PBS Frontline: 'The Meth Epidemic'

Filmmaker Carl Byker
Filmmaker Carl Byker (Courtesy WGBH)

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Carl Byker
Filmmaker
Wednesday, February 15, 2006; 11:00 AM

Filmmaker Carl Byker was online Wednesday, Feb. 15, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the PBS Frontline film, "The Meth Epidemic," which examines the spread of this dangerous drug across the U.S. and its devastating consequences. Statistics link meth use to a variety of further crimes, and with an estimated 1.5 million addicts in the U.S. alone and with the increase of meth use on the East Coast. Reporter Steve Suo says we can expect "increased car theft...domestic violence, child neglect, drug overdoses and just a lot of mayhem." The difficulty of controlling essential components of meth, ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, has been an obstacle in fighting meth production. Congress has called for international controls on the substances, but the difficulty of regulating common remedies has been apparent in previous crackdowns.

The transcript follows.

"The Meth Epidemic" airs Tuesday, Feb. 14, at 9 p.m. ET ( check local listings )

Carl Byker is a non-fiction filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles. His films have won the Primetime Emmy for best non-fiction series of the year, two Dupont awards, two Independent Documentary Associations awards, the Kodak "Vision Award" from the Producers' Guild of America, and the Peabody award. He has also won two Writers' Guild of America awards for best non-fiction television script of the year and received four WGA nominations.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Please discuss the strong connection between crystal meth addiction and the HIV pandemic.

Carl Byker: According to the gay activists we interviewed in New York, there is a strong connection, because one of the areas of the brain that meth affects most dramatically is the judgment center, and so, as Dr. Rawson who is in the show told us, you have a situation where Meth is on the one hand pushing the accelerator to the floor where desire for the dopamine high is concerned, it's slamming on the breaks where judgment is concerned, and so the combination encourages highly risky behavior, such as having sex with multiple partners without condoms. There is a major exploration of this topic on the Frontline web site, with streaming video that we made specially about this topic, as well as lots of information and links. I'd definitely urge you to take a look at it - in my experience as a freelance producer, the Frontline people have the best Web site in the business.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: Carl, Great work. Are the constitutive chemicals for ice still coming across the border? If so, from where and how?

Carl Byker: The great majority of Meth production has moved to Mexico - both because the cartels are now getting the key ingredient they need from the Mexican pharmaceutical industry, as well as because there is a lot more pressure from the cops on superlabs in the US than there is in Mexico. So now, the delivery system for the Cartels has become much more similar to the ones they use for heroin and cocaine - which is part of the reason meth is now hitting the east coast, because they have supply routes they've been using for years to smuggle cocaine and heroin to the east coast and now they're using them for meth.

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Ft. Stockton, Tex.: What do I do if I have a mom that doesn't want to help herself and I know everything she does and I think it's killing her?

Carl Byker: That's a heartrending question - I am by no means an expert, but what I would do is go on the web and investigate the treatment options in your area and contact the one that seems best and get advice from them. And then - reminding you again that this is an entirely a "laymans" thought - I might sit down with her with a mirror during one of her "couch surfing" periods and suggest that she really take a look at herself.

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Ashburn, Va.: Is there a "profile" (i.e. gender, race, level of education) of the habitual meth user/addict?

Carl Byker: Interestingly enough, no. Though lots of people have made generalizations based on the thought that many users appear to be poor white people, with a higher percentage of women, the reality is that Meth has been "flying so much under the radar" that no well-respected studies have been done - but with all the focus now, hopefully that will change.

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Ithaca, N.Y.: In an attempt to control the production of Meth, the state of Iowa has put limits on the quantity of certain products, i.e. pseudoephedrine pills, that people can purchase and also requires an ID check for those products. Do you feel that such measures are effective at stemming the production of meth?

Carl Byker: There is strong evidence now that states that do put in controls can cut the number of "home labs" by up to 80 percent, which helps eliminate a real scourge - pollution wise and in many other respects - from the community. But on the flip side, since the Mexican cartels are producing most of the meth that's used, when home labs are eliminated, users simply fill the gap by buying more Mexican made meth. That's why so many of the people in the show make the point that the international side of controlling Meth is just as important as the domestic one.

