PIKETON, Ohio – Richard Kreager is quick to share his most embarrassing photos: The one where he is handcuffed on the side of the road, surrounded by police officers, or the shot of him lying in a hospital bed, hooked to a ventilator, his kidneys shutting down.

Each, he says, serves as a cautionary tale of his addiction to methamphetamine.

“They say one time is too many, and 10,000 times are never enough,” said Kreager, 35, of Dublin, who has been in a southern Ohio recovery program since the spring. “It’s just as bad as heroin.”

In Ohio, the number of people, like Kreager, who are addicted to meth is increasing dramatically, authorities say. The drug’s use has surged across the state, leading police to seize record amounts of the mind-altering stimulant. Users go on binges that leave them wired and hallucinating for days, according to court records and interviews with police, counselors and patients in treatment.

Medical treatment specialists said that once taken, meth hits the body quickly, enabling an excessive amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine to flood the brain’s reward system, creating a frantic high. The drug also brings on extreme paranoia, as well as violence and mood swings.

When the high is gone, users can feel extreme depression and suicidal thoughts. To avoid that, users take more of the drug. And there is no medication to treat meth addiction, unlike opioid addiction.

A state report, released in late July, says the drug’s usage has jumped alongside Ohio’s deadly opioid epidemic. The report shows that many people addicted to opioids have begun using meth as well to cushion the deep crash of heroin and similar drugs.

The report, by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, also found that some users, who fear dying from powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil, which are often mixed into heroin, have switched to meth.

Meth, however, can kill. While the number of people who die from a meth-related overdose is a small fraction of Ohio’s total number of drug deaths, it has ballooned in recent years.

In 2013, 49 people died from a meth or other psychostimulant overdose. By 2016, the death count rose to 233, according to the most recent year of complete figures from the Ohio Department of Health. Preliminary figures for 2017 show 526 people died from a meth overdose.

In its report, the state mental health agency offers a detailed examination of the re-emergence of the drug, its evolution and how it has become so widely prevalent throughout the state.

The state report provides perhaps the most accurate portrait of the state’s illicit drug trends, although Ohio does not require local law enforcement to report the number of cases, seizures, or the purity of captured drugs.

A drug’s evolution

The meth that has led users to fill jails and treatment centers is not the toxic concoction that gripped the state 10 years ago. Back then, most meth was a homemade cocktail made by backyard chemists mixing cold medicine, lithium extracted from batteries and solvents in pop bottles.

Additives such as Drano, fiberglass and battery acid also have been found in meth, the state mental health department’s report says.

Today, the drug is mass-produced and shipped to Ohio from Mexico and the southwest United States, according to court documents and interviews. The high-gloss substance looks like hard candy but damages a person’s brain and organs, one hit at a time.

“It’s pharmaceutical grade,” said Dr. Mark Hurst, the director of the state department of mental health and addiction services. “The purity level is so much greater than in the past.”

While there are still rogue cooks mixing the drug in Ohio, the numbers have dropped off.

In fiscal year 2012, authorities shut down 607 meth labs in Ohio. Five years later, law enforcement departments grabbed 239, according to figures local police agencies voluntarily reported to the Ohio attorney general’s office.

“Mexican drug cartels are not only pushing opioids into Ohio, but they also are flooding this state with cheap methamphetamine to get people hooked,” said Mike DeWine, the state’s attorney general, following a June raid.

That’s evident along the state’s roadways. In 2013, the Ohio State Highway Patrol seized 24 pounds of methamphetamine. This year, through late July, troopers have grabbed 303 pounds.

