The true face of drug abuse

Deputy Bret King, founder of Faces of Meth, talks to about the devastating effects of substance abuse

All images courtesy of Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office

All images courtesy of Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office

Ever wondered how you’ll look in two years’ time? These harrowing photos released by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon reveal the shocking rate at which drug abuse can affect a person.

The project, called Faces of Meth, was first launched in 2004 and depicts the decline in health of methamphetamine (meth) addicts. Meth is a highly addictive drug with severe side effects. Its effect on the brain results in paranoia, aggression, depression and hallucinations.

As these images show, meth also has extreme consequences for the body. Bad acne is a common side effect as well as painful, unsightly facial sores caused by extreme itching as a result of hallucinations involving the sensation of bugs crawling under the skin.

Tooth decay and tooth loss, known as ‘Meth Mouth’ is also common as well as undernutrition and rapid weight loss resulting from loss of appetite. Faces of Meth aims to highlight such dangers by showing these evocative pictures as part of a documentary presented to students in schools.

Brain behind the idea, Deputy Bret King, has worked tirelessly for the last 10 years trying to show students the true devastation drugs can cause. The idea of a drug education programme first formed back in 2004 after Deputy King noticed a worrying deterioration in the appearance of known drug addicts. “I remember showing some comparisons to one of my co-workers and she said, ‘Wow, if kids could see that…’ and so Faces of Meth was born.”

“Meth and crime go hand in hand”

The idea was a risky one for Deputy King to propose, particularly at what was a sensitive time in the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office. “This was at a time when our agency was suffering from severe budget cuts and some bad publicity”, explains Deputy King. “My job was the next one on the chopping block. I not only put my reputation, but probably my career on the line. I had to succeed.”

Deputy King bravely took the risk in the hope that he could make a difference to people’s lives. “At that moment I just knew we couldn’t overlook the opportunity to turn bad choices into resources. We could share the experiences of so many who have made bad choices about drugs, share the consequences of those choices and show young people the damage drugs can do. If, by doing that, we could alter the path of just one young person so they didn’t have to live the horror of addiction and imprisonment, it would make all our effort worthwhile.”

Deputy King trawled through mug shots to compare photos of people who had been in custody more than once. Those who were known meth addicts showed signs of an obvious and serious decline in their health in just a matter of months between their arrests. Deputy King took these photos and, along with interviews from the addicts themselves, created a documentary that he could present to students.

Faces of Meth 5

Deputy King’s research uncovered some alarming facts linking meth use to prison time. Although drug use leading to crime is not big news, the strength of the correlation is shocking nonetheless. According to Deputy King’s research, a huge 80 per cent of inmates attribute their incarceration to drugs. “The drug lowered their inhibitions to the point that they felt invincible. They never considered the consequences of their actions and couldn’t begin to account for all the crimes, mostly thefts, they had committed to feed their insatiable desire for the drug.”

One of the strengths of the project is its use of real stories from inmates who can reflect on where it all went wrong. It‘s these personal stories that really make it relatable and ultimately effective. “Probably one of the most remarkable stories I heard”, Deputy King remembers, “was from a 31 year old man who never had as much as a traffic ticket before trying methamphetamine. After going on a four day binge the first time he tried it, he committed his first armed robbery. In three months he had committed eleven armed robberies. I think he is still in prison. ‘Meth and crime go hand in hand’ was a common mantra among those I interviewed.”

Such crimes, however, seem petty in comparison to some of Deputy King’s more horrific findings. “The remarkable thing about this drug to me was just the amount of absolute depravity that took place around its use”, he tells me. “Consider that this drug can create euphoria unparalleled by anything we could naturally encounter and that repeated use will not only rob us of the ability to feel pleasure, but cause us to desperately pursue pleasure by any means.

“the drug lowered their inhibitions to the point that they felt invincible”

“In homes where meth was used it was very common for our deputies to find extensive collections of pornography and sexual devices. I remember one addict talking about the stolen big screen television where he lived. He said that he and his friends often joked that the television had never shown anything other than pornography. And this is a place where children were present.

