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The New Moonshine

Have recently enacted state laws turned the tide in Tennessee's meth epidemic?


> Like many 16-year-olds, Steven liked to party. He spent his free time hanging out with friends in rural Gleason, Tennessee, smoking weed and drinking whatever alcohol he and his friends could get their hands on. One day, their pot dealer showed up with something new -- a powdery white substance that he claimed would give them a different kind of high. It was methamphetamine.

Eager to try something different, they purchased three grams. The dealer showed them how to put a little on a folded piece of tin foil, run a lighter underneath to liquefy it, and inhale the fumes through a straw or hollowed-out ink pen.

"After the first hit, I coughed a lot and started sweating," says Steven, who does not want to reveal his last name. "My eyes dilated and everything got real foggy. My heart started beating faster, and I was like, 'Wow.' It was an instant high."

Unsure what they were supposed to be feeling, the boys kept smoking. They started in the early afternoon and by 11 p.m. had smoked up most of their stash. Steven was supposed to work the next morning, but he didn't go because he was too high.

Steven and a friend then drove out to the country to finish off what crumbs were left. When Steven took a hit, his body went numb. His heart started racing. The bright sunlight seemed blinding and he couldn't hear.

Steven asked to be driven to a hospital, but instead his friend drove back to his house and put Steven into a tub of cold water. He began to feel better and found his thoughts immediately turning to smoking more meth.

He reached for the tin foil in his pocket.

For Steven, it was all downhill from there. By the time he was 18, he was staying up four to five days at a time on meth and stealing from his parents to buy more. He even began stealing cars.

Now 22, he recently finished a year at Synergy, a Memphis rehabilitation center. He was ordered to attend Synergy after being put on probation for two counts of grand theft.

Unfortunately, Steven's story is all too common. In recent years, methamphetamine has swept Tennessee in epidemic proportions. In 1999, 137 meth labs were shut down statewide. In 2004, that number increased to 1,574, the second-highest number of lab seizures in the nation, just behind Missouri.

Alarmed at the numbers, Governor Phil Bredesen took action in April 2004. He organized a Meth Task Force, made up of law enforcement officials, educators, and representatives from healthcare and human services. The task force helped draft the Meth-Free Tennessee Act of 2005, which, among other things, banned over-the-counter sales of cold medicines that can be used to make meth.

Since then, lab seizure numbers have dropped dramatically. But officials worry that new problems may arise as imported meth makes its way into the state.

Into the Woods

The meth problem has been around in some form or another for decades. In the early 1900s, amphetamine could be found in Benzedrine, which was used in nasal decongestants. Hitler reportedly gave his troops a form of methamphetamine made from Benzedrine so they could fight for days without sleep or food. In the 1960s, Andy Warhol's Factory was fueled by amphetamines, and Beat author Jack Kerouac claimed he wrote his famous novel On the Road on a three-week Benzedrine high.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, a form of meth made in clandestine labs using common household chemicals became popular among biker gangs on the West Coast. By the mid-1990s, its manufacture and use had begun to spread all over the country, especially in rural areas.

At low doses, methamphetamine blocks hunger, boosts endurance, and focuses attention. Because it causes the brain to produce more dopamine, it initially triggers a sense of euphoria. Users can get obsessed on repetitive tasks, such as taking electronics apart and putting them back together or working on a sketch for hours.

Today's street meth is usually a combination of anhydrous ammonia, acetone, ephedrine or pseudoephedrine (from cold tablets), ether (from engine starter), toluene (from brake cleaner), rubbing alcohol, and other ingredients derived from products that can be purchased at most drugstores.

The ease of acquiring meth's components have contributed to its widespread popularity. "You're not depending on a crop that grows 2,000 miles away, and meth is relatively cheap to make," says Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons. "That combination creates serious problems."

Gibbons says meth isn't as big a problem in Shelby County as it is in more rural areas of the state. He attributes this to the fact that it's much easier to hide a meth lab in less populated areas. Because meth manufacture creates a strong ammonia-like odor, neighbors can detect it in urban areas.

