Billings might be the Magic City, but apparently it is not the crank capital of the United States.
Ever since Time magazine featured Billings in a story about meth abuse in its June 22, 1998, edition, the myth has circulated that the influential news magazine dubbed Billings - depending on whom you ask - "Crank City," "the crank capital of America" or "Crank Town U.S.A."
In fact, there was only a passing, lower-case reference to "crank city" in the final paragraph of the five-page article, and in context it seems to refer to the shadowy world where crank is sold and used, not to Billings in particular.
But old myths die hard, and not just in these parts.
Kathy Woodward, a preventive health specialist at the Yellowstone City-County Health Department, coordinated a long-term study of meth addicts in Billings between 1999 and 2004. Billings was one of seven cities chosen for the federal study, which was overseen by researchers at UCLA. The Mental Health Center applied for and administered the grant in Billings, and also provided facilities and staff for the first three years of the project. Except for Billings and Honolulu, Hawaii, all the other sites were in California.
As part of her involvement in that project, Woodward said she went to conferences all over the country to talk about meth.
It became something of a joke how often the conferences would begin with local officials talking about the uniquely awful meth problem in their communities.
"There would always be some mayor who'd come up and say, 'Hello, I'm mayor So-and-So, and welcome to the crank capital of the United States.' It's a strange phenomenon, but communities in the throes of meth epidemics seem to think they are being affected differently, or more extremely, than other communities that are facing the same problems."
Strange as it sounds, people were almost disappointed when Woodward disabused them of their beliefs.
"I know I've offended people when we've gone to places and people will raise their hands and say, 'Aren't we the crank capital of the United States?' And I'll say, 'Yes, along with about 500 other cities.'"
Meth: From Hell to Healing.
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But if Billings can't lay claim to the questionable distinction of being the nation's crank capital, Woodward's study did show one surprising thing about meth use here. At all seven sites covered by the UCLA study, only 24 percent of the meth users intravenously injected the drug. In Billings, 56 percent of the users did so.
Woodward said researchers in the other cities couldn't believe how high the rate of IV use was in Billings. Woodward still isn't certain how to account for the difference, but she suspects the prevalence of injection has to do with the relatively low rate of HIV infection in Billings, as well as in other mostly rural areas like Idaho and North Dakota. People haven't been educated about the dangers of disease transmission through shared needles, she said.
And meth users here not only share needles, Woodward found. They'll share the same beat-up needles year after year.
"They just beat the crap out of themselves because the needles won't even go into their veins anymore," she said, "but they manage to force it in there."
For her portion of the study, Woodward conducted in-depth, continuing interviews with 152 meth addicts. Nationally, 1,016 meth users took part in what was officially known as the Methamphetamine Treatment Project.
Those entering the program had to agree to quit using meth and to enroll in one of two treatment programs, one using what is known as the Matrix model and the other the Minnesota model, so named because it was developed at Hazelden, an alcohol and drug rehabilitation center founded in Minnesota.
The information on treatment programs was gathered to help design effective treatments. The rest of the information gathered by Woodward and other researchers will be used to better understand what happens to people in the grip of meth and to people who are trying to quit the drug. Much of what Woodward learned is still in the hands of UCLA and has not been released publicly yet, but she is free to discuss some of her general findings and basic information.
Woodward thinks one important discovery of the project was the high number of women using meth during pregnancy. Early in the study, Woodward said, she was impressed by how many women said they didn't use while pregnant. When asked what was the longest stretch they'd been clean since starting to use meth, she said, the women almost invariably answered, "Nine months."
Woodward thought perhaps there was some physiological explanation for the phenomenon; perhaps hormonal changes made it unpleasant to use crank, or made it easier to quit using. Then she interviewed the men. Again and again, male meth users reported that the women they were with never stopped using meth during pregnancy.
"It's really such a stigma," Woodward said. "They'll tell me all kinds of horrendous things they're willing to do, sexually or something like that, but they won't tell you they're using drugs when they're pregnant because there's so much shame in that."