Sunday, July 10, 2005

First of two parts

TRACY CITY, Tenn. - Behind the white mobile home sagging in the sun, there is a single-room shack with a tin roof and a dirt floor that 60 years ago would have been the perfect place to distill a batch of moonshine.

But the half-dozen lawmen gathered in these hills aren’t looking for an illegal whiskey still. They are here to raid a methamphetamine “cooker.”

“Moonshiners went from moonshine to marijuana, from marijuana to meth,” said Ricky Smith, a member of the federally funded Southeast Tennessee Meth Task Force who has arrested hundreds of meth manufacturers, many who can trace their lineage to makers of illegal alcohol.

Though small meth labs have been a problem in some areas since the mid-1990s, results of a survey this month by the National Association of Counties show the drug’s staggering national reach. Fifty-eight percent of sheriff’s departments and related agencies polled in 45 states said meth is now the top threat — above marijuana and cocaine — in their areas.

During the past five years, clandestine labs — where the highly addictive drug commonly known as “crank” or “crystal” is concocted from easily obtained products such as cold tablets — have spread from their decades-old anchor along the West Coast to the East, hooking in deepest in the rural Southeast.

“Six years ago, I’d never heard of it,” said Sheriff Fred Newman of Washington County, Va., which led the state in meth lab incidents last year. “Marijuana, yeah. Cocaine, a bit of heroin, obviously your prescription pills — but not meth.”

Law-enforcement officials said the number of “mom-and-pop” labs has grown tenfold in rural parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia in the past five years and has taken authorities, especially in the smaller jurisdictions, by surprise.

Meth “has swept the country and invaded the East Coast,” said Karen P. Tandy, administrator of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who stressed that “despite this movement, there are hopeful signs that we can succeed against this powerful drug.”

But meth’s march across America is exacting a toll on towns and small cities unaccustomed to the costly nature of drug epidemics:

• Researchers say treating one addict costs up to $15,000. The money often is subsidized, if not fully absorbed, by taxpayers. Jail costs also are ballooning in some jurisdictions, which end up paying medical bills of inmates suffering meth-related health problems.

• Meth peels apart families, exacting heavy costs on state child services departments, which are overwhelmed in several states by cases of children seized from parents cooking meth at home. The DEA said children are present at more than 20 percent of meth labs nationwide.

• The labs are highly toxic, and cooks often dump waste into streams, rivers and fields. The DEA estimated cleanup costs at up to $5,000 per dump site, another cost absorbed mainly by local police. Cooking can be explosive, and a growing number of motel and home fires have been linked to meth labs in recent years.

‘Poor man’s coke’

Because meth is known in some areas as “poor man’s coke” and “blue-collar coke,” researchers say its inexpensive price — it averages less than $50 per gram compared with about $100 a gram for cocaine — combined with the simplicity of making the drug has pushed it to the forefront of America’s rural drug culture.

One senior DEA official, who has tracked meth’s movement for more than 20 years, considers the drug’s explosion as fallout from the crack cocaine craze of the 1980s and 1990s that swept through cities such as Chicago, New York and Washington.

The unidentified official said it was “highly unlikely” that people from rural areas would drive into an inner-city area to score crack cocaine, but they learned they could obtain a cheaper, more powerful high just by “going down to Wal-Mart” and buying the raw materials to make meth.

Meth 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.

“It’s like taking a 24-hour day and turning it into a 30-hour day. … It’s just so much energy,” said Billy Hadden, 35, a recovering meth addict in southern Kentucky who became hooked on snorting meth to keep alert as a cross-country trucker.

Cooking meth begins with pseudoephedrine, an over-the-counter medicine that treats the common cold. Meth cooks extract pure ephedrine and later create methamphetamine through a process that involves mixing and heating the crushed pills with such products as lye, paint thinner, camp fuel, ether, drain opener and lithium from batteries.

Recipes are all over the Internet, but the “cooking” process is more complicated than it sounds, and some meth addicts will pay thousands of dollars to be shown how to make the drug.

Charles Parker, 22, a recovering meth addict in Kentucky, said he was 19 and working as a roofer when he paid a “mom-and-pop” meth cooker $5,000 to show him how to make the drug.

“He let me watch one time, and from then on, I took off,” said Parker, “but I still had to try and try and try before I got it right.”

It wasn’t long before meth took violent control of Parker’s life. Married young, he and his wife would use the drug. She was high on it, he said, when she died in a car accident in 2003.

When The Washington Times first spoke with Parker, he was going through a drug rehabilitation program in Bowling Green, Ky., while serving a jail sentence on meth-related charges. Despite the loss exacted on him by meth, his eyes lighted up when he was asked about the process of concocting the drug.

“I didn’t get as high off meth itself as I actually did producing it,” he said. “I still think about it all the time.”

Cooking meth gave him “power,” $6,000 a week in profits and enough of the drug to feed his own addiction. During later interviews, though, Parker said drug rehabilitation had “helped me out a lot” and that he hoped to be able to stay off meth after he was out of jail. As of early June, he was out on probation, working at a factory near Bowling Green.

