating meth addicts for 17 years.
“People die of this drug,” she said. “The people who get off and get healthy are miracles, and it doesn’t happen often.”
Without treatment, 85 percent of methamphetamine users relapse within the first year of being released from prison, according to a study produced by the California Society of Addiction Medicine, a group of physicians specializing in the treatment drug and alcohol dependencies. With treatment, just more than 50 percent of addicts remain clean after 12 months.
“It gets you and it doesn’t let go,” said Placer County inmate Mary Hitzemann, 54. “I’m from the ’60s; we did mescaline, and acid, and cocaine, and all of that I was able to quit. But smoking meth …” Mary rolls her eyes and waves her hands in a mock surrender.
Nevada County has a methamphetamine problem. So does Placer County and every other county surrounding it. It’s an issue so huge that the jails in both Placer and Nevada counties are now swelling to capacity due to drug and drug-related crimes, and government officials are facing the challenge of expanding and building correctional facilities with budgets that don’t match the need.
The curve ball in Nevada and Placer counties is that female methamphetamine users are the very reason that jail populations are swelling.
“We have more women using this drug and more women committing crimes related to the drug’s use,” said Placer County Sheriff Edward Bonner. “We’ve had thefts, robberies, identity theft. They’ll go and steal your mail and sell it to a higher level criminal in exchange for methamphetamine.”
Nationwide, 45 percent of the meth addicts admitted to state-licensed treatment centers for care in 2002 were women, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report released in May. By contrast, women made up only 33 percent of cocaine users, 31 percent of heroin users and 24 percent of marijuana smokers admitted for treatment.
More space needed, and fast
Right now, Nevada County’s Wayne Brown Correctional Facility in Nevada City is housing anywhere between 160 and 215 inmates on a given day ” about 65 to 85 percent of the jail’s intended capacity, and when the daily average capacity finally begins to hover at 85 percent ” considered legally full for a county jail ” the race for space will really begin.
Officials estimate that an expansion will need to be completed by 2010 in order to keep the jail at a safe capacity.
“It’s at this point that we start looking at options for early releases and (facility) expansions,” said Nevada County sheriff’s Capt. Lee Osborne.
The overcrowding is impacting the female population the most, said Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal, because more women are being incarcerated for serious crimes, so the designated maximum security area is always full.
Money for jails
Following a Nevada County Grand Jury inspection of Wayne Brown Correctional Facility, a report was released in June by the jury recommending that “the Board of Supervisors consider immediate expansion or alteration to alleviate the inmate classification issues,” or the mingling of inmates incarcerated for different levels of crime.
But coming up with an additional $10 million ” the cost that Nevada County Executive Officer Richard Haffey has estimated it will take to fund capital outlay ” will be difficult. Money might be available from the state at some point, but even then Nevada County won’t be the only county vying for it. The county will still have to match any given funds.
Funding for California jails comes primarily from state ballot measures, but there aren’t any new measures to fund the building or expansion of correctional facilities on the books for any of the next three elections. No jail funding propositions have passed since Proposition 86 in 1990.
“If we don’t get the money then the board is faced with the crucial decision: Can they fun it themselves? Counties really don’t want to do this to themselves,” Osborne said. “If there isn’t state money, then jail expansions usually don’t go forward.”
Methamphetamine is a drug that many mothers get hooked on with the best of intentions. They want to be able to clean their homes, cook for their families, play with their kids and please their husbands all at once. And at first, many women say that they could achieve that idyllic goal. But when use increases, and it nearly always does, those perfect housewives kiss their drug-made glory good-bye.
“If there was a fairy tale perfect marriage, my husband and I had it,” said Renee VanderSchuur, 49. “We had it all, and I lost everything.”
About a year after her first hit at age 40, Renee hopped on a motorcycle with a man who would later become her boyfriend, and left behind a 25-year marriage, a mentally ill son who depended on her, a daughter and a new grandbaby. She had never done drugs before.
Since then, she’s been in jail seven times for drug related charges and lost the husband she still calls her best friend.
“Meth destroyed my life,” she said. “I’ve been locked up since the day I took a line. Locked up in my own little hell.”
Renee’s story is not unique. Every day in America thousands more women become addicted to methamphetamine. Some are children, others are grown. Some are poor, and some are rich; race is no indicator. But all of them are looking to fill a void that they say is only deepened by their addiction.
“The common thread between them is the wish and hope to be the perfect woman,” said Julia, who has been clean for 13 years and who now works as an advocate for Tahoe Women’s Services.
For most, meth use starts casually as a way to make it through a hectic Monday or holiday baking and gift-wrapping, but the high is so extreme, so overpowering, that within months or even weeks users are getting high daily and the downward spiral begins.
“I went from using on the weekends to using every single day within two months,” said Athea Sutton, 27, an inmate at Nevada County’s Wayne Brown Correctional Facility. “You don’t realize that you want to do it more because it’s addicting, you just want to get more stuff done. And you don’t feel a head change at first ” it’s 10 years later that you’re almost crazy.”
Athea, the mother of three children, sought meth as a way to keep up with the needs of a baby, the demands of school, and her own sanity.
Those children are now being raised by Athea’s in-laws and are in a safe place, but such a fall-back is not always an option for other users, and when children and drug mothers stay together, the consequences can be devastating.
“They throw everything”their children”down the toilet,” Julia said. “It’s not that they love their child less, but how can you be OK if you haven’t slept in 10 days. Your brain is so busy that you forget what you’re doing.”
Perhaps one of the most curious ramifications of meth use, is that it absolutely negates maternal instincts”the need for the drug overpowers a mother’s care for her child and little ones are easily pushed aside.
“You can’t even play with your child because your brain is going everywhere, so they’re left to fend for themselves,” Julia said. “Kids grow up to have huge issues”it’s the hidden effect. They look normal because their arms and legs are attached, but you’ve already screwed up their heads.”
Local officials are finding that meth brings increased cases of child endangerment, abuse and neglect, and that parents under the influence are also more likely to sexually or physically abuse their children. Research has also shown that children exposed to the drug are also more likely to become users themselves.
To stop the cycle of use and abuse, users, law enforcement officials and drug counselors agree that education and rehabilitation are key.
“I need to learn about my addiction before I can change it. I need to learn the tools. I’m done–I just hope I’m strong enough,” said Renee. “I’m lonely, but my head is getting clear. I need to do this for myself and I won’t let me down.”
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