"You can have a meth lab in the woods," says Gibbons. "It's kind of like the old moonshine days."

Nipping It in the Bud

Several months ago, the Flyer received a letter to the editor from a woman who complained that her friend wasn't able to purchase her bronchial medicine at a local drugstore because it was after 8 p.m., and its pharmacy was closed.

Since May, when new laws went into effect banning the sale of formerly over-the-counter drugs containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, meth lab seizures in the state have dropped 59 percent.

"We saw these kinds of numbers in Oklahoma when they passed similar legislation," says Mark Gwyn, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The act also earmarked funds for the Department of Education to incorporate meth into its drug-free programs for schools.

"It also closed a personal loophole in the law that said if you could prove you were manufacturing meth for your own use, the penalty was not as great. Now it's the same thing as if you were going to distribute it," says Ken Given, commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and the chairman of the governor's meth task force.

In August, Tennessee received $1.5 million in federal funds from the U.S. Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Agency. The money will be given to the state Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities to operate a new meth treatment program for counties in the southeastern part of the state, where the meth epidemic has hit the hardest.

Although the meth problem in Shelby County pales in comparison, James Taylor of the Memphis Police Department's Organized Crime Unit says the new laws will deter meth manufacturers from surrounding states coming to the county to cook their product.

"A lot of the arrests we've been making in Shelby County are not Tennessee residents. They're from Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Missouri," says Taylor. "They knew if they had "precursors" in their car and they got pulled over for speeding, they'd get off with a citation. Now if you plan on coming to Tennessee to cook meth, we've got a law for you."

The "White" Drug

For unknown reasons, methamphetamine use is much higher among Caucasians, another reason it may not be as popular in Shelby County, which is 65 percent African-American.

"We've seen some meth manufacture in the African-American community, but it's mostly male whites renting in the area," says Taylor. "Very rarely [do we find] an African American manufacturing meth."

But that doesn't mean the meth epidemic hasn't landed here. According to Taylor, 54 meth labs were seized in Shelby County in 2003 and 41 in 2004. This year, only 12 labs have been seized so far, which Taylor attributes to the new laws.

"People think this is only for rednecks and hicks, but we've dealt with addresses all over, in East Memphis, South Memphis, Nutbush, downtown, and the northern parts of the county," says Faith Cunningham, a narcotics detective for the Shelby County Sheriff's Department.

Last year, PGA golfer John Daly's wife pled guilty to federal charges of buying and selling meth and other drugs.

Tommy Parker, who completed his rehabilitation at Synergy in Memphis earlier this year, was a prominent attorney in Hobbs, New Mexico. He started using meth as a way to increase his productivity. Before he discovered meth, he'd used Dexatrim diet pills for energy, but he found that meth kept him up longer, so that he'd get more work completed.

The drug worked fine for a while, but eventually Parker had to increase his dose to feel the effects. He was going through about a gram a week and dropped from 180 pounds to 140. He'd take the edge off by drinking beer throughout the day.

"I began to lose business because people were starting to notice behavioral changes," he says. "I was becoming more and more aggressive. I used to be the nicest person to be around."

Eventually, Parker was picked up on a DUI, and the police found meth residue on his car seat. He lost his law license and was sentenced to treatment at Synergy. He believes he's beaten his addiction. In August, his law license was renewed.

Everybody's Problem

Most meth cooks are untrained amateur chemists. Explosions are common. "One suspect [we investigated] was cooking in the attic of his residence," says Taylor. "He was mixing ether and accidentally spilled some on his hot-water heater. He burned his house down." Taylor says he knows of at least five meth lab explosions in the county over the past two years.

Cunningham says when they do find meth labs in Shelby County, it's usually in a motel. "People can rent a room for a couple of nights, and it only takes a couple of days to cook a batch," she says. "The fumes from chemicals they leave in there just ruin that hotel room. You never know when you rent a hotel room if the bedspread your kids are playing on could have fumes on it from meth cooked there the night before."

