Tulsa’s proliferation of meth labs recently earned it the title, “meth capital of the U.S.” TulsaPeople explores why Oklahoma is a hot bed for methamphetamine use.
Kimberly Cummings stands in front of the David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center, where she was booked in 2009 for felony endeavoring to manufacture meth. Cummings’ mug shot, inset on opposite page, shows her transformation from 23 years of addiction to her four years of sobriety today.
After 23 years of meth addiction, Kimberly Cummings found hope in a jail cell. She spent 18 hours in booking at David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center after an arrest for attempting to manufacture meth.
In April 2009, her addiction ended as abruptly as it had begun all those years ago.
Surprisingly, “I felt an immeasurable amount of peace when I was arrested,” Cummings says. “When I walked in the door of the prison, I immediately surrendered my life to Jesus. I finally found some hope.”
She called her oldest son, age 16 at the time, to tell him what was happening. She cried, and said, “Son, I’m in jail and it’s because of drugs.”
There was something in the sound of her voice that told him the long years of his mother’s addiction were finally, finally over. He said, “That’s OK, Mom, now we can start our new life.”
And they did.
Thousands of Oklahomans are affected by meth addiction. Oklahoma ranks third in the nation in per capita use of meth, according to the Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index. A 2010 report of workplace drug use found our state’s meth use to be 240 percent greater than the national average.
Recently, CNN Money Map gave Tulsa the dubious title of “meth capital of the U.S.” Since 2004, 979 meth labs have been discovered in Tulsa County — more than any other county in the nation.
Her own brokenness
Cummings’ addiction began in a spiral of childhood trauma — sexual, mental and emotional abuse; a lack of nurturing; abandonment; poverty — where food was a privilege, and alcohol and substance use were “culturally expected” and accepted, she says.
After a childhood of powerlessness, Cummings was immediately drawn to the power meth offered her.
“You’re a super person,” on the drug, she says.
Meth can give users a heart-pounding euphoria, plus it’s cheap and easy to find, Cummings explains.
She used the drug daily except while pregnant with her three children. Despite her use, Cummings says she didn’t face up to her addiction because she was able to manage it.
“We had a house and a very successful business,” she says. “So, the reason I used was never addressed.”
After two failed marriages, Cummings turned more and more often to her addiction for comfort. After the death of her mother in 2007, the threads of her formerly functional lifestyle unraveled.
“I’d lost my job, I’d lost my home, I lost my kids, and I fell into an abyss of addiction. It was the darkest time,” she says. “I fell off the face of the earth. I was homeless. I abandoned my kids. I thought it was best if I just (wasn’t) around them.”
In the warp of her addiction, Cummings started to think the only way she could get her life back was by making and selling meth for money to buy a home.
“I thought I was building back to get my kids by having a meth lab at my house,” she says.
And then, she was arrested.
Cummings’ story of meth addiction is not unique, yet demand for treatment outpaces availability and resources at every turn. On an average day in Oklahoma, 600-900 people are in need of a residential treatment program, but every bed is full, according to the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
It’s a reality faced daily by Mike Brose, the busy and energetic executive director of the Mental Health Association in Tulsa (MHAT).
“The problem with addiction is that we don’t have enough treatment beds and programs that are accessible and affordable in the community and state,” Brose says. “People call me all the time and ask where to turn. But if you’re low income and without insurance, you’re going to have to get in a long line.”
A fact sheet provided by the Substance Abuse Services Department states, “The sad reality is that, although nearly a quarter of a million Oklahomans need substance abuse treatment, (our department) was only able to provide services to about 19,000 Oklahomans (adults and youth) during the past fiscal year, the vast majority of whom received outpatient services.”
Addiction affects our community through the struggles of friends, loved ones and relatives, and causes taxpayers to pay for consequences associated with untreated addiction — higher incarceration rates and more children entering the foster care system.
In early 2009, the Substance Abuse Services Department launched the Crystal Darkness Oklahoma campaign with a special documentary about meth that broadcast on all of Oklahoma’s TV networks. The campaign opened a dialogue in the state and raised awareness about the meth epidemic.
Though the campaign has concluded, Substance Abuse Services continues to provide follow-up, as well as prevention and treatment resources, says Jeff Dismukes, the department’s public information officer.
