Rain, saliva and tears soaked the pistol in Mike Lund's mouth. He stood alone in a field near a baseball diamond in Regina, tasting the metal tip of the black .22-calibre Walther.
In that suicidal moment, he didn't think about the power of crystal methamphetamine.
He could hardly remember his former life as a store manager who negotiated wholesale deals across North America. He didn't understand how meth had reduced him to an addict, a petty criminal, a small-time drug dealer.
Now, seven months later, under house arrest, the 24-year-old stitches together the memories from his two years on meth: the gang members who threatened to kill him; the junkie who tried to cut off his own toe; the friend who prowled a rooftop in a dressing gown, swinging a meat cleaver at shadows.
Mr. Lund has decided to tell this dark story, first to The Globe and Mail and then to anybody who will hear his warning. He's worried about other people like him, he says, about the otherwise ordinary lives shattered by meth's arrival in places that haven't seen such a powerful new drug in decades.
"Right now, at this very moment, two Grade 10 girls are smoking meth for the very first time at a house over there," he said, gesturing down a street lined with mature trees. "These girls are coming out of nice, peach-coloured homes. . . . They have these beautiful homes and families who love them very much, they have brothers and sisters, they drive nice cars, and they're probably going to be whoring themselves on the corner so they can smoke meth, four months from now."
That's the heart of the fear about crystal meth. The drug is already rampant among young B.C. street people. What alarms police, doctors, professors and others who study methamphetamines, however, is the way crystal meth has spread across Canada in the past few years.
It's a toxic wave moving from west to east, they say. A dose of the white crystals often costs less than a pack of cigarettes, it's more addictive than crack cocaine, and it's more likely to cause psychosis than any other drug on the street.
The awful potential of meth has already been unleashed in the United States, where the wave started in California and crashed into the Midwest, plaguing small towns and making the word methamphetamine more common than the words marijuana or cocaine in U.S. courtrooms.
Meth hasn't hit Canada so hard, but the emerging patterns are similar.
Jennifer Vornbrock, a manager at Vancouver Coastal Health, chaired meetings of meth experts last month and discovered that the scourge among her city's young street people has become a problem for middle-class neighbourhoods across the country.
"It's getting into suburbia and small rural towns that aren't used to dealing with a substance of this magnitude," she said.
Two years ago, almost nobody in Regina had heard of crystal meth. Mike Lund certainly had no idea what the stuff looked like.
He was raised in a comfortable house with his mother and brother, earned good grades in school, played violin with a junior symphony, took up classical guitar, and won trophies in hockey, basketball and baseball.
His strongest talent emerged at age 17, when the long-haired teenager took a part-time job at a store that sells bath products.
The young man rose quickly from clerk to manager. He cut his hair short and was featured in a local newspaper as a promising entrepreneur. Introducing the store's handmade soaps and bath bombs to the wholesale and export markets, he negotiated deals with clients in California, Nevada, New York and across Canada.
His first encounter with meth happened on a warm evening in June, 2002. He was finishing his day at the soap store and feeling tired because he had recently started a second job at an auto garage.
A regular customer invited him to his apartment a few blocks away. He had never visited this guy before, but he was impressed when he climbed the stairs and opened a door into a pristine room with cream-coloured carpets, suspended halogen lights, spare furniture and a glass coffee table.
His new friend welcomed him, pulled out a small bottle and shook a white rock onto the table. He said it would ease Mr. Lund's fatigue.
The rock was chopped into powder, and he snorted a line through a glass tube. "This stuff burns, unlike any other drug. It feels like your brain is going to explode, like it just hurts very badly. I'm sitting there, I've got tears streaming down my face, and I'm looking at him going, 'Why did you make me do this?' Two seconds after the pain, though. . . ." He snapped his fingers.
"Ting! Your brain goes Atten-SHUN! Like boom, all right! You're talking a mile a minute, you can't get enough air into your lungs to say all the words you want to say."
The high lasted all night and into the next morning, leaving him sleepless but alert. He started taking the drug almost every day. The street phrase for turning people into meth addicts is "making monsters," he says, and that's what happened to him.
"I ceased being a human being and became a monster."
Not everybody gets hooked on meth so quickly, and some users can manage the cravings. But law-enforcement officials say Mr. Lund's intense reaction to his first sample was typical.
"There is no recreational use of meth," said Douglas Culver, national co-ordinator of RCMP synthetic drug operations. "You can't just use it occasionally. It's like a disease."
The N-methyl derivative of amphetamine works like other stimulants such as cocaine, except the euphoria can last eight to 12 hours. Some experts say its addictiveness is pure chemistry, but others point to the lure of heightened awareness in a fast-paced society. Club-goers can play all night, while truckers, taxi drivers, prostitutes and students can work longer hours.