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Swampscott, Mass.: I would like to see your film shown in every drugstore pharmacy's waiting area, in waiting rooms in doctor's offices, as well as in classes in middle school,high school, and colleges. Perhaps you could have a short version shown before movie features.

I also think that before and after pictures of willing former addicts would make a compelling ad campaign. Thank you for your work!

Carl Byker: That's an interesting idea - Bret King who assembled the photos that were shown in the film has a CD out now that is available for distribution - I think from Multnomah County in Oregon- and it's being widely shown in schools. I agree that it's hard to imagine a more effective deterrent.

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New York, N.Y.: Thanks so much for taking my comment and for making such an informative program.

As an addiction researcher, and a person who also used to work in clinical settings, I am struck by the lack of media attention to the meth problem. When compared to the public and policy response to the crack/cocaine and heroin epidemics (largely seen as an inner city problem), I can't help but wonder how much of a role the ethnicities of the users were/are a factor. Of course, the profits garnered by the pharmaceutical industry clearly drove some policy decisions. However, I was struck by the juxtaposition of the terminology used to describe children affected by their parents' addiction. The little girl in last night's piece was a "meth orphan," but little black children in the 80's were destined to be "crack babies." (I can tell you from my clinical experience, the children who suffer the most from drug exposure are those who were exposed to alcohol in utero.) Both groups of children are victims, regardless of the drug consumed.

I have the sense that this pandemic of meth is being downplayed because of who primarily abuses the drug, white non-urban Americans. Your thoughts?

Carl Byker: That's an interesting conjecture - but again, I think there needs to be more study before anyone can say anything with any credibility. An alternative suggestion that several people made to us was that Meth was being ignored because the epidemic was happening so far from the centers of power in the Northeast - and it was an "out of sight, out of mind" situation.

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College Park, Md.: Hello and thank you for taking my question/comments.

Your program on meth was, as I'm sure you know, a bit surprising and horrifying to some, including myself. I have to say I was a bit embarrassed for and angered by the pharmaceutical industry lobbyist, who seemed tasked with the impossible chore of defending his employer's financial needs.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't there was a point in the program when the pharma-lobbyist, after arguing against putting certain drugs behind the counter (i.e., regulation), made the point that his employers weren't really making much off these medicines because of theft? If so, this seems like a contradictory/floundering argument. If theft is such a problem, why not put the drugs behind the counter? Is the U.S. congress really that gullible or are they that much in the back pocket of the industry? And how big is that back pocket (do you know the numbers)?

Thanks for your hard and informative work.

Carl Byker: That's an interesting observation - of course, my job as a documentary filmmaker is simply to interview the most interesting people on the subject - and obviously a representative of the pharmaceutical industry qualified on that front - and then let the audience draw its own conclusions.

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Washington D.C.: First off, congratulations to you, the Oregonian, and Frontline for a fantastic and much needed production. I am from California and the level of ignorance about the drug on the east coast is astounding. 2 part question: How long, if current trends continue, will it take for meth use in the D.C. area and the rest of the Northeast to reach levels that are seen in California? And what is the likelihood of people already using/addicted to crack cocaine and/or heroin (there are many here in D.C.) switching over? Is that a common phenomenon?

Carl Byker: Again - many people are really interested in the answers to the questions you raise AND no one knows them yet. It will be an interesting next few years in seeing what happens with Meth use.

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Washington, D.C.: Great Frontline episode! I was amazed looking at the police photos over time of the meth addicts who had been arrested and the major changes in their physical appearances. Is it the drug that does causes the physical changes, or is it the impact on lifestyle caused by the drug, or both?

