Second of two parts
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. - Ashley was 10 when she tested positive for traces of methamphetamine, leading the state to take custody of her and younger sister Amber.
The girls’ father “cooked” the addictive drug in the family’s kitchen, and authorities concluded that Ashley ingested it when eating from a bowl contaminated with chemicals that spewed during his illicit activity.
“It’s child abuse,” said Betsy Dunn, a caseworker with Tennessee Child Protective Services. “It’s the worst form of child endangerment I’ve seen.”
The meth epidemic’s spread across the country from west to east is ripping apart families as drug-addled parents are jailed or die, leaving the state with the burgeoning cost of child care.
The problem has grown most rapidly in the Southeast, where “mom-and-pop” meth labs proliferated tenfold in recent years.
The Tennessee Department of Child Services investigated meth-related cases involving more than 750 children from last October to February alone, Mrs. Dunn said.
Children are present at more than 20 percent of discovered meth labs, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported. In a five-year period, the number of children found at Kentucky meth labs increased from three to 84.
Meth also costs taxpayer money for rehabilitation, emergency-room care and environmental damage from the lye, ether, camping fuel and other chemicals used in the cooking process.
Federal officials have not pinpointed the cost of meth’s effect on the broader medical and law-enforcement communities. But anecdotal evidence from jurisdictions in the Midwest and Southeast shows that the problem pits budget-wary state lawmakers against local law enforcement.
Indiana reported more than 1,000 raids last year on “mom-and-pop” meth labs. Sheriff Jon Marvel of Vigo County, Ind., said the annual cost of running his jail jumped from $800,000 seven years ago to $3.5 million last year.
Although part of the cost involved construction of a larger jail, Sheriff Marvel said, the county has to pay the medical bills of meth-addicted inmates, who often suffer from rotting teeth and central organs.
About 80 percent of his more than 250 prisoners are held on meth-related charges, he said.
“When they get into jail here, that’s when the body starts breaking down. … We assume the health bills.”
More than half of local law enforcement in 45 states surveyed this month by the National Association of Counties (NACO) listed meth before marijuana and cocaine as the top threat in their areas. The Bush administration, however, considers marijuana the nation’s top drug problem.
“We’d like to call on the administration to put the same kind of emphasis on meth abuse as they have on marijuana,” NACO Executive Director Larry Naake said.
The White House’s fiscal 2006 budget calls for more federal funding for drug-treatment programs, but reduces the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas grants that police use to form “meth task forces.”
To confront the problem, states are beginning to restrict the sale of some of meth’s main ingredients, such as over-the-counter cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, and monitoring the sale of others, including propane.
‘It took a toll’
Meth, dubbed “blue-collar coke” in some areas, is a highly addictive stimulant that releases a spike of dopamine into the brain, giving users a rush of energy and confidence.
Addicts are known for “tweaking,” a term used to describe the paranoia that accompanies a binge on the drug for days at a time without sleep. Their homes often are filthy, filled with toxic vapors and paraphernalia for smoking, snorting or injecting. Also prevalent is pornography, because meth increases sex drive.
“When I first started doing it, I was up for about four days, I could clean the house, take care of the kids, we had a spotless house, I did all the laundry, I ironed the curtains, I was like a supermom,” said Charlotte Sanders, 35, who started using the drug when Ashley and Amber, now 14 and 13 respectively, were toddlers.
“It lasted for the first maybe two weeks, and then all of a sudden, after you get to shooting with a needle, it took a toll on me and the transformation happened very quickly.”
Mrs. Sanders became a burden to her family and to the local, state and federal governments. Like most other meth addicts, she was in and out of jail for various crimes, including writing bad checks to feed her habit, and expensive rehabilitation programs.
Because the meth problem is worst in poor, rural areas, paying for the programs often requires heavy public subsidization.
Private rehabilitation centers often charge about $15,000 for a 28-day stay, said Martin C. Wesley, a program manager at Life-skills Inc., in Bowling Green, Ky., which runs inpatient clinics for drug and alcohol abusers.
Life-skills receives state funding to subsidize the costs for addicts who can’t afford private treatment. Mr. Wesley said the company charges clients on a sliding scale based on what they can afford.
“Most clients only pay $4 to $8 per day, but it could be more,” he said. “Without the state funding, we would normally charge $300 per day.”
The federal government channels grant funding to faith- and community-based programs for addiction treatment and recovery. This year, the National Drug Control Budget included about $100 million for such efforts, and next year’s proposed budget calls for an increase of about $50 million.
Mrs. Sanders, recovering and clean since turning to God while in a Tennessee jail cell nearly three years ago, has devoted herself to helping addicts. She volunteers as coordinator of a 12-week, faith-based alcohol- and drug-treatment program backed by the United Pentecostal Church.
“A lot of rehabs I went to, [addicts] sit there and reminisce about drug stories over and over again, and I was just craving dope,” she said.
