Still 'Breaking Bad': Amid the U.S. Opioid Crisis, Meth Makes a Comeback in North Texas

Liberty Grace is recovering from an methamphetamine addiction.
Liberty Grace is recovering from an methamphetamine addiction. Danny Fulgencio
Liberty Grace isn’t sure why the Walmart in Weatherford started requiring proof of an insulin prescription before selling her syringes. When she was still shooting up methamphetamine, she could get needles at the Walmart in the small town of Graham, about 58 miles away, with little trouble.

“You just walk in there and say, ‘I need 28-gauge, short needle, 100 units,’” she recalls while sitting in a diner on a Saturday afternoon in late May, not far from the halfway house in Fort Worth where she’s receiving drug treatment, a condition of her release from prison.

Inserting a 28-gauge needle into the crook of her arm felt like a mosquito bite. A slight prick followed by a sting before the methamphetamine’s euphoria set in. She first started slamming about 0.20 gram mixed with 10 to 12 units of water. Others will shoot 0.30 or 0.35 gram but usually never more than 0.40 mixed with water. A heavy syrup formula supposedly gives a better rush. No matter how thick, the drug delivers a high like a locomotive hitting at full speed.

Liberty Grace — who spoke to the Observer on the condition we don’t reveal her last name — doesn’t look like the drawn, withered drug addicts with rotting teeth whose faces once appeared on billboards along Interstate 35 during the height of the meth craze in the early 2000s. A Texas girl who grew up riding horses in a family of calf ropers, she looks like a healthy 21-year-old with blond hair and tattoos of roses. One appears atop a slightly faded skull in the center of her chest where a small silver cross hangs from a necklace. “Honor faith. Love, Dad,” it reads. Her stepfather Ken had several crosses engraved before he died of melanoma May 21, 2012.

“It was one of the most emotional moments of my entire life because all of us were like standing around [the hospital bed], and my mom, I remember, read, ‘Grasp angels whenever he’s gone,’” she says. “It was just heart-wrenching.”

The new meth she once abused came from Mexican cartels and Texas drug dealers who grow it in cities like Dallas. The majority of the drug here crosses Texas’ border with Mexico before it floods the cities, suburbs and rural communities, where meth use is a generational problem. U.S. border patrol agents seize large shipments of meth, as well as heroin, on a regular basis at the border, the Texas Department of Public Safety reported in the 2017 "Texas Public Safety Threat Overview." But because drug cartels have sustained production of meth in Mexico, the more than 22,000 pounds seized by U.S. Border Patrol agents since 2006 hasn’t stymied the flow.

Mexican cartels now cook a more potent form of the drug, one that enhances dependency with phenyl-2-propanone, or P2P. The new additive was found in 91 percent of the methamphetamine tested in U.S. laboratories in 2015, University of Texas senior research scientist Jane Maxwell wrote in an August 2016 UT press release. They call the more potent dope by various names, but more often than not, it’s simply referred to as “ice.”

No matter what process is used to make meth or what it’s called, “It’s always going to be meth,” as one narcotics officer put it. It also seems it will always be a problem as it begins to reach epidemic proportions in Texas more than 20 years after Mexican cartels first set up Breaking Bad-style labs in California in the 1990s.

Maxwell, who has studied substance abuse patterns for 40 years, wrote that Dallas Drug Enforcement Administration division ranked meth as the greatest drug threat to its area. The DEA reported in the 2016 "National Drug Threat Assessment" that 31.8 percent of law enforcement organizations nationwide agreed, and 71 percent of those agencies came from the Southwest region, including Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California.

Law enforcement agencies reported that methamphetamine availability was considerably high and has been on the rise since 2013.

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Law enforcement agencies reported that methamphetamine availability was considerably high and has been on the rise since 2013. It’s a renewed epidemic that Maxwell says is “quietly rising” as media headlines focus on deaths from opioid painkillers. Prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin and fentanyl, along with heroin, have caused drug overdose deaths to quadruple since 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The media narrative is that opioid-based painkillers are hitting white, working-class rural areas particularly hard. But in Texas, more available methamphetamine from Mexican cartels means more misuse and overdoses.