"Unlike other drugs, crystal meth has spanned across all kinds of demographics," said Caitlin Padgett, co-ordinator of an outreach group for meth users in Vancouver. "There's just a seductiveness to not sleeping."
Although national statistics are scare, the number of Canadians succumbing to the seduction seems to be growing. Data from Health Canada's Drug Analysis Service, which tests the drugs seized by police across the country, show the number of meth samples from British Columbia increased 50 per cent between 2001 and 2003; Alberta rose 20 per cent; Ontario 108 per cent; Manitoba 141 per cent; Quebec 457 per cent; and Saskatchewan 857 per cent.
"It's being seized on a regular basis now," said Corporal Kevin Lamontagne of the Manitoba RCMP drug section.
The RCMP responded to the growing threat this year by assigning 26 officers to search for clandestine meth laboratories, full time. Police on the Prairies say they're particularly worried because of meth's low price, the easy availability of farm fertilizer used as an ingredient and meth's nickname among their colleagues in the United States: prairie wildfire.
Warnings are showing up in Prairie towns such as Prince Albert, Sask., which has a population of 40,000 and about 140 meth addicts in counselling.
Those numbers are still comparatively low, however. Police didn't uncover any meth labs in Saskatchewan last year. During the same period south of the border, police in Missouri raided 2,858 laboratories.
Similar statistics flashed on-screen at the Western Summit on Methamphetamine in Vancouver last month, and the figures puzzled the international group of experts. The numbers have increased sharply, but the drug still isn't common in Canada. Why has this substance gained a reputation as a serious threat?
"The drug debate is always plagued by one moral panic or another," notes Cameron Duff, director of the Australian Drug Foundation's Centre for Youth Drug Studies and a keynote speaker at the conference. "Perhaps at the moment crystal meth is the drug generating that anxiety, and it might be somewhat out of proportion to the actual reality of the problem."
Mr. Duff paused for thought.
"But with crystal meth, it does seem to be associated with more problems, more frequently, than any other drug," he continued. "If you look at all the problems associated with this drug, you think, well, maybe your priority should be on the drug that causes the most harm, irrespective of the number of users."
The nasty side of meth emerged several months after Mr. Lund's first taste.
His dealer became his best friend, and they travelled to Calgary together to buy drugs. During his first long stretch of sleepless days, he found himself hallucinating while driving along the Trans-Canada Highway. He saw dragons, old women and children, and kept screeching to a stop from 130 kilometres an hour because he thought he had hit them. Later he blacked out and woke up, still driving, on an unmarked dirt road with the gas gauge inching lower. The motor sputtered to a stop just as he was coasting into a town with a gas station.
The meth dealer moved into Mr. Lund's house that fall, and started losing his mind. Mr. Lund noticed him standing in front of a bathroom mirror with blood dripping off his face as he gouged imaginary blemishes with a metal pick. Then Mr. Lund found videotapes of the dealer using drugs to rape women in Mr. Lund's bed. He smashed the tapes, kicked him out of the house -- and became a dealer himself.
"I'd met with all his connections, and I said, 'You're done.' "
Economics is the backbone of meth's popularity. Mr. Lund sold the drug in Regina for about $140 a gram, or $14 a dose. Desperation sometimes raised the price -- somebody gave him a rusted 1982 Nissan for two grams, and another addict traded his 1980 Chevy van for 1.5 grams -- but it was usually cheap. Studies have found street values as low as $4 or $5 a dose elsewhere in Canada.
Supply drives prices down. Amateurs make the drug with recipes from the Internet, ingredients from the local pharmacy and hardware store, and a healthy dose of courage for mixing volatile chemicals.
RCMP figures show the number of meth-cooking operations discovered by police has grown in Canada, from fewer than 10 in 1998 to 39 last year. U.S. busts during the same years were far more dramatic, rising from 1,627 labs to 9,763 last year The sheer number of meth cooks south of the border has forced many states to pass cleanup laws requiring decontamination of homes before they're suitable for living.
Technicians such as Dan Hannan, of Assured Decontamination in Minnesota, climb into protective suits with breathing masks and mop up the puddles of solvents. The usual meth factory is a roach-infested home with an overflowing cat-litter box, he says, but his crews have also been called to motels, mobile homes, outhouses, tree-houses and even an ice-fishing hut.
Understandably, Mr. Lund doesn't talk about the criminal organization that supplied his drugs. But he laughs when asked about his T-shirt emblazoned with the Big Red Machine logo, a trademark of the Hells Angels. He wants to get something printed on the back, he says, such as, "I screwed up my life for a criminal organization and all I got was a lousy T-shirt."