Meth is a toxic, intoxicating brew of dangerous chemicals such as drain cleaner, lithium and solvents. The most important component in this recipe is pseudoephedrine, found in cold remedies.
The formula for meth has morphed as officials crack down on one key ingredient after another. Before pseudoephedrine became the ingredient of choice, meth cooks combined it with ephedrine. From the 1960s to ’80s, it was something called P2P, says Cpl. Mike Griffin of the Special Investigations Division for the Tulsa Police Department.
Griffin is an outspoken meth expert who has worked hundreds of Tulsa’s contaminated meth labs over the past decade. He is cautious to say we probably won’t see an end to meth abuse and addiction. The focus, he says, should be on eradicating meth labs instead.
The TPD officer says he would rather spend his workdays targeting large-scale drug operations than doing daily cleanup of meth labs littered across Tulsa in hotels, homes, cars and roadside ditches.
“They are often without electricity ... filthy and disgusting and hot,” Griffin says of the clandestine labs to which he and his fellow officers are assigned.
“This is not the mafia making millions of dollars,” he says. “We’re (dealing with) some 110-pound toothless addict who makes just enough to keep his own life miserable and bring down five or 10 of his friends with him.”
But Oklahoma taxpayers are paying a huge tab for the hundreds of cleanups, fires and damage caused by meth labs, as well as emergency room expenses from the severe burns sometimes sustained in meth creation.
In a 26-month period between 2009 and early 2011, the damage, cleanup and health care costs from meth labs cost Oklahoma taxpayers an estimated $118 million, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. And that doesn’t include 2011 or 2012, two years with record-setting numbers of labs comprising 726 total busts.
The key ingredient
“If you want meth labs to go away, which I get the feeling people do, then pseudo has to go away,” Griffin says.
The self-described “libertarian policeman” says he believes a government should only enact policies that are proven to work and have the least possible impact on law-abiding citizens. However, Griffin also is a realist.
“I’m not trying to force my stance on any citizens,” he says, “but we can’t have pseudo in its present form and get rid of meth labs. Pick the one you want, and roll with it.”
Corresponding to the proliferation of meth labs is an upswing in sales of pseudoephedrine-containing medications in Tulsa pharmacies. In September 2008, about 8,000 grams of pseudoephedrine were sold in 10 select pharmacies across the area. In December 2010, 27,402 grams of pseudo were purchased at those same pharmacies.
“Allergies over that period of time almost quadrupled,” Griffin says, “conveniently at the same time that meth labs went up.”
The real reason for the rise is simple, he says: about 75 percent of the pseudoephedrine at those pharmacies was likely converted to meth.
In 2003, Oklahoma became the first state to pass tough pseudoephedrine controls. The law went into effect a year later. Pseudoephedrine-containing medications were placed behind the counter. Buyers had to provide identification and were limited to only 9 grams per month. At first, the restrictions worked wonders.
By 2005, Tulsa police only discovered 50 meth labs the entire year, down from a previous high of 211. In 2007, that number dropped to 20. The meth problem had been managed.
“Everything was rockin’ along,” Griffin says — until meth labs proliferated again in 2009. Around that time, an increasing number of cooks turned to the “shake ‘n’ bake” method of production that utilizes one-pot meth labs. That year, the Special Investigations Division worked 315 meth sites, a record for Tulsa.
Global perspective on local solutions
It’s a fact: Mexican pseudoephedrine restrictions have led to a resurgence in the old P2P method there, according to data from the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center.
However, stricter pseudo control locally would shut down hundreds of small-time meth labs wreaking havoc in Tulsa, giving law enforcement more time and resources to focus on large-scale drug operations bringing meth across the Mexican border and into Oklahoma, Griffin says.
A 2011 State House bill would have required a prescription for pseudoephedrine-containing medications in Oklahoma, but it died in process.
Last year, lawmakers lashed out at pseudoephedrine again with a less restrictive approach. House Bill 2941 tightened regulations on pseudoephedrine, from limiting sales to 9 grams per month to 7.2 grams; included language to connect Oklahoma to a 21-state drug-tracking system; and increased penalties for “smurfs,” people who pharmacy-hop to buy pseudoephedrine for meth cooks.