Carl Byker: It's both - perhaps the most fascinating thing is the wounds to the face - the addicts have actually done that to themselves with their own fingernails, through a process that meth users call "picking." Because Meth (as a kind of super Sudafed) dries out the skin so dramatically, the skin of addicts begins to itch really intensely, and in their paranoid state, they begin to think that they are covered with what they call "meth lice." And so many addicts spend hours scratching/picking at what they think are lice on their face and in the process inflict those wounds on themselves. Also, because their gums dry out so completely - and for other reasons - meth addicts teeth begin to fall out and as a consequence their jaws begin to collapse inward - and that leads to the classic meth user look.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Watching your film last night about how slow democracies can be to respond to a major problem recalled the Churchill quote about democracy being the worst form of government (except for all the others.)

The same power of special interests that has fueled the meth epidemic also confronts a country wide energy strategy. Those graphs that showed how meth deaths correlated with product purity could just as easily have been CO2 emissions versus global warming. The difference being that we will recover from the meth problem when the generation of addicts dies out.

What advice to you have for citizens who want to get their congressman to confront a difficult problem?

Carl Byker: That's an interesting question - and too big a one for me to have the answer to - the only thing I'd point out is that as the child abuse expert in the show says, parents on meth are raising a generation of kids who think the behavior they are witnessing in their parents is normal and this could well lead to an ever greater explosion of addicts, not a dying out. As she pointed out to us off-camera, something like 90 percent of the people in jail had "abusive" childhoods.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Byker:

From your experiences in creating this film, what is your opinion about the link between crime and the use of "meth." Does meth use lead directly to, or cause, crimes, or is it simply correlational? Are meth abusers commonly drug abusers and criminals who are just turning to a cheaper, more convenient fix?

Thank you.

Carl Byker: The correlation to crime is, the cops we talked to suggested, driven by the nature of the Meth high - as one cop said to us, if you're using cocaine, you're high for two hours and then you have to begin looking for your next fix. With Meth, one puff can keep you high for 24 hours, and that turns people who are supporting themselves through crime into a kind of "super-criminal" - meth users can commit far more burglaries, identity thefts etc. etc. per day than the users of any other drug.

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Ottawa, Canada: At one point in your documentary it is mentioned that for two years it wasn't possible to find the new source of chemicals being used to make the drugs. This in spite of the fact that the labels were written in French. There is really only one place in North America where French is used and that is Canada. Why would this commonly know fact elude police for two full years? This is really hard to believe.

Carl Byker: You have to remember that not that many resources nationwide were being invested in stopping the Meth epidemic and most of those were being invested in California - and up to that time the precursors had been smuggled in from Mexico or diverted from bogus American companies. I'm sure the few people on the case were looking at all the possibilities, but it did take them a comparatively long time to track down the bogus Canadian companies.

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Anonymous: Mr Haislip stated on the program that there are 9 plants that manufacture the active ingredient which is used to produce crystal meth. Where are they located?

Carl Byker: The nine factories that manufacture the vast majority of the world's ephedrine and pseudo-ephedrine are located in India (5), China (2), Germany and the Czech Republic.

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Akron, Ohio: Did I understand correctly that it only takes 1 time of usage to become addicted to Meth? If so, is there a movement in place to educate kids in school. We hear so much about tobacco smoking & drinking...what about warnings about meth in school?

Carl Byker: Yes, there are definitely programs out there to educate kids, some using the same photos of meth users that you saw in the show (FYI, the show doesn't say that it takes just one use to become addicted, that's something that there still isn't very much research on.)

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Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C.: I have snorted meth on occasion over the past decade or so. I have found it to be an effective amphetamine-type drug and helpful with getting chores done...particularly the monotonous ones. It seems more effective in getting ready for a party than for the party itself...

I have never felt "addicted" and come to think of it, I haven't used for over six months at this point.

Do you find that this kind of occasional use is rare? Do even those who snort the drug generally have the same problems with addiction? My sense is that like free-basing or crack use, the pipe changes the equation significantly.

