- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

BOONE, N.C. - Sheriff Mark Shook says he’s fighting a war in this mountain town, complete with explosions, abandoned children and an enemy that will not give up.

For the past year, Sheriff Shook and others have tried to beat back the spread of methamphetamine through the hills and hollows of western North Carolina.

“Meth is choking this town,” the sheriff said recently, moments before taking a call about yet another raid on a possible meth lab in Watauga County. “We are fighting a war — and it’s going to spread. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Meth is a highly addictive and potent powder “cooked up” from common ingredients such as ammonia, lithium from car batteries and pseudoephedrine from cold tablets. After snorting, eating or injecting the drug, users experience rushes of energy and euphoria.

“You feel like Superman,” said David Mclemore, a former addict who now counsels substance abusers here. “You can get addicted the first time. And then it takes more and more and more to get high.”

Popularized by bikers and truckers, meth and its makers have migrated eastward from California and other Western states.

They’ve increasingly taken root in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. The latter state led the South with more than 1,150 of the nation’s roughly 8,000 meth-lab seizures last year.

Boone, a town of 13,500 that is home to Appalachian State University, is surrounded by rugged terrain that offers meth makers the same kind of protection it once provided moonshiners. The open, isolated spaces diffuse the pungent, nauseating odors that are the meth labs’ giveaway.

“You can’t cook when you’re living on top of each other in a city,” Sheriff Shook said.

Last year, 34 meth labs were seized here, and social workers removed 17 children from homes where the chemicals saturated the walls, furniture and carpet.

Because these “meth orphans” were often covered in toxins, emergency-room doctors had to decontaminate them. Their toys, books and clothes had to be burned.

“The kids didn’t always understand why they couldn’t take their Barbie with them,” said social worker Chad Slagle.

Children sometimes unwittingly caused their parents’ arrest. A first-grader told her teacher how to cook meth. An older student included meth cooking in a “How I Spent My Summer” essay.

“We call Watauga County ground zero,” said North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Director Robin Pendergraft, who is urging North Carolina lawmakers to increase penalties for operating meth labs.

Meth production, with its combustible ingredients and “cooks” who are often strung out, comes with the possibility of explosions. Meth makers dump poisonous byproducts into sewage systems, streams and fields. With every meth-lab bust, taxpayers must spend $2,000 to $4,000 to have hazardous-materials teams and other specially trained workers clean up the toxic mess.

The human cost is also high. Some 3,300 meth orphans were removed from homes nationwide last year, authorities said.

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