“Some of the worst offences in that world are against the most vulnerable. Mothers binged then slept for days, leaving toddlers to fend for themselves, starving. Others injected meth into the necks of their own sleeping children just to see how they would react. People would kidnap and restrain young innocents, get them very high on meth, then charge admission for people to come and act on their perversions with them. This drug leaves me no doubt that evil is real. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

Fortunately these horrors appear to be declining, with meth use significantly reduced. “When I began work on Faces of Meth back in 2004”, Deputy King tells me, “I analysed a three month sample of our arrests and found that twenty-seven percent of our arrests were methamphetamine related. In 2008, I sampled the same three months for that year and found scarcely four percent of our arrests were meth related. We went from dismantling over seven hundred meth labs per year in Oregon to less than twenty per year.”

Unfortunately, these impressive results are unique to Oregon. Deputy King sadly explains that “the same can’t be said in other parts of our country or the world.”

Faces of Meth 3

Interestingly, demand for meth has always been low in the UK compared to the US, however, it seems that whilst America is beginning to address its problem, here in the UK, meth use has spiked. With the government reporting that seizures of the drug by police have increased four-fold in the past five years, it seems that we ought to heed advice from our US counterparts.

“In order to address the issue of substance abuse”, Deputy King advises, “a multi-pronged approach must be taken; legislation/law enforcement needs to be enacted to address and hold supply sources accountable. Medicine and treatment must be applied to address demand. Finally, effective education must be included to stem growth or new demand.”

The education of children in Oregon has certainly been successful, with the horrors of meth use far more apparent in the minds of teenagers than they were ten years ago, thanks to Deputy King’s campaign. “What I set out to do and succeeded at was to educate young people away from the decision to ever try the drug.

“When I go into classrooms to speak to students today, I know that most of my audience will never try methamphetamine. That gives me a lot of satisfaction. Say what you want about our tactics, but they’re influencing lives in a positive way. Some even say we’re saving lives. What more should we hope for?”

After the success of the Faces of Meth campaign, Deputy King had further ambitions. While Faces of Meth concentrated on the use of methamphetamine, Deputy King was worried by the behaviour leading up to this particular substance abuse. Common teenage behaviours of drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana are, Deputy King believes, the cause of this. These innocuous teenage rebellions are, it seems, a ‘gateway’ habit that lead to more worrying addiction.

“this drug leaves me no doubt that evil is real”

This revelation resulted in a new project: From Drugs to Mugs. “When I interviewed meth users for Faces of Meth it was clear to me that their behaviour around substances of abuse didn’t begin with methamphetamine. It began with those common behaviours, at the average age of twelve years. I wanted to create a programme that addressed those behaviours, show where they led and demonstrate the connection between substance abuse and crime.”

From Drugs to Mugs is a similar idea, however it encompasses a range of substance abuses and is able to reach a greater audience. “Faces of Meth was a documentary that we couldn’t make available for distribution. I wanted From Drugs to Mugs to be made available in areas I couldn’t physically travel to so teachers, police or parents could use it in their own schools and communities.

“We did our homework. We surveyed 500 high school students to find out what contributed to their decision to try or not try drugs. We asked them to list questions they would ask of people who are incarcerated because of drug use.

“Then we surveyed 300 inmates in our jail and we completed a criminal history investigation on all three hundred inmates. At the time, those inmates had been arrested a total of 3,975 times. While only 38 percent were in jail on drug charges, over 80 percent attributed their incarceration to their involvement with drugs or alcohol.

“I interviewed drug users, law enforcement officials, a doctor, a judge and a coroner’s investigator to give many different perspectives on the dangerous outcomes drug use can have. I included a whole new set of mug shot comparisons that didn’t just show the devastation of meth, but cocaine, heroin and alcohol too.”

Faces of Meth 4

The pictures from the two campaigns are now shown around the world in an attempt to educate children as to the real dangers of drug and alcohol use. Clearly proud of his efforts, Deputy King tells me how his project is “influencing decisions and that’s changing lives. Not just here in my community, either. From Drugs to Mugs is being used on six continents and in every US state!”

As for future plans? “I have a few ideas. As long as I feel I can make a difference, then I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.”

One comment

  1. Crystal meth rose to popular use during the 1990s because it’s far easier to produce–and thus cheaper–than safer alternative stimulants like cocaine and speed. This is largely because of the heavy criminalisation of these other, harder to supply, drugs that began in the early 1970s. It’s disappointing that this article completely lacks analysis of the social and scientific reasons behind the damage caused by meth – namely, how criminalisation inevitably spreads the use of far more dangerous drugs by making dirty alternatives like meth more popular simply because of how relatively easy it is to produce.

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