How many fifth graders know someone on Meth?
Top: Devin "Bones" Walls, 16, shows fifth graders in Aztec, New Mexico, how meth users lose their friends. Bottom: Farmington High School drama student Daniel McNealy, 17, portrays "danger" and carries Walls away. Photos by Xavier Mascareñas
S ixty years separate the man standing under a basketball hoop at the Park Avenue Elementary School in Aztec, New Mexico, USA, from the 200 fifth graders seated around him on the gym floor.
But the children don’t appear to notice. He speaks with a passion and urgency that commands full attention to his message: Meth kills.
The audience, a decade away from their first legal beer, might seem too young for Paul McQueary’s presentation on the dangers of methamphetamine addiction. But when he asks, “How many of you know about meth?” every hand shoots up as if spring-loaded. Then he says, “How many of you know someone who takes meth?” At least two-thirds of the students raise a hand.
It’s a brutal reminder that by any name – crank, glass, speed, crystal, ice – this drug cuts through all social and economic strata. Addicts include grandmothers and children; about 77 percent of teenage users tried it for the first time when they were 15 or younger.
“Kids as young as seven and eight are being offered meth,” says McQueary, a member of the Rotary Club of San Juan County East. “Dealers lace candy with meth and give it to kids on the school grounds to develop their clientele. It’s business to these people.”
McQueary has no relatives or close friends with a meth addiction. But the drug is decimating his community, which for him is an extended family. Several years ago, police officers talked to his Rotary club about the meth problem in Farmington, blamed for a sharp rise in juvenile crime as well as child neglect and abuse cases. “I was so depressed,” he recalls. “I thought, we’re community leaders – let’s do something.”
In 2006, McQueary, fellow Rotarian Barb Chambers, and other club members founded Don’t Meth With Us, with the support of then-Mayor Bill Standley, also a club member. Since then, McQueary has organized dozens of visits to schools in and around Farmington, the region’s hub. Several of the schools are on the Navajo Reservation, hard hit by the meth epidemic. He’s also raised more than $100,000 from local businesses, launched a website, and created an anti-meth commercial for area theaters that reaches 1.5 million movie goers annually.
Like many people, I’m aware that “speed kills,” but I’ve been comfortable viewing the destruction from a distance. Not McQueary.
Each of the fifth graders in the Park Avenue gym wears a white T-shirt emblazoned with the tagline, “Don’t Meth With Us.” The children also receive pencils and rubber wristbands. McQueary knows his audience. He’s not here to preach; he’s here to save lives. His strategy is to inculcate the youngsters with a daily anti-meth reminder – one they can slip over their heads, hold in their hands, wrap around their wrists.
McQueary has become an expert on the drug and lists the dangers: Users can get addicted the first time they try it. Meth is made from toxic, readily available materials that include antifreeze, drain cleaner, and battery acid. Short-term effects range from convulsions to stroke. Over the long term, it rots the teeth and causes paranoia, hallucinations, open sores, and liver damage. An estimated 13 million Americans have tried meth, which is three times more potent than cocaine and much cheaper.
A bridge engineer from Louisville, Ky., McQueary moved to Farmington in 1991 – “I love the high desert for its weather and clean air,” he says – and promptly bought a specialty advertising agency, which he has since sold. “Advertising is all about repetition,” he says, explaining why he’s out to make “Don’t Meth With Us” as familiar to these youngsters as Coke’s “The Real Thing.”
When I point out that he’s still building bridges of a different sort, this time between generations, he tilts his head and shrugs. It’s a modest Southern mannerism that masks unshakable self-esteem. His speaking style, too, is pure Kentucky bluegrass.
“The first time you try meth, you love it,” he tells the kids in the Aztec gym. “See, there’s a chemical inside our brains called dopamine that makes us feel great. This drug tricks the brain into mistaking meth for dopamine, and once you try it, you want more. Well, who wouldn’t?
"We have students whose mother and father are both meth heads--Debbie Braff
“But here’s the thing: Meth is destroying that dopamine. Pretty soon you keep feeding yourself more and more meth to feel good. But you can’t, ever. Instead, you feel worse. So who would try to sell or give you something nasty like that?”
One girl raises her hand: “A friend?”
McQueary nods. “Is that a real friend who does that?”
The children shake their heads and respond with a collective “No!”
“But somebody will. At a party maybe, even a relative, and you’re all gonna have to make a choice. What will you say?” He points to the front of a T-shirt.
“Don’t meth with us!” Another chorus of children’s voices echoes off the gymnasium walls.
