Daryl Vandenbloomer sits in a Galesburg coffee shop on a Friday evening between shifts as a truck driver. Tattoos cover his forearms. He has all of his teeth.
He remembers the first time he spun out on crystal methamphetamine.
It was the early 1990s, and he was in Seattle with a friend at a club called The Underground when they started talking to a woman.
“Have you guys done crystal?” she asked.
The 18-year-old Wisconsin native had tried other drugs — he had bartended since the age of eight and by age 13 he was selling up to a quarter pound of marijuana daily — but never meth.
“Just bring some money, just $30,” she told them. “We’ll bring a cigarette pack and bring it up to the bar and give it to them, and they’ll bring it back with stuff in it.”
They got two “bumps” each and were “higher than hell,” Vandenbloomer said.
For him, being high is like learning you’ve just won $100,000. It’s a “crazy, pure feeling of energy” — a complete body high that travels through you and keeps you excited and social for hours.
“Everything’s interesting. It’s a rush. It works. I know how miserable it can make you, but it was glamorous and fun,” Vandenbloomer said.
With meth amounting to only a third of Vandenbloomer’s pinkie fingernail, they were up for over 12 hours, engulfed in a drug-induced haze. They sat up and talked through the night, fascinated and stimulated by everything.
“It was pretty fun, and it was cheap. You can just hang all night if you want. It didn’t give me any indication it was a bad thing. It didn’t seem like it,” Vandenbloomer said.
He knew it was dangerous. The people he was around were dangerous. A friend of his put a shotgun to his girlfriend’s face while high — in a fit of paranoia, he believed she was the police — and killed her.
“Crazier and crazier things were happening,” Vandenbloomer said. “In the beginning it’s a fun feeling, and in a short time it goes to controlling you. I remember mixing stuff on a spoon and thinking, ‘What the f*** am I doing? This is not what I want to do.’ And doing it anyway.”
Vandenbloomer’s story reflects a growing trend among meth users: an inability to break free of the psycho-stimulant. In Knox County alone, the amount of meth has spiked in the last decade, with 370 meth-related arrests. In 2004, there were no meth arrests in Knox County. To date, 2013 has seen 26 already. When Vandenbloomer was doing meth in Seattle, his friends in Wisconsin hadn’t even heard about it, and Knox County certainly hadn’t experienced the upward trend it’s seeing now, which involves 11 more arrests in the last year than in 2012.
“While we knew about meth, we had not had a good deal of experience with it. You went from zero to 60 in almost nothing flat, so you might not have had a problem, but in the next six months there was more than you could address as a law enforcement agency,” Director of Campus Safety John Schlaf said.
Schlaf, who served as Galesburg Police Chief for nearly two decades before coming to Knox, cited a meeting he attended in Chicago about drug enforcement, where crack and cocaine were the most prominent drugs.
“Some of us who were in the southern, downstate departments cautioned them that [meth] may not be here now, but it will be. And time has gone by, and it’s made its way there too.”
In Mexico, 220 pounds of methamphetamine can be traded at a time, according to Knox County Sheriff David Clague.
“And it makes you really wonder. For every load that’s picked up, how many loads get to Chicago through Knox County?”
The manufacture and distribution of meth is a matter of economics. The drug is fairly easy and cheap to make and can be fashioned out of pseudoephedrine and anhydrous ammonia, both household products. Meth can also be made in a home, the backseat of a car, a backpack or any number of other places by almost anyone.
With a depressed economy, something Galesburg has fallen victim to, meth has gained popularity.
“In a sense, it’s sort of a poor man’s drug,” Knox County Sheriff David Clague said. “Back when the economy was good, cocaine use was [higher].”
When police do a drug search, they try to seize property or currency for forfeiture. With methamphetamine, the odds of gaining something for forfeiture are slim.
“[Meth users] may have a penny in their pocket. Their house is close to falling down on them, and their vehicles are lucky to run. Financially, there’s nothing that the police are going to seize from someone who’s using meth as opposed to cocaine. Unfortunately, law enforcement looks at it that way,” Clague said.
According to Schlaf, it’s simply a matter of making a product that’s desired and profitable a matter of supply and demand. The same argument could be made for a particular type of food or shampoo.
“It’s the same economic process. People … wouldn’t [make meth] if there wasn’t money to be made. But then you add in the strong psychological side of things and the potential [for addiction] and for them not to just enjoy the use but physiologically to require the product to continue to survive, that adds a whole layer.”
Meth in Knox County is different than meth on the West Coast, according to Vandenbloomer, who did meth in both places.
“Here, everybody makes stuff and steals anhydrous and has their little thing. Here is way more miserable, because everyone’s scrambling to get it and hurting each other.”
Even families could be using together, said Director of Substance Abuse Vicki Rose at Bridgeway in Galesburg.