In recent months, state and federal officials made large-scale seizures, as well. Consider:

  • In March, agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and local police grabbed about 140 pounds of meth in an investigation in Hudson. They arrested three men, two from Mexico. It was thought to be the largest raid in Ohio.
  • In June, state and local police arrested three men and charged them with racketeering and running a large-scale meth ring in Lancaster, southeast of Columbus. The ring, police said, distributed pounds of the drug in Fairfield and Licking counties. Investigators seized $30,000 in cash, four vehicles and a stolen stump grinder.
  • In July, federal prosecutors in Dayton charged seven people with a wide-ranging conspiracy to ship meth from Mexico to Southwest Ohio. DEA agents in Dayton and local police found 140 pounds of the drug.
  • On July 24, U.S. District Judge James Gwin sentenced Jesus Caro Lopez, a Mexican national, to 24 years in prison for his role in shipping 20 pounds of meth to Cleveland. Caro Lopez wanted to set up a drug distribution network and launder profits through restaurants and properties, according to court documents that contained partial transcripts of calls secretly recorded by the FBI.

Authorities said the seizures indicate the increased demand for the drug. But for every major bust they make, police fear other large shipments pull into the state undetected.

The meth comes in hidden compartments in cars and trucks and unused diesel tanks in semi-tractor trailers, according to court records and interviews.

In the Caro Lopez case, a drug courier brought his mother-in-law on a trip, to provide a foil in the event law enforcement officers stopped the car, according to court records.

“The appetite for meth is really increasing,” said Dennis Lowe, the officer who led the investigation into the Lancaster case. “It is becoming the drug of choice for people here.”

Methamphetamine costs about $30 to $70 a gram in many parts of the state. Heroin costs about $100 to $150 a gram.

The number of deaths in Ohio involving methamphetamine and at least one type of opioid has increased six-fold since 2014.

reatment officials in Cuyahoga and Summit counties said they have seen methamphetamine added to several drugs, including fentanyl. Part of the reason is that meth can balance out the lows that result from using opioids.

“I hate the crash. I really do,” said Kennedy Shriver, a 17-year-old from Plain City in Madison County. “That’s why I used [meth]. I took other drugs, and I became really depressed.

“It’s an everyday battle, especially for me at my age. But I don’t want to be [at a treatment facility] when I’m 40.”

Kreager, the recovering meth user from Dublin, and Shriver are seeking treatment at Freedom Hall Recovery Center in Piketon, a 48-bed, nonprofit, inpatient facility in Pike County, one of the poorest counties in Ohio. It is also a county that drug dealers have targeted as a place to peddle an assortment of drugs, according to state reports and interviews with drug agents.

Angie Pelphrey, the director of Freedom Hall, said the center had one or two people seeking treatment for meth five years ago. Today, there are a dozen.

Ethan Stone is one of them. He began using meth to get off heroin.

Along the way, Stone, 27, from Cynthiana, Kentucky, became so desperate to plunge a syringe filled with meth into his arm that he once used water from a puddle to inject the drug.

“I got so bad [on meth] that I would steal your wallet and help you look for it,” he said. “If my [family members] didn’t bolt everything down in our house, I would take it.”

For Stone and others, meth’s stranglehold is difficult to break. Medical experts say its chemicals cause extreme neurological damage that can last a lifetime, even after quitting.

A last chance for many

Many at Freedom Hall are there because a judge, parole officer or family member forced them into the faith-based program.

Kreager is one.

He said he has been hospitalized four times with kidney failure because of his meth use. He said he once tried to break into the Licking County Sheriff’s Office¬† while hallucinating.

He has been at Freedom Hall for 21/2 months.

His family brought him there soon after his latest troubles. At 4:30 a.m. March 4, Kreager drove the wrong way on State Route 11, near Youngstown, according to state highway patrol reports.

When a trooper pulled Kreager from his car, he refused to listen to the officer, a report said. The trooper used a Taser to control him. A Trumbull County grand jury indicted him July 17 on charges of failure to comply with a police officer, a third-degree felony.

His lawyer, Sam Amendolara, said he is “hoping the new charges will not affect [Kreager’s] recovery, but the case is a long way from being over.”

On the day the grand jury returned its indictment, Kreager was hundreds of miles away. He was upbeat and happy. He hugged fellow patients at Freedom Hall, told strangers that he loved them, and laughed easily at jokes from counselors.

Despite it all, he knew he was, and always will be, just a step away from relapsing. He has the pictures to prove it.