“In Texas, the number of people being admitted to treatment programs has doubled, as has the number of calls to poison centers specifically due to meth overdose,” Maxwell wrote. “Methamphetamine has become the major drug problem in areas of Texas that previously were dominated by heroin. Even more so than it was a problem back in the mid-2000s.”

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A pamphlet sent out by the Weatherford Police encouraging prescription pill drop off to curb opioid abuse.
Danny Fulgencio

'The show made it cool again'

Two undercover narcotics officers sit in their extended-cab pickup behind the Full Cup Bookstore and Coffee Shop in Weatherford in mid-May. They're part of a task force that includes the Parker County Sheriff's Office and the Weatherford Police Department, but sometimes they'll help the DEA and other law enforcement agencies track down drug dealers as far away as Tennessee.

“We go wherever the cases take us,” they say in unison, as if they've spent too much time together on the road.

They could pass for father and son — both scruffy, one gray with age and the other dark with youth. Kevin, who, like his partner, wishes to withhold his last name, has been busting drug dealers for about a decade, and David has been doing the job for about four years. They've never been busier.

Today, they're meeting to discuss the problems with narcotics in the rural areas of North Texas.

Nationally, death rates from opioid overdoses in rural areas were matching the overdose death rates in large metropolitan areas like Dallas and Fort Worth, The New York Times reported in January 2016. The number of opioid overdose deaths has risen for nearly every county across the U.S., with some of the biggest spikes in Appalachia and the Southwest. The overdose death rate climbed from 9 per 100,000 in 2013 to 15 per 100,000 in 2014, reaching a new peak with 47,055 overdoses.

The opioid health epidemic was so alarming in rural areas that on the campaign trail, President Donald Trump pledged to solve it. It's been called the worst drug crisis in U.S. history, and the Observer wanted to profile the epidemic’s effects in rural Texas. Instead, we found meth.

It's the drug of choice for the white working-class people in this part of the country since long before Walter White started cooking it in an RV on Breaking Bad. Some meth users claim they use the drug because they believe it isn't as lethal as opioids, which have been ravaging the Dallas and Fort Worth suburbs for several years now. It's also far cheaper than opioids, which can range from $5 to $7 per pill. But Kevin and David say meth didn't start regaining popularity until Breaking Bad hit the airwaves in 2008.

“The show made it cool again,” Kevin says.

“Every once in a while, we'll bust some old-timer using the old 'shake-and-bake' method, but that's about it,” says an undercover narcotics officer.

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Overdose death figures from the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office seem to support the narcotics officers' observations. Since 2013, more Parker County residents have died while overdosing on meth than on opioids, which accounted for only two people in 2015 and one in 2016. Throughout the medical examiner's four-county coverage area — Denton, Johnson, Parker and Tarrant counties — people were overdosing on meth and opioids in nearly equal numbers, in the low 60s, in 2015. The following year, 56 people in those counties died using meth, compared with 53 who died using heroin or opioids.

Kevin and David say most of the meth they handle crosses the border with Mexico. They rarely see homemade labs anymore after the government cracked down on cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine or ephedrine, a necessary ingredient for home-cooked meth. In 2006, the federal government banned over-the-counter sales of cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine. Texans must show their photo IDs to purchase them, and there are limits on how much a customer can buy. The laws put a serious dint in home-cooked meth.

“Every once in a while, we'll bust some old-timer using the old 'shake-and-bake' method, but that's about it,” David says.

But Mexico is still cranking out the goods, and with Texas next door, it has a ready-made market.

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Liberty Grace stands not far from the Volunteers of America halfway house where she receives drug rehab treatment.
Danny Fulgencio

'I just wasn't ready to stop'

Liberty Grace was 16 years old when she first slammed meth in 2012. She was a sophomore and had gone to a dope house after school and caught her 18-year-old boyfriend Jeffrey with syringe in hand. She’d been doing drugs since she started running around with skater kids in junior high but struggled to get high smoking meth like other users she knew.