“It affects entire families … that family may all be using or everyone that person has any contact with may all be using, so when they come into treatment it’s really hard for them to build an entire support system, because it’s really all they know,” Rose said.
It’s a major factor that defines methamphetamine use in Knox County — people make it together.
“It’s oftentimes a social group,” Lieutenant Russell Idle of the Galesburg Police Department said. “You have a couple people who steal the pills and someone who takes the anhydrous ammonia and they all get together like a happy family and cook up the drugs.”
Vandenbloomer did meth on and off for 10 years, first just on the weekends, and then during the week at work, just to stay awake. Then he started selling to support the habit. He reached a point where he couldn’t function without meth.
“Imagine the day you wake up and you’re the worst tired you’ve ever been,” Vandenbloomer said, nodding at a cup of coffee. “You’re the worst tired you’ve ever been, and times that by 10. Except you don’t need coffee, you need meth.”
He turned into someone he didn’t want to be: a drug user he had only read about. If you could take a full-blown user, Vanderbloomer said, and “pull the sober person they once were out of them and let them stand there and watch themselves, they would be disgusted. … It’s a drug that takes control of your mind, leaving you at your worst,” Vanderbloomer said.
“That’s all there is to it. It becomes a miserable scramble to stay awake. It takes your energy. It’s the most exhausting feeling ever. And then you scramble to get more.”
Methamphetamine use can be caught in a number of ways, from a traffic stop violation to an illegal purchase of pseudoephedrine, which one can only buy up to a certain amount of in Illinois.
The strong stench, a smell Idle described similar to “cat urine,” usually motivates neighbors to call the police.
When they investigate, police are given a breathing apparatus and have an ambulance and fire department either nearby or on standby. A spark from just kicking in a door can cause an explosion.
“But when it first started, nobody knew [that]. A lot of meth users are ones that are dangerous. You don’t know what they’re going to do,” Clague said. “You walk in with a search warrant and literally see a cloud and inhaling that, what does that do to me?”
Vandenbloomer ended up in Idaho in 2000 and did meth there, too. He was there for three years.
“It seemed like I was there for five years. And a gal friend said ‘D, it’s because you never slept.’”
He spiraled out of control.
In six months, Vandenbloomer went from just using to dealing three and four pounds of meth daily. When he was 28, he went to federal prison for 78 months for a meth conspiracy charge.
He was released clean and sober.
But in October 2010, Vandenbloomer started using again in Knox County, where he had moved to be near his kids. This time it was even worse.
“I had a house, I had a Harley. I had my daughter. It took me three years to get all that. And it took me one year to throw it all away. Everything just went to hell.”
Consistent with both Rose and Idle’s theories, Vandenbloomer lost control when he lost his “safety net” of sober friends.
“I felt guilty but you start doing it and think, ‘I can control it this time,’ and then it takes control of you. No matter how guilty you feel you can’t stop.”
Vandenbloomer was arrested and went to jail for 30 days and then was sent to Drug Court, a program that guides drug users through rehabilitation.
“It was one of the most wonderful programs on the planet,” the 39-year-old said. “Drug Court saved my life.”
Illinois’ state government has become increasingly aware of the presence of meth and is “cracking down” with more cooperation from the State’s Attorney and judges, Clague said.
The difference between a charge by the state and federal court usually depends on the amount of meth being used or made, the amount of prior offenses and criminal history.
“Typically, you’re looking at three to six years [in state court], whereas in federal court for the same amount of meth, you’re going to be looking at a minimum of 15 years, of which they do 80 percent. By now, you’re starting to see third, fourth, fifth time they’ve been arrested,” Clague said.
Even when meth users are arrested, the situation can be problematic. Many users have dental issues, which is a cost to taxpayers. Some inmates are even still high on meth and remain high up to seven days, Clague said.
“They’re just going to be a caged animal, so there’s a concern there. All for what? How can you say ‘What I’m about to ingest can kill me’?”
And still, for every person caught “there’s probably four or five we don’t,” Clague said. “I don’t think we’ll ever see a drug-free environment in society. It’s very sad. It’s just too lucrative.”
Vandenbloomer is now sober again. His sister has custody of two of his children, ages 12 and 14, and he has half custody of his four-year-old daughter. He barters online, a skill he realized he was quite good at.
“I have a natural hustle ability, which is why I was good at selling drugs. Now I just deal with other things that are legal. It’s better than going to prison,” he said.
He feels better. He’s a drummer in a rock band and he sees his children often.
There are things he’s learned from his mistakes, particularly those caused by meth use.
“Everybody thinks they’re tougher than the next person. I don’t care who you think you are, there will be a point in time when you do take the next step. That’s all there is to it. I remember saying ‘I would never do this, I would never do that.’ You will get there. It’ll eventually get you.”
Anything, he says, is better than being back on meth.
“I have problems like everybody else and I have crappy days and great days, but no matter what,” he said, “it’s better than any of those days.”