She discourages such talk in the groups she leads. “Now we help people realize that there’s another life, a way to get out of drugs.”
In March, she officially won custody of her daughters, whose biological father fled his probation after serving a short jail sentence on a charge of attempted manufacturing of meth. He has no contact with the girls, she said.
To the untrained eye, the plastic “dishwashing” gloves, battery casings and empty aerosol cans strewn in the tall grass beside the country road looked like sloppily discarded household trash.
An undercover detective with the Warren County, Ky., Sheriff’s Department picked a can of Prestone Starting Fluid from the weeds. He pointed to two small holes pierced in the bottom of the can to extract its ether, a key ingredient for cooking meth.
Several filthy plastic bottles were filled with a white, pasty substance — leftovers from hundreds of cold pills crushed and soaked to extract pure ephedrine, meth’s main ingredient — and a pile of AA battery casings stripped loose from their lithium cores, another key ingredient.
The 38-year-old detective, who grew up in Warren County, is offended by the sight of such waste. The scarred landscape reminded him of how widespread “mom-and-pop” meth labs have become.
“It just seems like a desecration,” said the detective, a member of the Bowling Green Warren County Drug Task Force.
Not far from the pile of lab trash stood the charred remains of a small white house. Authorities suspect a fire there was caused by a “mom-and-pop” meth operation gone wrong.
Detectives said a woman who lived there had two young children. She fled when the firetrucks arrived, saying she had to pick up the children at day care, and hasn’t been seen since.
The cleanup will be complicated, costing from $2,000 to $5,000. Specially trained officers will have to wear “moon suits” and gas masks.
Cleanup costs add up quickly in counties where police find more than 40 meth labs a year.
Although the DEA said more than $20 million in federal money went toward helping local police pay for meth lab cleanups in 2004, the vast majority comes out of strained local police budgets. The DEA has trained 6,000 state and local police since 1998 to clean up such sites.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., Lt. Tommy Farmer of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department jotted down a few names as he flipped through the supermarket’s log book of customers buying cases of red phosphorus matches, a key ingredient for cooking methamphetamine.
One man purchased 75,000 books of matches in a two-week period. Lt. Farmer, of the South East Tennessee Meth Task Force, suspects a local retailer buys “tons of cases cheap, then sells them to meth cookers at jacked-up prices.”
The retailer voluntarily tracks the sale of matches for Lt. Farmer, but a growing number of states have begun to limit the public’s access to meth ingredients.
Oklahoma, hit hard by “mom-and-pop” meth labs, in April became the first state to require cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine to be sold only from behind the counter by licensed pharmacies. Although customers do not need a prescription to buy the medicine, the law requires they show identification and sign a log book at every purchase.
In the 12 months since, the number of “mom-and-pop” labs discovered by police in Oklahoma fell more than 70 percent, the state’s narcotics bureau reports. Oregon, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Iowa also enacted laws meeting the so-called “Oklahoma standard.”
The state actions fuel debate on Capitol Hill about federal standards. More and more lawmakers support the Combat Meth Act 2005, which proposes restrictions on the sale of pseudoephedrine products that are “more strict than the Oklahoma law,” said Sen. Jim Talent, Missouri Republican, who sponsored the bill with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat.
“The point of the bill is to empower local law-enforcement officials to get the meth cooks and to prevent those cooks from getting the precursor drugs needed to make methamphetamine,” Mr. Talent said.
His staff provided a list of about two dozen senators from both sides of the aisle who support the bill. The bill has not had a hearing, however, and it remains to be seen whether the Bush administration will support it.
White House wary
John Horton, director for state and local affairs with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said administration officials are reviewing data from states with such laws.
“I think we’re getting very close to be able to speak with more certainty about the impact that these laws have had,” he said. “The administration is very interested in anything that makes meth use and meth lab numbers go down.”
The bill has not won full support from major drug companies that make pseudoephedrine products or key lobbying interests such as the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA).
“There are a number of things that we support in the Talent-Feinstein legislation, but we’re promoting alternatives to the pharmacy-only approach,” said Elizabeth Assey, a national spokeswoman for the association.
“There are more effective or equally effective means of preventing criminals from obtaining pseudoephedrine products without limiting access to consumers,” she said.
The Pfizer drug company, a member of the CHPA and maker of Sudafed, is “taking a wait-and-see approach” to the Combat Meth Act 2005, company spokesman Jay Kosminsky said.
“Congress really has to grapple with whether some kind of national legislation is really necessary because it affects different states differently,” he said.
If pseudoephedrine is put behind the counter at the state level, he said, it should be allowed behind the counter in retail stores as well as pharmacies.
In January, Pfizer introduced a line of decongestant pills, Sudafed PE, which contain phenylephirin instead of pseudoephedrine and cannot be converted into methamphetamine.
Rodney Lamkey Jr. contributed to this report.
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