Carl Byker: Several people told us that "there is no such thing as a casual meth user" - my understanding is that the pipe - or shooting it up - does make it significantly more addictive and just as important, there's the purity question - as the show reveals, the purity has fluctuated dramatically, so it's a bit like playing Russian roulette (a phrase one of the gay activists in the show we interviewed used) in terms of not knowing how pure the drug you're using is.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Why is Meth more popular on the East Coast than the West Coast? Is this a supply and distribution issue, cultural, or what?

Carl Byker: You've got it reversed - it's always been more popular on the West Coast, and that's at least in part because the vast majority of meth was being made in the west. But now, with Meth being made in Mexico itself, it's being shipped to both the east and the west.

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Greenville, Mich.: I am a teacher tasked with teaching a drug abuse class. I would love to get a hold of the pictures and a copy of the show. I had lived in Oregon for 17 years and remember the abuse issue and the pictures. How can I get a copy of those pictures and a copy of the show?

Carl Byker: I think that you can get the pictures from the Sheriff's office in Multnomah County, Oregon, and you can order a copy of the show on Frontline's excellent web site - which is also a great source of useful information and links.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a friend who is 26 and addicted to Meth. He has been using the drug for 3 years, perhaps longer. The individual is a very bright person and graduated college from one of the top universities in the country. A lot of times, it seems my friend lives a life that is held together very well, much different than other drug addicts (especially meth). How can I influence him to stop using the drug? If he doesn't stop using the drug, how can I expect it to impact his life over the next few years?

Carl Byker: I'm not equipped to answer that question - I would definitely go to the Frontline web site, call up your state and there is - I believe - a list of treatment centers where you can get advice. And if not for D.C., then perhaps for a nearby state.

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Rockville, Md.: The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has been criticized by Republicans and Democrats in Congress for not spending enough attention on meth despite the crisis that is occurring across the nation. For example, last year, out of $120 million budget for media advertising, they spent only $1 million on meth prevention ads. Do you think the federal government should place more emphasis on preventing and reducing methamphetamine abuse?

Carl Byker: That is definitely the opinion that members of the Congressional meth caucus have. Every one in the caucus that we talked to said that meth - because it's a drug where supply actually effects demand and because it's entirely possible to cut the supply - that should be one of the governments top priorities. As for the cops, on three separate occasions, policemen, out of the blue, looked at me and said "Can you believe that the Bush administration thinks that marijuana is as bad as Meth?!"

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Marshalltown, Iowa: I tuned into Frontline last night specifically to see your program. Here in Iowa, we got a Frontline program on international terror instead. Any idea what happened?

Carl Byker: Pretty sure that they ran it two weeks earlier because they had made a local program about Meth in Iowa to run after it (many stations did make their own local programs to follow the show, a sign of the high interest.) You might check Iowa's listings to see when they'll run it again, or, if you can afford it, buy the hour at PBS.org

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Two observations. Meth use seems to be a "white" drug, therefore more socially acceptable (as opposed to crack being a black associated drug). Second, do most women who start it do it for weight loss purposes?

Carl Byker: Both of those observations are what "the common wisdom" about Meth says, but because Meth has been ignored for so long, there just hasn't been enough study to make anything like definitive conclusions.

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Champaign, Ill.: Thank you for your informative program.

My state recently enacted legislation to limit the availability of cold medicines by individual purchasers. My concern now is that we have replaced one problem with another since your research tends to indicate that cartels simply take up the slack.

I do have one question - your research indicated that use of meth decreases when the available meth is less pure. Is this a result of the users avoiding the less pure form or is it a result of less meth cooked so overall use goes down?

Carl Byker: One of the things the show didn't go into - because it was so complicated - is that when purity goes down, price goes up, because there's less meth to go around. So you have a double whammy where addicts can't afford as much meth AND the meth they can get isn't as pure - and together, that makes for a lower addiction rate.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Who said meth is not in the Northeast? I live near Pittsburgh. Before my Wal-Mart put Sudafed behind the pharmacy counter, I would go to get some when I had a cold, but pick up boxes that were broken open with the blister packs removed. The meth cooks wouldn't even buy the stuff. And, you never even hear about meth around here compared to how much you hear about crack and heroin. But, it's here.

