Meth Use is on the Rise in Connecticut

"Monsignor Meth," as suspended Roman Catholic priest Kevin Wallin has come to be known, admitted earlier this year to selling more than $300,000 worth of methamphetamine out of his Waterbury apartment.

Only about 23 grams (sold for $3,400) of Wallin's stash went to an undercover agent. That means a whole bunch more was bought by an apparently growing Connecticut consumer base for this hellishly addictive and destructive drug.

One Connecticut health expert believes that a rise in meth use by gay men is leading to the spread of AIDS/HIV in Connecticut. Dr. Gary Blick warns that gay hookup Internet sites have their own code for meth plus sex: PNP. Blick says that stands for "Party and Play," which translates into gays looking to get high on meth and have unprotected sexual intercourse.

"Meth is definitely contributing to the sexually transmitted disease increase we're seeing in Connecticut," says Blick, a specialist in AIDS and HIV treatment who runs the Circle Care Clinic in Norwalk. "It has become a really big problem."

A few years ago, crystal meth was looked on as something nasty that white people in rural parts of Oregon and Mississippi cooked up or got from labs in Mexico like the ones portrayed in "Breaking Bad."

More recently, law enforcement experts have been warning about how meth has been "creeping east" into places like New England. Whether you call it crystal, speed, crank or ice, the stuff seems to be more and more available here.

In 2012, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration counted 42 meth lab busts in New England. That included an East Lyme dude who was cooking up meth in the trunk of his car. In 2011, a former Plainfield cop named Richard W. Thunberg was caught in Massachusetts with two pounds of meth in his car, and more drug-related items in his home in Thompson.

"We are seeing more [meth] activity," says state police Capt. Dale Hourigan, commander of the Statewide Narcotics Task Force, "but it hasn't risen to the levels we've seen in other parts of the country."

Ironically, one reason meth use hasn't become a complete epidemic here is that heroin and cocaine are both cheap and readily available in Connecticut. Hourigan says meth use tends to stay fairly low under those market conditions.

The scary part is that meth is extremely addictive and frighteningly ugly in what it can do to people who get hooked.

Former meth users describe long-lasting highs, better sex, reduced inhibitions, increases in concentration, loss of appetite and less of a need for sleep. The downside includes open sores, extreme weight loss, organ damage, rotten teeth, and higher risk of infections and killers like Parkinson's disease. Basically, meth addicts waste away into zombie status.

"You don't see any old meth users," Hourigan says. "They die."

The meth-lab busts in this state have mostly been "one pot" or "shake-and-bake" operations.

Those involve someone getting hold of enough non-prescription cold medicines (like Sudafed and Tylenol Cold) that contain a key ingredient in meth: pseudoephedrine. The preferred method to get around federal limits on how much of those medicines a single person can buy is to go "smurfing," having several different people buy cold meds from pharmacies all over an area.

Once enough of the cold meds are purchased, they're put into a single pot and "cooked" down to produce crystal meth.

Two states with severe meth epidemics — Oregon and Mississippi — have in recent years ordered that those types of cold medicines be returned to their old status of prescription drugs. Despite fierce opposition by the pharmaceutical industry, those actions appear to have dramatically cut the meth problems in those states, according to an article in Mother Jones.

There have been no similar debates in Connecticut. In 2008 and 2009, bills proposed by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell to impose tougher sentences for meth violations and tighter controls over the sale of those types of cold meds sputtered and died in the General Assembly.

Wallin's sensational "Monsignor Meth" case may signal that the meth scene is now heating up fast in Connecticut.

The former Bridgeport priest's arrest and guilty plea were headline news around the nation. Wallin, 61, was once considered a potential candidate to become a Roman Catholic bishop; he spent six years as pastor of a church in Danbury and nine years as pastor at St. Augustine Parish in Bridgeport.

That was well before he began selling meth, cross-dressing, and buying a North Haven shop called Land of Oz & Dorothy's Place, devoted to sex toys and porn videos. Prosecutors believe Wallin used the shop to launder his drug money.

Wallin's meth, like most of what's used in the U.S., allegedly came out of labs in Mexico.

The Connecticut Post reported that the wholesale price for a pound of meth ranges from $14,000 in the Hartford region to close to $20,000 a pound around Bridgeport.

Hourigan points to another troublesome trend: Canadian-made meth disguised as Ecstasy, a feel-good drug popular with college-age and twenty-something clubbers. He says some of the Ecstasy seized recently by Connecticut cops "tested positive for meth."

Another major concern is the dangerous connection between methamphetamines and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases within the gay community.

Blick says his clinic created its first Crystal Meth Anonymous group for meth addicts about nine months ago, and the problem has grown to such an extent that officials are considering creating more groups.

He says meth decreases inhibitions, and that can lead to people with AIDS and HIV forgetting or disregarding their medications and having unsafe sex. According to Blick, the success rate for rehabilitating meth addicts is less than 10 percent.

"That's been seen in other parts of the country," says Bob Brex, head of Northeast Communities Against Substance Abuse, a part of the Regional Action Council in Northeast Connecticut. "Meth reduces pain levels and increases pleasure levels."

Brex was one of the people who testified in support of that 2009 bill to create tougher state controls and stronger penalties for meth production and use. He says the legislation failed in part because meth simply wasn't seen as a great risk at the time.

"You have to have enough [meth abuse] going on to create momentum to get legislation through," Brex says. "If the trend is starting to move... we may have to take another look at it."

As far as Blick is concerned, that time has already arrived: "Crystal meth is probably the worst recreational drug I've seen in my practice, and I've been practicing for more than 25 years."

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