We’re pleased to present the introduction from Crystal Death: North America’s Most Dangerous Drug, by Nate Hendley.
Crystal Death is available in print and digital formats from online booksellers worldwide, as well as directly from Five Rivers.
On February 21, 2003, David Parnell–a sometime factory worker and full-time methamphetamine addict–tried to kill himself with an SKS assault rifle. The thirty-six-year-old had taken to toting the weapon around his Martin, Tennessee home, shooting at bushes, trees and other objects that triggered his raging paranoia. In his high strung, sleep deprived state, menace lurked behind every blade of grass and bit of flora.
Parnell’s body was as wired as his mind. By this point, his weight was down to 160 pounds, from a high of 200. Muscular and handsome in a rough-cut fashion, Parnell was showing signs of extreme stress and hard living. His temper was explosive, he babbled to himself at high speed, and he heard voices in his head. Co-workers at the tire plant in Mayfield, Kentucky where Parnell was nominally employed were beginning to get nervous.
Parnell’s main drug of choice was methamphetamine (meth), an illegal and super-potent amphetamine. An entirely synthetic drug, meth is produced in makeshift labs in motels and trailers as well as industrial-sized ‘super-labs’ across North America. A white, odorless powder, methamphetamine dissolves easily in water. The drug can also come in white or yellow chunks that resemble rock salt.
Also called crank, speed, crystal, and many other names, meth spent decades in obscurity, known only to bikers and blue-collar workers. In the past few years, however, it’s achieved mass popularity.
Parnell took methamphetamine for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being he was addicted to it. Meth filled him with vigor and offered an indescribable jolt of pleasure, better than any other drug he’d tried.
Some addicts snort meth while others prefer to either inject it, or smoke the drug in an instrument called a gak pipe. Parnell had his own peculiar method of ingestion; he liked to lay the drug out on toilet paper and gobble down the whole pulpy mess. Within seconds, Parnell would be flying high. His buzz would last for hours, even days at a time.
On meth, Parnell felt invincible and cocky, like a star athlete about to enter a big game. He could stay awake for days on end without feeling tired. Methamphetamine made life tremendously exciting.
Problem is, what goes up must come down, and coming off a meth high is a rather unpleasant experience. Most addicts try to avoid it, but eventually sleep overtakes even the most committed meth user. Parnell had his own routine for rest and recuperation. Whenever the drug burned him out to the point where he could barely get out of bed, Parnell would phone in sick to work. He’d sleep for a few days, then start gulping down meth all over again.
Parnell could get away with this behavior because he belonged to a union with a generous medical leave policy. It also helped that he was an experienced addict. A meth user for years, Parnell knew how to work the system to his advantage.
By this point, Parnell was something of an old hand when it came to getting stoned. He started smoking pot at age 13, after his father introduced it to him. During high school, he also tried alcohol, prescription pills and cocaine. Parnell liked drugs and took lots of them. He played high school basketball but his substance abuse ruined any chance of winning an athletic scholarship to college.
Parnell married his high school sweetheart but the relationship soon soured, due in large part to his drug habits. He moved to Dallas, Texas to live with his father, who happened to be residing in a ‘crank house’—a place where methamphetamine addicts gather to get high. Parnell soon befriended some of these meth users. At age 21, Parnell tried methamphetamine for the first time himself.
His debut meth experience was an eye-opener, literally. Nothing he’d taken before prepared him for this drug. It offered a bigger kick than cocaine at a fraction of the price. It was powerful stuff and Parnell loved it. Following his first taste, Parnell soon acquired a full-blown methamphetamine addiction. His habit actually helped rather than hindered him on the job; jacked up on meth, Parnell could put in 18-hour days at the construction site. When he wasn’t working, Parnell got stoned and hung out with fellow dopers and drinkers.
Parnell soon became acquainted with ‘tweaking’—the result of staying awake for too long while on speed. The combination of sleeplessness and toxic drugs push addicts into a semi-psychotic state, where fantasy and reality blur and hallucinations fill their minds and ears. Tweakers tend to be paranoid and moody. They can go from euphoria to an insane rage in the blink of an eye. Even other addicts are wary of tweakers, who have a tendency towards unprovoked violence. Needless to say, police tend to be wary, too.
Throughout the rest of his twenties and into his early thirties, Parnell continued to work and take meth. He traveled about the United States somewhat aimlessly, returning to his hometown of Martin, Tennessee at some point. In the early 1990s, Parnell served some time in an Oklahoma prison for selling marijuana. After returning again to Martin, Parnell took a job at a tire factory across the state line and continued to take drugs.
He got re-married, to a woman named Amy, and had several children. At his peak, Parnell was pulling in $35,000 a year from his job. He augmented this income by dealing pot and meth. It was enough to keep his family clothed, fed, and to keep him in drugs. But eventually, Parnell’s speed habit caught up with him. In 2000, at age 33, he tried to commit suicide. It was his first serious attempt. He had been feeling depressed, anxious, and awful. Severe suicidal thoughts kept entering his mind. Tying a rope around his neck and trying to hang himself seemed like a logical thing to do. His suicide bid failed and Parnell went back to working in the tire plant, raising his kids, and gobbling down ungodly amounts of meth.