Griffin points to the Oregon solution that successfully shut down hundreds of meth labs. The state had a staggering meth problem, similar to Oklahoma’s, before a July 2006 law required a prescription for pseudoephedrine-containing medications.
The numbers bear out the law’s success. In 2003, Oregon police worked 473 meth labs. In 2008, after the law had taken effect, officers worked 21 labs.
“(Oregon police) said they had a 96 percent reduction in labs,” Griffin says. “It’s been shown to work for years.”
Mark Woodward from the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs says there’s just no support for stricter regulation of pseudoephedrine in Oklahoma.
He thinks the most promising solution may come from Missouri, not Oregon, in the form of a new cold remedy ingredient that cannot be manufactured into meth.
“They’re calling it tamper-proof pseudo,” Woodward says. “Law enforcement in Missouri cooked the (medication) and were unable to yield methamphetamine.”
Woodward believes a pseudo that can’t be cooked into meth but doesn’t require a prescription could be the “best balance.”
“We’re very optimistic that this might be the silver bullet,” he says.
The new cold remedy, sold under the brand name Tarex, is developed by St. Louis, Mo.-based Highland Pharmaceuticals and could be available in local pharmacies soon, Woodward says.
A similar drug, Nexafed, is carried in Tulsa, according to the website of its manufacturer, the Culver, Ind.-based Acura Pharmaceuticals.
More than one second chance
Kimberly Cummings spent 40 days and 40 nights in the David L. Moss center with a $100,000 bond over her head, plus a charge of endeavoring to manufacture methamphetamine, which carries a minimum of seven years in prison.
But someone was watching over her. Her public defender heard about a new program called Women in Recovery (WIR).
“I was the first woman in the state of Oklahoma to be convicted of (the charge of) felony endeavoring not to go to prison,” Cummings says.
Instead, Cummings could enter the recovery program. On July 1, 2009, she began the painful work of rebuilding her life, of facing a lifetime of emotional baggage, of reuniting with her children.
In July 2010, she was a part of WIR’s first graduating class. To graduate from the program, women must find stable employment. Finding good work after a felony conviction can be difficult. Cummings found her second chance at the Mental Health Association, when Brose hired her as his assistant in March 2010.
Brose is a big believer in the second chance “and sometimes more than one second chance,” he says. “(Addicts) need a chance to move back into the community, to be employed, to reclaim their lives and be connected to friends and healthy recreational opportunities.”
As a culture, Brose says, we often reject people who have had trouble with addiction, mental illness and the prison sentences that often follow in their wake.
“We often push those people over there in the corner, out of our mind,” he says. “We don’t give them jobs. We’re not tolerant of relapses. We’re going to have to make some cultural shifts here.”
About 45 percent of MHAT’s 140 full- and part-time employees are in recovery from substance abuse, according to an annual survey conducted by the organization. About 36 percent of the employees have been homeless at some point, while 25 percent have at least one felony conviction.
“We’re giving people employment opportunities, and we’re highly successful at it,” Brose says.
Cummings now lives in a three-bedroom home behind MHAT on South Cheyenne Avenue. Her two sons, who live with her, are 20 and 17. Her daughter continues to live with her father to continue schooling in Claremore.
On April 17, Cummings celebrated her fourth year of sobriety. She mentors women in WIR and serves as president of its alumni board. She also is a ministry leader for the Celebrate Recovery program at north Tulsa’s Transformation Church.
“I’ve had community support, which has been absolutely phenomenal and amazing,” she says. “Look where I am now.”
Cummings left her position at MHAT two days after her recent sobriety birthday to focus on her own business, Addiction Recovery Coaching, which is designed to help families find hope. She also is the associate director of Just the Beginning, a nonprofit designed to empower women toward self-sufficiency through collaborative, whole-person training.
“This is a new season of my life, and it’s just taking off,” she says. “Once I realized I had a purpose, my entire perspective changed. And I would never go back.”
Last year, Cummings and Brose were invited to speak at the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy.
Cummings was a superstar, Brose says. She stood at the podium and told the story of her life, from childhood poverty to years as a functioning addict to her jail-cell conversion.
When finished, she beamed a smile as the gathered crowd, including actress Glenn Close, rose to its feet and gave her a standing ovation.