“I didn’t know if it was bad dope,” she says. “But I was like, ‘Well, if I shoot it, maybe I will actually feel it.’”

Jeffrey took her to Fireman’s Park in Graham for her first time and tried to shoot her up, but she says he didn’t really know what he was doing, especially on a girl with small veins. He missed veins more often than not, leaving behind bruises and a huge bubble on her wrist.

Liberty Grace got her first shot of good dope in the crook of her arm in the bedroom of what she called a “really shitty trailer” in the small town of Newcastle, about 13 miles northwest of Graham. It was Thanksgiving break, and she had sneaked out of her mother’s house to meet her boyfriend, who had picked up some good meth in Graham earlier that evening.

The good dope usually funnels into places like Parker, Palo Pinto and Young counties from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Lt. Roger Dixon, a commander of the narcotics task force with the Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Office and Mineral Wells Police Department, says the agencies mainly deal with Mexican meth. It's distributed and sold much like other retail goods, with DFW acting as a hub where dealers from rural areas can get the more potent meth at wholesale prices. Meth prices have dropped to $30 for a gram from $100 for a gram in 2006, according to undercover narcotics officers from the Weatherford Police Department.

“We're also seeing a lot of pharmaceutical [anti-anxiety] drugs like Valium and Xanax,” Dixon says. “But they're mainly used for the side effects of meth. They're what we call 'chill pills.'”

Liberty Grace first started hanging around the meth scene after the death of her stepfather Ken in 2012. It wasn’t really a party scene, she says, because most meth users just “sit around and tweak” and, when they're strapped for cash, maybe do a little carpet farming for dope, getting on their knees and searching for meth crumbs in the carpet. But the dope didn’t attract her to the transient lifestyle; the attention she received from other meth users did.

“I had a really nice figure back then,” she says. “So I got a lot of attention that I didn’t get at home.”

Liberty Grace was also familiar with the meth users because some of them had used drugs with a family member, who also battled addiction. Liberty Grace and her older sister Sunny recalled an old story of one of their mother’s good friends who had gone blind after the anhydrous ammonia meth he was baking by shaking it in a 20-ounce Coke bottle exploded in his face.

“They just pushed him out of the car and kept going on about their business,” Liberty Grace says.

Many of the meth users, she says, were sketchy about doing dope with someone who was still in high school, so Liberty Grace says she would often lie about her age and tell them she was 18. She later dropped out of high school during her senior year.

Inside a rundown trailer, Liberty Grace got her first shot of good dope in a bedroom surrounded by trash. Her boyfriend’s friend shot her up. He was a veteran drug user and knew the ways of slamming dope.

“It was just super intense,” she says, "and I remember that I wanted to have sex afterwards.” She pauses for a moment. “I don’t mean to be vulgar.”

“I didn’t really start liking meth until I started shooting it.” – Liberty Grace

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She could only slam dope three days at a time. Then she’d get so dehydrated that she had problems finding a vein. She would sit and poke herself with the syringe for hours trying to find one.

“I didn’t really start liking meth until I started shooting it,” Liberty Grace says at the diner not far from the Volunteers of America halfway house in south Fort Worth.

“I’m so lucky I never contracted hep C because I have shot up after people with hep C, using the same syringe, because the Walmart pharmacy closes at 7 p.m. and sometimes you’re just so desperate. … I always cleaned my syringes out with bleach, so I never got it.”

Liberty Grace’s mother found her syringe in the car. She called her daughter into the living room one night and asked to see her arms.

“She saw all the little places where I had shot up or tried to shoot up,” Liberty Grace says.

But it was stolen lip gloss from Bath & Body Works that sent Liberty Grace to her father’s house in Kentucky, an area also struggling with meth and heroin issues.

“My mom saw it sticking out of my bra,” she says. “She was dropping me off at Golden Chick to work, and that was the last straw for her.”