As Parnell’s meth addiction grew in scope and intensity, his already fragile mental state started to strain and fray. Staying awake for days on end didn’t help. Carrying a rifle around the home, on the other hand, did. Whenever his paranoia overwhelmed him, Parnell would take a few pot shots in his backyard. No one in small-town Tennessee would be alarmed by the sound of occasional rifle-fire.
The neighbors may not have noticed his deteriorating condition, but Parnell’s wife Amy did. Her husband’s addiction had reached a state where he was a danger to himself and the family. In early 2003, Amy said she’d had enough. She wanted to leave him and take the kids. Parnell was devastated. With his increasingly tenuous grip on reality slipping away, he grabbed his rifle and told Amy to lie in bed with him. Amy did as he said.
With Amy at his side, Parnell placed the muzzle of his gun underneath his chin. He pulled the trigger, blowing off most of his facial features. Splattered with her husband’s blood, Amy went hysterical. Eventually, she managed to call 911. With his ears ringing from the concussive sound of the shot, Parnell realized he was still alive. The meth coursing through his body was so powerful that his self-inflicted wound hadn’t even knocked him unconscious.
No one—especially Dave Parnell himself—expected him to live. He had eviscerated his nose, lips, and teeth. His face was literally split down the middle. He could still see, hear, and feel pain, however. The sharpest, most intense pain he’d ever experienced in his life. “I thought I was dying,” says a surgically reconstructed Parnell today. “I felt my life was slipping out of me … the pain was so intense it was hard to think of a whole lot of stuff.” Parnell lay helpless in his bedroom, waiting to die, as Amy stood watch for the ambulance attendants.
Most methamphetamine addicts don’t turn rifles on themselves, but it has affected the millions of lives worldwide. The United Nations World Drug Report 2010 estimated that anywhere from 14 to 53 million adults around the world took ATS (amphetamine-type stimulants—a category that includes methamphetamine) drugs in the previous year.
The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that the number of past-month methamphetamine users in the U.S. increased from 314,000 (0.1 percent of the population) in 2008 to 502,000 (0.2 percent in 2009). The 2008 NSDUH survey revealed that 12.6 million Americans have sampled meth at least once at their lives. Formerly known as the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, this report serves as a regular barometer of American substance abuse patterns.
The Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey
(CADUMS) serves a similar purpose in Canada. The survey is conducted by Health Canada and is based on phone interviews. According to CADUMS 2009, past-year use of methamphetamine among Canadians stood at 0.1 percent. This was a down from CADUMS 2008, in which 0.2 percent of respondents reported past-year meth use.
While these numbers might seem small, methamphetamine remains hugely popular in certain demographic and geographic niches. Gays, ravers (people who attend all-night electronic dance parties) and homeless youth are particularly fond of the drug. In terms of geography, consumption is concentrated in West Coast, Southern and Western states. In Canada, British Columbia and Quebec report the highest lifetime use of meth.
The National Drug Threat Assessment 2010
, a report by the U.S. Department of Justice underlined the regional nature of methamphetamine abuse. For this report, state and local agencies across the U.S. were asked what substance represented the “greatest drug threat” in their region. Nearly 80 percent of West Coast authorities cited meth, as did 60.3 percent of authorities in Western states, 57 percent in the Southwest and 22 percent in the Southeast. Fifteen percent of authorities in the Great Lakes region said meth was their biggest drug threat, along with 10.2 percent of authorities in Florida. By contrast, only a handful of authorities in New England and the Mid-Atlantic regions cited meth as their greatest threat.
Even if more people overall are smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and puffing marijuana, meth has health experts, policy-makers, and police highly alarmed. This is because methamphetamine has the ability to devastate users harder and faster than almost any other substance on the planet.
Certainly David Parnell, lying faceless in his bedroom, would agree. When the police and paramedics showed up in response to Amy’s frantic calls, they gave Parnell little chance of surviving. “They wrote me off for dead,” he recalls. Parnell was rushed to hospital where he underwent three days of emergency surgery. When he woke up, everything was different. “As soon as I came to, all I could think about was how much mercy Jesus had showed me,” he says. Parnell had never been particularly spiritual before, but after almost blowing his brains out, he saw the light. This discovery was compounded by a surprise announcement from Amy: his wife was pregnant again, with his seventh child.
Parnell was alive, but he was badly disfigured. Most of his mouth was gone and he couldn’t talk. Writing his thoughts down on a notepad, he let Amy know that he wanted to live. He had been given a second chance, and he was determined to stay straight.
It had taken a bullet to wake him up, but unlike many of his meth-addled peers, Parnell would never take another hit again.