Lesson learned. For 40 minutes, McQueary and his small troupe – Farmington High School drama club members and a few fellow Rotarians – talk to the children and entertain them with skits. In one, he asks for a volunteer to don all the paraphernalia needed for protection against the toxic ingredients – including methanol, ether, benzene, methylene chloride, and muriatic acid – used to “cook” the crystal amphetamine that will be snorted, smoked, or injected. Soon, a 10-year-old boy named Trace is waddling around in flame-retardant padding, a face mask, helmet, massive goggles, and thick gloves.
McQueary’s wife, Jill, helps from the sidelines. Also a Rotarian, she convinced him to join in 1994, the same year in which the couple married. Both are now Multiple Paul Harris Fellows. As president of the San Juan County East club in 2006-07, she encouraged her husband in creating the anti-meth program. “What chance has Rotary got against a meth epidemic?” he asked. “If you don’t try, you’ll never know,” she responded.
In many ways, McQueary learned, San Juan County has been especially vulnerable to illegal drug use. Located near the Four Corners area, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah converge, Farmington is ideally situated for the wide distribution of meth by Mexican cartels. They can land their light aircraft late at night in the high-desert expanses surrounding the city, then offload and depart without detection. Roughnecks and drillers working long, demanding shifts in the region’s oil and natural-gas fields are easy prey for the drug dealers, as are indigent Native Americans. The terrain, the workforce, and hardscrabble living conditions have created a perfect meth storm.
In states such as New Mexico, where authorities have curtailed easy access to key ingredients, the Mexican cartels have replaced most homegrown labs as the main source of the drug.
Supply lines may have changed, but not the devastation in schools such as Apache Elementary in Farmington, where McQueary also campaigns against meth. The principal, Debbie Braff, sits in her office, which is decorated with student artwork, and tells me about drug abuse among the children’s parents. “We have students whose mother and father are both meth heads,” she says. “They’re all crammed into a single room at home, maybe in a grungy motel, so the kids are inhaling the fumes. When they get to school – if they get here – they can’t sit still in class. They get up and walk out. They’re coughing, often asthmatic, and they usually haven’t eaten; there’s no food at home.”
Donal Key, a Farmington High School counselor who has joined us, says he has witnessed the physical damage caused by meth. “You look at a brain scan of chronic meth users, and you literally see black holes where meth eats away brain tissue, leaving craters behind, like a bombed-out war zone. So when I have to deal with a student’s parent who’s on meth, I’m not at all surprised if they’re paranoid. That’s one of the most common symptoms. They’re running on empty.”
Later that afternoon, McQueary and I drive to the new San Juan Meth Treatment Facility, which specializes in offenders addicted to meth, offering job training, counseling, and outpatient services. We’re here to meet three recent graduates who otherwise would have done time in the county lock-up for drug possession.
The young women are neatly dressed, alert, and smooth skinned – nothing like strung-out meth users, whose skeletal features, sunken cheeks, dim eyes, and “meth mouth” (rotting teeth in bleeding gums) mark them as walking ghosts.
“If you saw me on meth, you wouldn’t recognize me,” says Cassie, 26, who became addicted at age 13. The other two women, Bobbie and Audrey, nod in agreement. Before finally becoming drug-free, each had been busted and jailed repeatedly; lost jobs, children, husbands, and friends; disappeared from home for weeks; hooked up with dealer boyfriends to score free crystal meth; and crawled on filthy floors to scoop up any crystal flakes they could find.
“It took me 60 days to detox,” Bobbie says. “When I was using and trying to get off, I’d have my mother hide my car keys. It’s all you live for. ‘Why don’t you quit?’ somebody asked me. ‘Why don’t you stop breathing?’ I answered back.”
McQueary, sitting nearby, listens intently. I mention that his program is targeting fifth graders and ask the women, “Do you think they’re old enough at 10 to really get the message?”
“In school, I knew kids that age who were already smoking,” Cassie says. The others are equally adamant. “Meth blindsides you,” Bobbie says. As we leave, Audrey tells McQueary, “I wish you’d been at my school with that message.”
Our final stop is Shiprock, 30 miles west of Farmington and home to the Navajo Regional Behavioral Health Center, a new in-patient treatment facility for drug- and alcohol-related illness. Along the road, the desert stretches for miles across a lonesome landscape of empty plateaus that end abruptly, as if sliced through with a serrated knife, to expose jagged rock strata – ribbons of sedimentary pastels.