Carl Byker: Interesting.

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Arlington, Va.: If it is known there are nine factories, what is keeping them from being shut down?

Carl Byker: Keep in mind that they are manufacturing a legal product that there is high demand for from the pharmaceutical industry, so the governments of their respective country's don't have much incentive to "shut them down." And as the people in the show talk about, up until recently,there haven't even been effective attempts to regulate them.

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Long Beach, Calif.: Dear Mr. Byker, In my youth, when we were all taking and experimenting with drugs, we took heed when the Grateful Dead declared SPEED KILLS. With that in mind, could bootleg speed use be curtailed if hipster artists and movie stars did anti-speed public announcements? (or if R.Kelly did a ten part Anti-Meth opera?)

Carl Byker: It could well help if they helped get the kind of photos that are in the show of meth users in front of the public.

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Anonymous: A friend of mine mentioned a Harvard University study on speed that talked about permanent brain alteration, making depression a serious impediment towards recovery, which entails at least two years of being in a depressed state. Have you read that report?

Carl Byker: That is definitely the type of research that the show is based on - and yes, I was aware that the two years was the current estimate. Dr. Rawson, who is in the show, is one of the world leaders in gathering and disseminating this information.

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Anonymous: How many speed addicts in America compared to legal meth users in the 1950's? Any studies on the long term affects on those 1950's legal users? One could assume that they fared better than the present day bootleg speed users will, right?

Carl Byker: The estimate is that there are 1.5 million meth users in the US today. And keep in mind that the methamphetamine that people are using today is far, far more powerful than what people were using in the 50's.

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Washington, D.C.: Thank you for your public service in illustrating the horrors of meth. I have lived in the rural South, and can attest to Meth's power to decimate (literally) communities and families. When will the ONDPC -finally- get off its "addiction" to Pot and start doing something about this far, far, far more dangerous drug?

Carl Byker: There is a major movement in Congress now to take action - but it will probably also take citizens keeping the pressure on.

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Caldwell, Idaho: I saw your documentary last evening and found it very moving. What I would like to know is what can a white collar professional, like myself, who deals with this epidemic in my every day employment, do on a state or national level to help the DEA lobby for stronger support?

Carl Byker: I suspect that it really is the case that Congress responds to what's on people's minds, so I'd say "keep those cards and letters' coming.

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Salt Lake City, Utah: Your program states that there are only about 9 pharmaceutical plants worldwide that manufacture the chemicals needed to make meth. You also mentioned above that the cartels are now receiving the needed chemicals from Mexican pharmaceutical companies. What is to stop these cartels from buying the equipment/expertise necessary to carry on production on their own?

Carl Byker: Interestingly, it really is too sophisticated a process for anyone but a large biochemical company to undertake - and if, for the sake of argument, the cartels tried to set up such an operation, it would be very hard to hide it.

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Nashville, Tenn.: Is pseudoephedrine really that much better than all other cold remedies that it just couldn't be banned entirely? I had to wait several extra minutes the last time I was at the pharmacy for the person in front of me to find all the required ID to sign for the pills she claimed were the only things to keep her allergies under control.

Carl Byker: That's a topic of vigorous debate at the moment. One expert told us that the new replacement drugs don't work as well, but another expert pointed to studies that show that a placebo works just as well as pseudo-ephedrine, so I'm not sure anybody knows the right answer.

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Cambridge, Ohio: What strategies do you think people working with children who are exposed to Meth Labs can implement to break the cycle and help children recover not only from the chemical dangers, but psychological impact of being exposed to the Meth Lifestyle?

Carl Byker: I'm not an expert, but I was very impressed by Rita Sullivan and her program and the way it incorporates kids.

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Greenville, Mich.: I missed the show, but heard about it at work. How can I view it now?

Carl Byker: It can be streamed on your computer for free at the Frontline web site which can be accessed through PBS.org.

