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Meth tightens toxic grip on girls

Sitting in a circle in a basement classroom at the Turning Point girls' residence, five girls talk about their struggle to stay off a drug that has all but destroyed them.
Methamphetamine is increasingly becoming girls' drug of choice. They're turning to it because of low self-esteem, and sticking with it because it makes them lose weight.

And as the girls at Turning Point could tell you, the results are nothing short of disastrous.

"I was addicted to the lifestyle," said one girl, who began using and selling meth at 14. The girls in the rehabilitation program asked that their names not be used for their protection.

Relationships with friends and family crumbled at her feet, and she dropped out of school before completing ninth grade.

Her boyfriend, who was nearly a decade older than her, went to jail, and then so did she. Back on the street, she was back on meth.

"Meth is stronger than me," she said, describing her struggle to re-learn how to think and feel. "I don't want to go back to it. It ruined my life."

The other girls in the room shared equally heartbreaking stories of self-destruction, each laced with unique details of their downward spiral into addiction.

One girl told of the stutter she developed from the brain-damaging drug; another told of life as a runaway.

Girls and women across Larimer County are smoking, snorting, swallowing and shooting methamphetamine. It's a trend that law enforcement, teachers, counselors and addicts themselves say is growing at an alarming rate.

Females make up about half of all methamphetamine users, according to members of the Larimer County Drug Task Force.

In Turning Point's residential substance-abuse treatment programs, 53 percent of the girls are being treated for methamphetamine addictions, compared with 23 percent of boys.

The Center, an education prevention center in Fort Collins that serves youths ages 10 to 18, reported that two out of three meth users at The Center are girls. That ratio is reversed for marijuana use among kids, with two boys using for every girl.

Women make up 47 percent of all treatment admissions for methamphetamine, which is a greater percentage than admissions associated with most other drugs, according to the Department of Health and Human Services' Treatment Episode Data Set 1992-2001.

Why meth appeals to women

Local females dealing with meth addictions say weight loss was one of the biggest reasons they used.

"Nothing could curb the weight like the meth," said a 17-year-old girl at Turning Point.

While it isn't always the reason they start using, many females stick with the drug because it suppresses their appetites.

But even as their weights plummet, most remain unhappy with their body image.

"I always wanted more," said another girl, who dropped to a dangerous 77 pounds at the height of her addiction. Now in rehab, the 14-year-old is up to a healthy 130 pounds.

While male users also experience weight loss, it does not become a driving appeal for them. Females tend to be much more focused on being thin, experts say.

"I was in a size 0 jeans and thought I was huge," said a 16-year-old girl at Turning Point.

She would go for days without eating or sleeping, sometimes crawling through the house because she was weak from hunger and fatigue.

The diet drug appeal isn't limited to adolescents. Members of the Larimer County Drug Task Force said many adults get addicted to meth for the same reason.

Detective Todd Brubaker said he sees adult female users whose weight-loss obsession blinds them from the visibly unhealthy effects the drug is having on their bodies.

"They look at themselves and say 'Hey, I'm thin,' " Brubaker said, but they overlook their sallow complexions, brittle hair and lesioned skin. They begin looking like "mummies instead of mommies."

One adult user from LaPorte said she was drawn to the drug's energizing effects. As a single mom and a trauma nurse in Denver, the stimulant had serious appeal.

For the same reasons they resort to other drugs, men and women also turn to meth as an escape from issues such as depression.

Laurie Klith, executive director of The Center, said low self-esteem makes adolescent girls particularly vulnerable.

"Self-esteem really becomes an issue for them, and I think they start using drugs and alcohol because of it," Klith said.

Kris Cheever, addictions specialist at Turning Point, said meth gives young women a "false sense of control and power."

Some of the girls from Turning Point who were dealers as well as users said they sought girls with low self-esteem.

A 17-year-old said she preyed on girls because "their self-esteem was a lot lower ... (and they had) more of a need to be accepted."

Gender-specific consequences

A three-year study on females ages 8 to 22 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that girls and young women get hooked on meth faster and suffer adverse affects sooner than boys and young men.

And while methamphetamine use is dangerous for anyone, some gender-specific risks and consequences could put female users in an even more precarious position.

Many of those dangers have to do with dating, sex and violence.

"The addiction to the boys is almost as bad as the addiction to the drug," said Dawn Johnson, school resource officer at Blevins Junior High School.

The girls at Turning Point admitted to dating men in their 20s and 30s -- sometimes nearly twice their age.

"A lot of girls end up having older boyfriends," said Scott Gammon, school resource officer at Rocky Mountain High School.

Gammon said men often hook younger girls on meth to gain customers and sex.

The Center's Klith said nearly all female meth users she works with are sexually active. Many of them enter their relationships looking for love.

"When they figure out (what's) going on they're devastated because they thought 'he really loved me,' " Klith said.

But perhaps equally disturbing is that many girls are selling themselves for meth.

"A lot of girls would play off they were raped," said one girl at Turning Point. "Ninety-five percent of the time, they were the ones doing it to get more."

And many times, with drugs and age differences involved, it's hard to say what is consensual.

"You get a lot of domestic violence issues, sexual assault issues," Gammon said. "Girls 14 to 15 years old abused by boyfriends."

Meth is known to make users angry, agitated and unpredictable.

While females might not get involved with criminal activities as often as male users, officials said they, too, act upon their meth-fueled rage.

Klith and Johnson attributed an increase in female fighting -- both physical and verbal -- to increased meth use by girls and women.

Families, particularly children, also become victims.

"I was afraid if I went home I'd hurt somebody," said one girl at Turning Point, who faces an assault charge for violence against her mother.

"I think it significantly affects the family environment as a whole," said Lt. Craig Dodd of the task force. "We see a lot of domestic abuse when there's methamphetamine involved. We see increases in the area of child abuse."

And sometimes those victims haven't even been born.

Klith reported working with 11 girls at The Center who are pregnant and also addicted to meth. Three of those girls were sentenced to jail in an effort to protect their babies, Klith said. The others are in or recently finished treatment.

Meth use during pregnancy puts the fetus at risk and increases the likelihood of prenatal complications, premature delivery and spontaneous abortion, said Dr. Kathryn Wells, medical director at the Denver Family Crisis Center.

Birth defects and other health problems are possible in babies and their mothers who use meth during pregnancy, and the babies are at increased risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Babies exposed to methamphetamine during pregnancy might be extremely sleepy for the first several days and then exhibit symptoms similar to those of cocaine-exposed babies, including jitteriness, agitation and shrill cries, Wells said.

Some babies experience withdrawal symptoms, and very recent information indicates some might require addiction treatment.

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