“I’ve been doing my best,” he said. “Right now, I’m doing good.”

Migration of meth

Meth, reportedly used by Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II and U.S. soldiers to stay awake, exploded on the West Coast’s illegal market during the 1970s after Congress outlawed over-the-counter amphetamines sold to treat congestion, as well as their prescription form.

California biker gangs realized that they could make a hefty profit by making a homemade version of the drug. It became a hit with truck drivers, who spread it along highway routes toward the Midwest, law-enforcement authorities said.

“I done my first line in 1991 in an 18-wheeler on my way to Ventura, California,” said Hadden, one of the recovering meth addicts in southern Kentucky. In the mid-1990s, he would buy meth from cooks in California, he said, and drive it back to Kentucky, snorting it along the way to stay awake.

In response to the drug’s popularity, the DEA increased its counternarcotics operations during the 1980s along the West Coast, where a growing number of fires were caused by meth labs gone wrong. The result, DEA officials said, was that the underground meth production and distribution market shifted from the hands of outlaw motorcycle gangs on the West Coast to mainly Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

DEA officials maintain that the majority of meth on the black market nationwide is still mass-produced, mainly by Mexican-led gangs with ties to meth “super-labs” in Mexico and California. Such “super-labs” also are appearing on the East Coast. In February, authorities made their first raid on a meth lab in Georgia, seizing nearly 40 pounds of the drug and arresting several illegal aliens from Mexico.

With the advent of the Internet, recipes of how to cook the drug spread like wildfire and, by the mid-1990s, “mom-and-pop” labs were taking on epidemic proportions in such rural states as Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas, mainly among whites in poor areas.

Urban scourge

Meth also has been a scourge in urban areas. It has long been popular in homosexual communities in San Francisco and, more recently, Miami, New York and Washington, where it is considered a “club drug.” Among other effects, it temporarily increases users’ sex drives, and health professionals describe a growing nexus between “tweaking” and sexually transmitted diseases.

“The most appealing thing about crystal is that it lowers your inhibitions,” said Joseph LaFleur, an independent clinical social worker based in Washington. “People on crystal are less likely to practice protected sex.”

Health officials in New York, which like Washington has a significant homosexual community, recently discovered a man who had multiple male sex partners, often while using crystal meth, and had developed full-blown AIDS within a few months of being diagnosed with a highly drug-resistant strain of HIV.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has said meth “poses particular risks because it is often used to initiate or enhance sexual encounters, especially among men who have sex with men.”

The drug “deadens pain receptors, so users are more likely to engage in ‘rough’ sex,” the department said. “This increases HIV transmission risk due to abrasions and bleeding from cuts and tears in tissues.”

Health professionals, however, are careful to steer away from stereotypes linking homosexuality to meth addiction.

“Not all gay men are doing meth,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, an HIV and AIDS specialist in the San Francisco Department of Public Health. “Most surveys of gay men show that meth use is somewhere between 10 [percent] and 25 percent.”

Addicts need help

Martin C. Wesley, a program manager at Lifeskills Inc., which runs inpatient rehabilitation clinics for meth addicts in southern Kentucky, said law-enforcement officials and lawmakers who are pursuing ways to curtail the “mom-and-pop” meth lab epidemic need to avoid “hysteria.”

“[I]n the past, moonshiners were sometimes seen as folk heroes, while today, meth cookers are seen as dangerous psychotics, not much better than child molesters,” said Mr. Wesley, adding that officials too often use “scare tactics.”

“Until communities identify this problem like any other addiction,” Mr. Wesley said, “it will be much harder for clients with meth addictions to get help unless it is compulsory through the court system.”

Recovering meth addicts often have long rap sheets, spend time in jail, then return directly to the drug after release.

Hadden, for instance, has been in and out of jail for multiple cooking and possession charges since 2001. Now struggling to stay clean, he said, he used meth for so long that “it has took my body and just wrecked it.”

“I’m 35, and I feel 50,” he said.

Kenneth Meredith Jr., 38, another recovering addict, said meth “rots you from the inside out.” He preferred injecting the drug over snorting, and he said he knew he was using high-quality meth if, “before I pulled the needle out of my arm, I could taste the dope.”

Despite the drug’s spread, authorities are encouraged by signs of progress.

“Mom-and-pop” lab numbers are down in Oklahoma, which last year became the nation’s first state to pass a strict law on the sale of cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, meth’s main ingredient. The legislation got a boost after three Oklahoma state troopers were killed in meth-related incidents.

Police seizures of meth labs also have dropped sharply on the West Coast, particularly in California, where police last year raided about half the number of labs as in 1999, the DEA reported. Moreover, Mrs. Tandy cited statistics showing teenage use of the drug is down 25 percent in the past three years.

She also noted that, in recent years, seizures of meth “super labs” in the United States have “decreased 80 percent because DEA has forced mega-manufacturers out of this country.”

Working with other countries to disrupt the smuggling of meth into the United States, Mrs. Tandy said, the “DEA is focused on meth like never before to help get us to our ultimate goal of ending meth abuse and trafficking.”

Part II

Meth ‘moonshiners’ on rise

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