In fact, "screwed up" hardly begins to describe Mr. Lund's short career as a drug dealer. He once saw an addict offer to settle a debt by cutting off his own baby toe with a serrated kitchen knife. The man started sawing but only got halfway through the tough sinews, so somebody else had to finish the job.
Mr. Lund says he was never so cruel. He remains proud of the fact that he never introduced anybody to the drug, even though he jokes about his own depiction of himself as the "Mother Teresa of the meth world."
He once visited an addict's house and found him in a psychotic state, smashing telephones. The crazed man rushed outside and ripped wires out of Mr. Lund's car, explaining that listening devices were everywhere. Mr. Lund walked to a drugstore, bought sleeping pills, slipped them into the addict's drink and helped the man's girlfriend get him into bed.
Shortly afterward, he visited another friend and found him on the roof wearing a dressing gown and wielding a meat cleaver, shouting that he had cornered the "shadow people." Mr. Lund persuaded him to climb down.
It wasn't so easy dealing with the dealers, especially when meth made them paranoid. One dealer secretly stashed $14,000 in an air vent in the basement of Mr. Lund's rented house, forgot about it, and stole Mr. Lund's car on the assumption that he had taken the cash.
Another dealer put a gun to his head during an argument about drugs, and that's when Mr. Lund started carrying weapons himself. He was still selling perfumed bath products during the day, but his addiction was spilling into the rest of his life.
One day in March, two thugs parked a van outside the soap shop and cranked their stereo so loud the display windows rattled. One of them confronted him in the store about a drug debt, shoved him around, threatened his life and stole some beauty products.
Mr. Lund took the threat seriously. "Somewhere along the way I'd pissed somebody off. So I left my store and I never came back."
Without saying goodbye to anyone, he started camping in the basement of a house belonging to his girlfriend's mother. His family reported him missing and he saw his own photo on the evening news, but he was too afraid to go home.
It got worse. His girlfriend cheated on him, he started laundering money and police finally caught him with drugs, counterfeit cash and a sawed-off shotgun in his car.
Shortly after his release from police custody he found himself standing in a park one rainy day, after spending four days awake on meth, fingering the trigger of a snub-nosed Walther he had traded for $10 worth of drugs. He was utterly transformed, from a clean-cut entrepreneur into a street tough who wore a leather skullcap, studded leather cuffs, and a bracelet of bullets on his wrist. And he was thinking about how a bullet would feel in the roof of his mouth.
"I just snapped," he said.
The list of health effects from prolonged use of crystal meth is long and ugly, as with most other narcotics. What makes meth unique, researchers say, is how often the drug drives people insane. Users get violent and paranoid. They tend to stay awake for days, binging on the drug, which can lead to psychosis.
Richard Rawson, a psychologist at the University of California who has studied drug addiction for 30 years, said researchers don't fully understand why.
"People get crazy on meth like they don't on other drugs," he said.
At the brink, Mr. Lund pulled back. He threw the gun in a creek and went to bed for two days. It was the most dangerous moment of his struggle with meth, even though it would be months before he escaped its clutches. He was arrested again in June, released on bail, and arrested again in September. This time he wasn't released and spent a month at a remand centre.
He wept for days as he lived without drugs for the first time in two years.
The withdrawal symptoms weren't as awful as the full realization of what had happened, he said.
"Going to jail, that was it, that was rock bottom. And then sobering up and going, 'Holy fuck, I need help.' "
Mr. Lund pleaded guilty to what proved to be Regina's first case of crystal meth drug trafficking, as well as to charges of weapons offences and using counterfeit currency. The judge sentenced him to 18 months house arrest with an electronic ankle bracelet tracking his movements.
When he got home, his mother, Wendy Winter, 51, showed him a sketchbook of watercolours she did to express her frustration about his addiction. The sketches formed an alphabet series, with captions such as: "W is for weeping," "and wondering."
Ms. Winter still wonders about her son. "I can't say I'm 100 per cent sure he's out of the woods," she said.
When asked whether he still craves meth, Mr. Lund took a long drag on his cigarette and stubbed it out. He exhaled, and stared through the smoke with his blue eyes. "Every day," he said, quietly. "Every day."
But he wants to rebuild his life. He spends most days back at his old job in the soap store and several nights a week at Narcotics Anonymous. He has started playing guitar again and he's been sober for more than two months.
How many more Canadians will be transformed this way? Some experts say meth isn't any worse than the heroin and cocaine that swept across the country in recent decades. Others believe meth will burn through Canada unlike any other drug.
Mr. Lund says there's no time for debate.
"It has to stop," he said. "These monsters are being created at such high velocity that you can't contain this fire. If you try to contain it, it's going to blow up in your face. You need to extinguish it right now."