Her father’s house, though, wasn’t a place for a drug user to get clean. Instead, she smoked marijuana and took prescription pain pills, but nearly everyone she met seemed to be wrapped in meth.

“Those woodsy areas,” Liberty Grace says, “make it easier to grow it. There’s a lot of it.”

She soon returned to Texas but grew tired of feeling like a burden on her mother. She stayed with her grandmother for a short time before moving to the small town of Loving, about 13 miles north of Graham, with a guy she had shot up with the first time. He wasn’t a meth user like her. He smoked a lot of weed that Liberty Grace would often find and trade for meth. At first he was OK with her meth use, she says, but he quickly tired of it and told her that she had five months to quit.

“I just wasn’t ready to stop,” she says.

Liberty Grace quickly tired of her boyfriend hunting her down at different dope houses, so she left him and moved in with her meth dealer. She would clean house for dope, and he didn’t mind that she would disappear for days at a time.

“That’s how I kept my stay,” she says.

She’d disappear into a crowd of 30 or so meth users who lived in the Graham area. Some of them were childhood friends. Others were related, and another was the child of someone who used to party with her mother.

“But they’re all in prison now,” she says.

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The sun sets over the Knight's Inn in Graham.
Danny Fulgencio

'It will make you a better person'

The motel rooms at the Knight’s Inn in Graham look similar to rooms in other small, cheap motels in small towns around North Texas: small but convenient for people who work in transient jobs or live the transient lifestyle, like meth users. Liberty Grace had been selling dope with a few of her friends in the summer of 2014 to pay the $150 weekly rent for a room at the Knight’s Inn, buy food and put gas in the car.

At the time, she'd been running dope with meth users who weren’t getting busted — but quite a few meth dealers around them were. Drug busts, suspicious-person calls, burglaries of habitations and property thefts go hand-in-hand with small-town meth life. They’ve been occurring for so long in places like Graham, Mineral Wells and other small Texas towns that reports of possession of a controlled substance have become a common feature in local newspapers, like the obituaries.

Drugs didn't send Liberty Grace and her meth group at the Knight’s Inn to prison. She was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful restraint subject to bodily injury.

She and the four other meth users, one of whom was five months pregnant, used a pocketknife to saw off a 24-year-old meth user’s long, blond hair and almost scalped her with it. They also watched as a 14-year-old and a 30-year-old meth user, both of whom arrived later, assaulted the woman.

“From what I know, she was expected to whore herself out and she didn’t, and they beat the crap out of her,” says Sunny, who also dropped out of high school but got her GED, went to college and now works as a home health nurse in Parker County. A paid caregiver at her job recently stole two 90-count bottles of hydrocodone pills; the caregiver was caught and sits in jail for violating her probation for a controlled substance charge.

Liberty Grace says the attack had more to do with the victim “stealing and ruining people's lives” and, in some cases, pretending to be other people on Facebook. That wasn't cool, Liberty Grace says, because some were affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood and its offshoot, the Aryan Circle in West Texas.

“They just start beating the shit out of her, and this 14-year-old girl is literally hitting her so hard all over her body,” she says, “and the girl is not screaming. She’s not fighting back. She’s just laying there.”

Graham police later found the woman walking down the side of the road. Liberty Grace and her friends were all charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and she received an additional charge for unlawful restraint subject to bodily injury because she had picked up the 24-year-old from McDonald's earlier that day and taken her to the Knight's Inn.

Liberty Grace relapsed in April 2016 in the drug rehab town of Kerrville, about 100 miles west of Austin in the Hill Country. She’d gone to join the subculture of recovering addicts and receive treatment at one of the three detoxification centers and 30 sober-living houses nestled in the city of nearly 23,000 people. She had received eight years probation for her part in the crime, but she couldn’t stay clean.

