Utah's methamphetamine epidemic could be waning for the first time in 15 years, but heroin use appears to be ticking up slightly, according to a state substance abuse report about to be released.

The 2007 Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Annual Report — the state's most comprehensive collection of drug use and abuse trends — shows that a combination of a special task force, more money for screening/treatment, beefed-up law enforcement and targeted public education campaigns has reduced both the supply of and the demand for the powerful stimulant.

Methamphetamine is the most common illicit drug used among clients in treatment. It is more popular by nearly 20 percentage points among people in drug treatment programs than the next most common drug, marijuana. It was the No. 1 illegal drug of choice until 2001, the year meth use began its six-year steep growth curve.

Heroin use spiked somewhat in 2007 after remaining flat for the past 10 years. Admissions for heroin correlates with an increase in admissions for dependence on prescription pain relievers such as Oxycodone, Percocet and Vicodin, according to the report.

Utah's national reputation for prescription abuse is not borne out in the new report: In the category of "lifetime misuse" of painkillers, 3.6 percent of people in treatment report misusing them compared to 13.4 percent nationally. In that same category for tranquilizers such as Xanax and Valium, 3.2 percent of Utahns report misuse compared to 8.8 percent nationwide.

The report points out that alcohol remains the most common substance used by Utahns, primarily by people over age 44. However, meth use has reached statistical parity with alcohol among Utahns aged 35 to 44.

In 1991, 83 percent of Utah clients came into treatment for help with alcohol dependence. Last year, 31 percent sought help with alcohol. During the same period, the percentage of clients entering treatment for illicit drug abuse/dependence has risen to 69 percent last year from 17 percent in 1991.

By gender, men prefer alcohol most, women prefer meth and marijuana is the drug of choice by both male and female clients under age 18.

While the decline in meth use is encouraging to both government officials and treatment providers, they caution that its physical and emotional toll requires much longer treatment, stricter protocols and in turn much more expense.

Both treatment staff members and former users say 13 months — more than twice as long as treatment required for every other drug including nicotine — is needed to truly break the habit. It is, however, far less physically harmful than cocaine, heroin, alcohol and cigarette smoking.

No direct overdose-related death has ever been reported in Utah or nationwide. Overdose from heroin and alcohol are common, the latter accounting for more than 85,000 deaths in the United States from binge drinking, drunken-driving accidents or long-term alcohol related disease, according to the latest edition of the widely cited data report Drug War Facts.

Smoking kills more than 435,000 people nationwide each year, including 1,100 Utahns, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's Office and the state Department of Health.

Just over 17,000 deaths in the United States were linked to all illegal substance use in 2007, according to Drug War Facts.

Other drugs are clearly more harmful physically, but none compares to the emotional and spiritual drain of using methamphetamine, a former user and dealer told the Deseret Morning News earlier this month.

The single mom living in central Salt Lake said mood-altering effects of the drug, particularly when taken in the most commonly used crystallized form, "can make you feel like you're connected to some higher energy or make you think you are a better, happier version of yourself."

But it's a state of mind neither real nor lasting and comes with its own special kind of long-term hangover, she said.

"It's the best and worst — and its form of worse is so dark," she said. "When I think that really anyone could have come through my door at any time and what I was exposing my kids to without really thinking I was neglecting them ..."

She's more than four years clean and has a sense of well-being that she said she got from drug court — the state's jail alternative outpatient treatment program — talk therapy and getting to "a spiritual place inside myself that I was OK. It took a good year, but I don't need — and don't want — anything to get in the way of staying there.

"Sure, it still calls to me sometimes, and it was exciting and fun — drugs work; that's why people use them, prescription or not," she said. "But right now, who I am now calls to me a lot louder."

She's a live and let-live person, she said. But she cautions that in any statistical review, people should remember that "in all the statistic gathering and trend watching and villainizing of drugs, it's people, not 'those people' that are behind the numbers.

"We judge people so much for doing this or that kind of drug," she said. "But what people really want and what's the most addictive part of it is feeling like you're OK inside. Maybe it's the first time in your life you've felt that way.

"It's not a bad thing to want feel loved and to feel better,' she said. "It's a need we all have. People, everybody probably, are going after that in some way or another every day.

"The thing is, drugs are counterfeit and a shortcut to tapping into all that," she said. "I thought for a long time I needed drugs to bring that out. I was wrong — I wasn't bad — I was wrong."


E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com