Denver Bar Association
November 2009
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The Road Worrier, Part II

by Greg Rawlings

So I’m sitting at the bar in a local Denver club with a retired Russian/Israeli mobster, a sweet guy who used to control a large segment of New York’s coke trade back in the Studio 54 era. As usual, he asks, with that charming accent of his, "Gregory, any good drug cases?"

I sip at my Ketel One martini and shrug. I lean closer and say, "Just way too many meth freaks."

"Ah," he sighs, "Meth, the drug of the hopeless."

I nod and say, "How very true."

And it is true. Ask anyone on either side of the table on the criminal law circuit. Ask the judges, ask the victim’s advocates, ask the meth addicts’ helpless parents and their scrawny kids who crawl around scavenging for pizza crusts on filthy apartment floors.

Worse still, meth freaks really like guns. You get someone whacked out on a three-day binge, broke and armed, and, well, things tend to go south rather quickly. There Will Be Blood, indeed.

Like most people old enough to remember the Reagan-era War on Drugs media blitz, with its moronic here is your brain on drugs "commercials," I used to laugh out loud at these overwrought, under-thought PSAs. Now, if you said, "Here is your brain on meth," and again, showed some eggs frying in a pan, nobody would disagree.

When I first started practicing law in the early 1990s, the issues were crack and the gang wars, then heroin and the grunge generation. Crack people end up in jail and heroin people tend to end up dead, so neither epidemic had a chance for real legs. There’ll always be crack and always be junk but not like in the Bad Old Days. I still remember walking my (late, great) dog in Capitol Hill on a Sunday morning when I started noticing that there were fewer crack vials and more syringes and old needles. Wow, smack is back, I thought. Thank you, Kurt Cobain. Of course, we all know what happened to him.

But these new meth people seem different. The meth freaks I knew growing up were mostly bikers. They had grizzled features and vintage Harleys. They hung out at a pool hall called Ernie’s, near Dreamland Pool. Their chicks had black eyes and broken jaws and worked at places like Ernie’s or in the smoky bars at bowling alleys or as hookers in the trailer parks on the west side of town. You did not want to emulate their lives in any way, shape or form. Even in a town as violent and grotesque as Portsmouth, Ohio, these folks stood out as Losers with capital Ls branded on their collective forehead.

Nowadays, the meth freak may be a diplomat’s daughter with a BFA from Bennington, or a graphic artist with a classic BMW (for now), or the lawyer next to you in court. The class lines have fractured.

So, I’m sitting in a courtroom with a man charged with a possession of a relatively small amount of meth. He keeps repeating, "It wasn’t mine." I keep repeating, "But they found it in your front pocket." He throws me a 1,000-yard stare and I make a few desultory notes on his file:

"He refuses to listen to a word I say. His brain no longer functions. It’s like talking to a zombie with a truly wretched complexion. A zombie who scratches his arms so hard that the cotton on his stained thrift store button-down is fraying."

Okay, so I keep more colorful file notes than most lawyers. But this is a normal exchange with meth freaks; they’ve erected a wall between themselves and common sense. Finally, he mutters, "Who are you working for, the cops or me?" I simply get up and walk away. Bad timing. Just the week before, I had a client OD and die on a major binge, as I tried to keep him out of jail for a case that was 90 percent paranoia and 10 percent fact. You work so hard for these folks and you so seldom do them any good.

One day in court in JeffCo, I had way too much time to kill, and I’d finished both crossword puzzles, and the battery was low on my iPhone, so I couldn’t play Paper Toss, and saw that I’d written a little note about meth: M-E-T-H: Makes Every Thing Harder. For everyone. For all of us.

After writing the paragraphs above, I was browsing through the criminal law statutes and found a legislative declaration at CRS 18-18.5-101. It stated that between 1997 and 2004 the "rate of methamphetamine treatment admissions increased over two hundred percent." It noted an increase in meth-related crime, in foster care placements, in kids at risk because of pregnant moms on meth. Meth truly is a magnet for misery and it is causing the biggest problem in criminal law since the gang wars of the 1990s. Like most lawyers on the endless, Kafka-esque road that is life as a criminal defense lawyer, I try to see humor in pretty much everything; black humor being saving grace of The Life. But meth isn’t funny, it isn’t funny at all.

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