“It’s crazy how the devil works. He just opens the door and puts the opportunity right in front of you at your weakest moments. He just waited for the right time. He knew I would say yes.” – Liberty Grace

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“It’s crazy how the devil works,” she says. “He just opens the door and puts the opportunity right in front of you at your weakest moments. He just waited for the right time. He knew I would say yes.”

Liberty Grace said yes in Kerrville, a place many recovering addicts call a mecca for recovery.

“It’s also a huge dope town,” she says. “I ended up relapsing for five days down there, shooting more dope than I have ever shot because these guys just had tons of it. Every town has dope in it.”

After her five-day relapse, Liberty Grace became depressed and moved back to Weatherford. It wasn’t her first time to relapse. She started smoking K2 because it wouldn’t show up in her system when she was drug tested. She reported to her probation officer, who told her that she seemed unstable. She’d been staying at a sober-living house in Fort Worth for several months but still struggled to remain sober.

“He was like, ‘Yeah, your living situation just seems very unstable, and I think that if I send you to SAFP(F) [an in-prison therapeutic community], it will make you a better person,’” she says.

Many drug users who receive felony convictions end up at the Substance Abuse Felony Punishment Facility, where they participate in a six-month in-prison treatment program, followed by three months of residential care at a halfway house, six to nine months of outpatient care and up to 12 months of support groups and follow-up supervision by a probation officer. The drug treatment program for both state and federal crimes works for some users, like 38-year-old Chance Palmer, a West Texas native who met his wife, Crystalle Palmer, at a halfway house in Fort Worth in 2008 and now works as a drug treatment counselor at a private inpatient facility.

“I wanted to help people from making the same mistakes I made,” he says.

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Chance and Crystalle Palmer have navigated Chance's addiction, thanks to faith.
Danny Fulgencio

'It's a vicious, vicious cycle'

Chance was 16 years old when he slammed dope for the first time. He pulled up the sleeve of his letterman jacket, and his older brother, who later killed himself, injected his first dose of meth.

“I remember him leaning over in my ear and asking, ‘You hear that train?’” Chance says. “It sounded like train going by.”

His train trip ended in 2004 when the U.S. Border Patrol caught him crossing into South Texas with 103 pounds of marijuana. At the time, he was also abusing opioid pills that he’d been taking ever since he re-injured his shoulder in an oilfield a couple of years earlier. He'd rather not say who asked him to run the drugs, but he says he feels as if he was the decoy for that person to get a stronger drug across the border.

“I had death wish, and I was on suicide mission,” he says.

The suicide mission led to a commitment to faith, marriage to Crystalle several years after they met and enrollment at Weatherford College, where Chance got certified in a substance abuse program in 2011. He later found a job at an inpatient, Christ-based drug treatment facility in Weatherford, where he helps clients from around the country battling various forms of addiction. He sees meth users from time to time but mostly works with alcohol and opioid abuse.

“It cycles from methamphetamines to [opioids] to methamphetamines to [opioids],” he says. “It’s a vicious, vicious cycle.”

Crystalle, 40, grew up with meth and alcohol afflicting her household in the oilfield town of Midland, about 330 miles west of Dallas.

“They say that most children who come from addict families go one way or the other,” she says. “In my family, I went one way [the clean route], and my brother went the opposite way [the non-clean route]. He’s in prison right now going through that lovely SAFP(F) program.”

Crystalle's prison stay was the result of a friend’s birthday trip to Las Vegas with some Denton County friends, one of whom decided to fund the trip's expenses with stolen company checks. It was 13 years ago, and the trip ended with a miserable bus ride home to Texas, frozen bank accounts and a high-speed chase outside of Ponder, Texas. Since her friends were the gang leaders, they got more time, and although she was given less time — one year and six days in prison — she was charged with and convicted of conspiracy bank fraud and larceny.

“I was just along for the ride,” she says.

Similar to her husband, Crystalle now works as a licensed chemical dependency counselor at an outpatient drug treatment facility in Weatherford. It’s the kind of place Liberty Grace will have to go after her halfway house stay ends. Crystalle says most of her insight into helping drug abusers comes from watching her parents battle addiction.

