Story last updated at 7:05 PM on Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Death leads Homer to face meth issue



BY MICHAEL ARMSTRONG
STAFF WRITER

The death of a young Homer woman from an apparent drug overdose last week has raised the question of how big a problem methamphetamines has become in Homer.



 
 
Bethany Woodworth, 19, died March 16 in Anchorage after being found unconscious and not breathing at a Lighthouse Village cabin on the Homer Spit. (See related story, page 10.)

Her parents, Julie and Shane Woodworth, said they hope their daughter didn’t die in vain and somebody can learn from their tragedy.

“I sure hope this helps some families out there,” Shane Woodworth said. “If there are any families out there going through rough things, or suspicious … we’re not experts, but we’ve lived through it.”

Police, social workers, school officials and families of meth users all said meth is prevalent on the lower Kenai Peninsula, and close to becoming a major problem.

“It’s rampant in town,” said Shane Woodworth. “That stuff isn’t a party thing. It’s an addictive killer.”

Homer Police Chief Mark Robl warned that Homer is at a turning point.

“If meth comes to Homer in significant amounts, it will tear up the community,” he said.

For baby boomers who might have used methamphetamines in the 1960s and 1970s, the drug has changed. Changes in one of the main ingredients used to make meth, pseudo ephedrine — an over-the-counter cold medicine sold under the brand name of Sudafed — has led to the use of harsher chemicals like acetone in processing, or “cooking,” meth.

“The meth people took 20 years ago — you never saw meth mouth,” said Henry Novak, director of Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, a Kenai Peninsula treatment center. “You’re getting a much more toxic form of the drug.”

“Meth mouth” is a dental condition common in long-term users that results in rotten, decayed teeth.

Parents of meth users said their children tell them meth is being used by an increasing number of teenagers in Homer and Anchor Point. A woman who asked not to be named because she fears retribution from drug dealers said her son had been on meth, but quit in December. He told her meth use and dealing is a huge problem on the southern peninsula, with most meth coming out of Anchor Point. A lot of meth is brought down from Anchorage and then sold by small-time dealers, many of them teenagers, the boy said.

“We think we’re immune from real life in this cosmic town, but we’re not,” the woman said. “Trust me.”

Tess Dally, a mental health clinician at CICADA in Homer, said the meth users she’s seen are mostly women and teens. She knows of meth users as young as 17 and suspects some users are as young as 15.

“It’s coming to the community rather quickly,” Dally said. “It’s hit a really young population, a lot of youth.”

Some people question where kids get the money to buy meth, but Dally said they don’t need money. A lot of them act as “go betweens” between dealers and other users. The kids will cut the meth with some sort of powder, pinching a stash for themselves, before delivering a diluted product.

According to the Alaska Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Enforcement’s 2005 annual report, Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, the Kenai Peninsula and Fairbanks have problems with meth labs. Southeast Alaska tends to have meth smuggled in.

“The same tends to be true for coastal commercial fishery related communities,” the report said.

Alaska law regulates how Sudafed can be sold to customers. At stores like Safeway, people wanting to buy cold medicine for legitimate uses have to ask for it. If they buy above a certain amount, stores are supposed to notify police. That has cut into the numbers of people cooking meth in small operations, said Robl.

Meth can be made at home using supplies like Sudafed, lithium batteries, starter fluid, rock salt, matchbooks, coffee filters, acetone and aluminum foil.

“That you can make it in your own kitchen, your own home tends to minimize it,” Dally said. “People think if you can buy everything you need to make it at Fred Meyer, it can’t be all that bad.”

Another reason younger people use meth is because of their parents’ attitudes toward drugs and alcohol, Dally said.

“There’s an attitude toward drugs that it’s OK, it’s not bad to smoke pot or drink a little bit,” Dally said.

Kids see that in their parents, and they think that their parents are alcoholics or potheads, she said. Kids think marijuana or alcohol makes their parents slow and stupid, and they then use meth because they think meth makes them sharper or more alert, she said.

“‘This makes me do better,’” Dally said kids tell her. “‘I wouldn’t want to be like them. I wouldn’t like to be an alcoholic or pothead.”

Three years ago, Robl told the Homer News meth use and manufacturing was on the rise. Recent reports show that trend continues, he said. Police are beginning to see meth show up in searches when they make arrests for other crimes, such as drunk driving. They might find a suspect has trace amounts of meth in a pipe, for example. Robl said he doesn’t know of any meth labs inside Homer city limits.

“I think most of the higher quality stuff is getting shipped down here from Anchorage,” he said. “The big cooks (meth labs) aren’t going around because it’s harder to get ingredients.”

Charges of possessing meth are hard to make, Robl said.

“For various reasons, we’re not making as many cases as we know exist,” he said.

Meth-related crimes like driving under the influence and theft have been on the rise, said Kenai District Attorney June Stein.

“It’s certainly been a problem and getting to be worse of a problem,” she said.

Police and troopers also are starting to notice people driving under the influence who haven’t been drinking alcohol but appear impaired. A program called Drug Recognition Expert trains officers how to recognize non-alcohol impairment, Stein said.

That’s one problem with meth, Dally said: It’s not as obvious as pot or alcohol. Drug testing also is limited. While marijuana can stay in the system for a month or longer, meth leaves the body in two or three days.

When their daughter first started using meth, they couldn’t tell, the Woodworths said.

“If you drink, people smell it. If you smoke pot, people smell it,” Julie Woodworth said. “If you do meth, you can’t tell. If you’re a kid trying to get away with something, that’s a selling point with the drug pushers.”

That might be one reason why students at the schools don’t get caught for meth possession. Homer High School Principal Ron Keffer said he has seen an increase in the number of students caught using or possessing marijuana and alcohol on school grounds — but not meth. When students are caught, police are called. Students who get busted sometimes get referred to CICADA and are tested for drug use.

“They’re coming back hot (positive) for methamphetamine,” Novak said — including students from Homer.

Keffer suspects meth use among students. Last Thursday for its monthly meeting, the Homer Parent-Teacher Association had scheduled a talk by Homer Police Sgt. Lary Kuhns to talk about drug and alcohol abuse, but the meeting had to be canceled because Kuhns hurt his back, said PTA President Rachael Roe.

“We’ve been very concerned about (meth) and our parents have been concerned about it,” Keffer said. “It’s something that’s been on our minds big time this year.”

Stein said a peninsula-wide task force made up of district attorneys, police, troopers, the Office of Children’s Services, the Division of Juvenile Justice and other agencies is being formed to address the issue of meth.

“That tells you that everyone recognizes this as a growing and significant problem,” she said.

“We’ve got to start taking these dealers down,” Shane Woodworth said. “People have to start realizing it’s in the community, and it’s in a bad way. They have to know what their children are doing.”

“We don’t want kids to think it’s a recreational drug,” Julie Woodworth said. “This stuff kills.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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