January 10, 2005
Chicago Sun Times
BY MARK BRUNSWICK
MINNEAPOLIS -- After more than a decade of drug abuse, Darren Zigas
is now facing what could be seen as the expected consequences of his
methamphetamine addiction: prison time, alienation from friends and
family, and a rap sheet filled with convictions for assault,
terroristic threats and burglary.
But at 32 years old, he's also facing another consequence: a
lifetime without a tooth in his mouth.
As the number of regular users of the illegal drug methamphetamine
has increased, so has a peculiar set of dental problems linked to the
drug, a phenomenon named ''meth mouth.'' Symptoms include gum disease,
broken and cracked teeth, and tooth decay.
Growing prison problem
Zigas' condition was so bad that he once bit into a peanut butter
sandwich and left teeth in the bread. In June 2002, malnourished and
down to 150 pounds, he had his remaining teeth pulled.
His dental problem is not only his own now, but the State of
Minnesota's as well. In the Lino Lakes prison for a 2002 conviction
for manufacturing methamphetamine, Zigas had dentures made for him
four months ago by a state dentist.
With the burgeoning use of methamphetamine, a ripple effect has
flooded the state's court systems and now its prison population. A
quarter of all state inmates now are drug offenders, half of them for
Incarcerating drug offenders brings with it traditional costs,
including rehabilitation and health expenses from years of abuse. But
one of the unexpected results of the methamphetamine explosion is the
demand for dental care from those behind bars.
And because of the demand for emergency and urgent care from the
methamphetamine users, it can now be up to a year's wait for other
inmates to get routine dental care from one of the 10 dentists across
the state's prison system.
Drug's merciless effects
Authorities say they believe several factors contribute to meth
mouth. The drug often produces anxiety levels and paranoia that can
contribute to teeth grinding and gnashing. Many abusers also have a
dry mouth, and the absence of saliva can exacerbate the acidic nature
of methamphetamine if it is smoked or snorted.
''When I was smoking it, I could feel the slime on my teeth,''
One offshoot of methamphetamine abuse also appears to be insatiable
appetite for high-caffeine, high-sugar sodas, particularly Mountain
Dew. That can combine with the frenetic nature of the drug, letting
users go for long periods without good hygiene.
While there are no fancy crown and bridge restorations, there is a
debate about what level of dental care to provide offenders,
particularly in a period of increased prison populations and budget
demands, said Nanette Schroeder, director of health services for the
state Corrections Department.
''Should we be providing them with dentures so that when they go to
apply for a job they at least have a decent smile? Even as a team, we
couldn't come to an agreement as to whether or not that was something
the state should be doing,'' she said.
Scripps Howard News Service