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San Diego, Calif.: I enjoyed your program very much Mr Byker; I thought your beginning of the program, which showed a 'meth user' being arrested, the voice-over narration stated that "...Meth addition was a disease...". While this is true and it is a psychological addiction, not a physical addiction; that makes it a 'mental illness' or 'disease'. With that in mind, I'm curious and a little disturbed by the fact that none of your documentary focused on the 'treatment of the disease' with the exception of the short blurb about "On Track" in Medford, Ore. I'm curious as to 'why' with all the 'isolated horror aspects of the 'meth epidemic' (as received by the government), 'why' did you not spend a portion of the program 'pursuing the concept of treatment to controlling the 'epidemic', in this 60+ year old 'war on drugs' being waged by our government?

As your 'opening' statement says, "...it's a disease...", than 'why' is the government incarcerating 'sick' people; should we expect to to 'cancer patients' and other terminally ill people being arrested in droves?

I look forward to your addressing my question and thanks for your time.

Carl Byker: that's an interesting question - the focus of this Frontline, and the reason in fact that it was made, was the research by Steve Suo showing that Meth is perhaps unique among drugs in that supply (purity) affects demand - rather than the other way around. And so, rather than it being the case that treatment by itself helps people get off Meth, what his research suggests is that the best way to get people off meth is to reduce the supply off the drug (and hence the purity.) So that concept was the focus of the show and since it was just an hour - and it's not all that easy of an idea to explain - the show focused on that. But I would love to do another documentary that focused on treatment. An added thought is that many of the cops we dealt with said that they thought that prison time was important for meth addicts, because it was the one place they couldn't get more meth, and therefore they had a chance to break the addiction cycle.

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Akron, Ohio: Something has to be done to stop this Meth epidemic!! I have a sister who is 43 years old and her older children who are Meth users. We have been living with heartache, anger, anxiety, and helplessness. They want no part of changing their life. They are the most convincing liars and believe they have outsmarted us, the authorities, etc. I believe the families are the true victims! We are taking care of her two daughters 9 and 10, and it's heartbreaking to see a mother who has lost her mothering instincts. Her son I know has severe damage from Meth! At 21 he can't even function on his own. Sleeps all the time, depressed, violent anger outbreaks, thinks people are going to cook and eat him. The doctors say he has "Schizophrenia." He never was before. QUESTION: Is this a common answer for symptoms of meth users?

Carl Byker: Your situation is sadly very typical of others we ran into - the one thing I am aware of with regard to schizophrenia is that some researchers think that drug use can bring a latent condition to the surface and others say that people with mental illness often "self-medicate" by using illegal drugs.

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Fairbanks, Alaska: Thanks for the program. Do you have any thoughts for what the most effective strategies are for neighborhoods where methamphetamine use and methamphetamine-related crimes are taking place? We had a terrible increase in burglaries, vehicle thefts, and mail thefts that seem to be related to the methamphetamine problem. Neighborhood watch seems to be a great program, but it is scary to be "out there" in the midst of this because these methamphetamine users can be so paranoid and aggressive.

Carl Byker: Your experience sounds typical - I think the Frontline web sites information on your state would be a good place to start to look for answers.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: The "Meth Epidemic" seems to be another overhyped drug scare. Why is this any more serious than the previous drug scares (cocaine, crack, ecstasy, etc.)? Is it because it is reaching into white middle and upper class society (unlike the "crack epidemic")?

Carl Byker: One metaphor a cop used is that other drug users are like throwing a pebble into the water and the ripples that result are the users impact on society; but meth is like throwing a rock in the water.

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San Francisco, Calif.: It seems that so much money and effort is being spent on the supply side. This has been ineffective for the most part throughout history. Why isn't more being done to educate and treat those who need it?

Carl Byker: That's just what makes meth so interesting - because it's the one drug that can be controlled by controlling the supply.

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British Columbia, Canada: Does crystal meth cause mental illnesses such as schizophrenia? Or does the person have to have a predisposition to the mental illness first? Thank you.

Carl Byker: Definitely the latter.

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washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us. You can find the program in an online stream soon on Frontline's: Web site.

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