“I don’t remember ever not dealing with it,” she says. “It’s become more so … I guess, a way of life.”

At the outpatient facility, she helps people who are on probation and parole and those who live on the streets. There are so many people that they often have to wait for space to open at the treatment facilities.

“I had one of the guys tell me — at least I think he was honest — that all he had done was meth, but when he went to take the [drug test], he tested positive for cocaine and heroin,” Crystalle says. “He was like, ‘I didn’t do any of that. I just did meth.’ I said, ‘OK, was it laced? Do you know where you got it from?’ He was just like, ‘I thought I did.’”

“I had a guy come in two days ago,” Chance says, “that said he was smoking meth and marijuana but tested positive for methamphetamines and MDMA.”

“The theory is that [drug dealers] are trying to keep people wanting what they have,” Crystalle says. “They’re lacing it because it has a different effect and a different feel. People are going to want to come to him because they want that."

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Liberty Grace (right) and her older sister Sunny chose different paths in dealing with grief.
Danny Fulgencio

'I wasn't letting God be part of my life'

Liberty Grace no longer wants to slam dope. She wants to go to cosmetics school in August and get her cosmetology license, so she can support herself in college and maybe get into agricultural business. Standing next to her sister Sunny’s car in the parking lot of the Volunteers of America halfway house in Fort Worth, where she’s been receiving drug counseling for the past couple of months, anything seems possible on this Saturday evening in late May.

“They’re going to make it nonsmoking June 1, and everybody is going to be in really shitty moods,” she says, lighting a cigarette. “I already plan to hide my cigarettes down there, right when you drive in.”

The smoking section used to be a playground behind the building, which was once a state school for people with mental disabilities. It’s a place where recovery seekers spend all day in groups, isolated from the outside world, and sleep on bunk beds at night. One of the counselors, Liberty Grace says, is from Graham. His brother is the police chief, and he attended school with Liberty Grace’s mom and her second stepfather, Butch, who died in 2016 of an overdose after he slapped on five fentanyl patches to kill the pain from pancreatitis.

Graham Police Chief Tony Widner told the town’s council earlier this year that his officers were doing their best, “but I think that the problem is getting worse, and we are going to have to take more steps to address it.” The Graham Leader newspaper reported that Graham police statistics showed that if the drug seizure rate continues, police could triple the amount of drugs seized in 2016. Widner told the council that a majority of the drug arrests were for small amounts for personal use and usually involved meth, but police picked up one case of heroin earlier this year.

The small amounts must be adding up; Widner recommended following suit with other small Texas towns with limited resources that have cooperated more closely with the Texas DPS; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and the DEA.

“My goal is to put a narcotics officer in place at some point,” he said to the council, “so we can start doing more with people setting up in their homes and distributing where patrol can’t get them.” (Widner didn't return calls for comment.)

Liberty Grace hoped to transfer to the Center for Transforming Lives in Fort Worth. It has helped about 2,300 women, children and families by providing housing stability; affordable, high-quality child care; and financial empowerment coaching. But the center was full. She thought about checking in to the Oxford House, a long-term recovery facility in Fort Worth, but she’s also looking at recovery facilities in Weatherford. She’ll be leaving the halfway house in early July.

She plans to stay far away from Graham when she finishes her treatment. Most people in the meth crew she once knew have gone to prison, but some remain there. Like Liberty Grace, they all struggled to remain sober after they were convicted.

“I just couldn’t stop using meth,” she says. “I stopped going to church and started getting spiritually dry. I just wasn’t being spiritually fed. I wasn’t letting God be part of my life. I wasn’t focused on the things I should have been focused on, which was my relationship with my higher power and going to meetings and staying sober.”

It’s a struggle that will last a lifetime.
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Christian McPhate is an award-winning journalist who specializes in investigative reporting. He covers crime, the environment, business, government and social justice. His work has appeared in several publications, including the Dallas Morning News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the Miami Herald, San Antonio Express News and The Washington Times.