Meth lab cleanup can cost thousands, and taxpayers are footing the bill. According to Taylor, cleanup for a small lab can cost around $3,000, and cleaning up a large one can cost $10,000. Once the initial cleanup is performed, the property owner is responsible for making the house livable again.

"Chemicals can seep into the wood and the carpet. It can require a complete renovation," says Taylor.

Some of the worst victims of the meth epidemic are the children of meth-addicted parents. As of June, the Department of Children Services (DCS) had taken six children into custody in meth-related cases in Shelby County this year.

"The parents are overtaken with the drug. It becomes their main priority," says Betsy Dunn, a case manager with DCS Child Protective Services in Cookeville. "You see people binge for days at a time, and then they crash for days. The children end up raising themselves. [The parents] don't get them to school. They don't get them medical treatment. They don't see that their basic needs are met."

Dunn works in one of the most affected areas of the state, the Cumberland Plateau. She says one out of every five reports her office sees includes some allegation of meth use or production.

After a meth lab bust, if there are children in the home, they're taken into protective custody. Dunn says they're not allowed to bring anything from home with them since it may be contaminated -- no teddy bears, no clothes, no blankets.

"They're often living in deplorable conditions," she says. "There are toxic chemicals often in the reach of children. You've got chemicals lying around in a Mountain Dew bottle; they're going to pick it up and drink it."

As for long-term effects, Dunn says many of the kids will have respiratory problems, since exposure to anhydrous ammonia can cause lung damage. Taylor says he knows several former meth lab investigators who have been exposed to ammonia so many times, they're no longer able to participate in investigations. Investigators are around the labs during seizure and cleanup. The kids are there 24/7.

Treatment and Education

Jamie Simpson, from New Johnsonville, liked to speedball by shooting methamphetamine and Dilaudid, a synthetic form of heroin. During the day, he'd shop for cold pills and lithium batteries at dollar stores in Nashville. He purchased anhydrous ammonia from people who'd stolen it from farm equipment. At night, Simpson and his roommate would cook meth in their trailer.

"We'd put box fans on each side of the trailer and seal off the windows to get a draft going, so we could gas off the ammonia inside," says Simpson. "By daylight, we'd be done."

Simpson believes he contracted mites from hanging around a fellow user who never showered.

"They would stay around the sores where I was shooting up. When I'd pull back out, the suction would suck some of those bugs back into the syringe," he says. "You've got bugs in the damn syringe, but you're not going to throw away $50 worth of dope, so I'd just shoot them back into my bloodstream. It sounds like a damn horror movie, but that's how bad it was."

Simpson was busted when police came to his trailer looking for his roommate on a warrant for failure to appear in court. Simpson was facing eight to 12 years in prison but was given the option of attending rehab at Synergy. He chose the latter.

He graduated from the year-long program in July 2003. He's now working at a rehabilitation clinic in New Johnsonville.

"The statistics say that 90 to 95 percent of meth addicts will relapse [after treatment]," says Walter Williams, director of Synergy Treatment Center. He says Synergy has a 75 percent success rate. "The magic of Synergy is that it's a long-term program. The length of time [in rehab] makes the difference."

Gibbons agrees. "In the case of meth, most studies have shown that out-patient treatment doesn't work," he says. "It has to be in-patient and has to last from 12 to 18 months. It's going to cost a lot more to treat these people."

Synergy's program basically funds itself, since money patients earn at jobs provided by the center pays for their treatment. On the other hand, addicts placed in the county's drug court treatment program -- which dismisses charges upon completion -- only receive out-patient treatment.

"Mayor Wharton and I are hoping to go to the General Assembly next year to ask for state funding for in-patient treatment through our drug court," says Gibbons.

Gibbons is also promoting the state's new Meth Destroys program, an educational initiative aimed at convincing kids to stay away from meth. He's been touring schools across the county, showing videos and passing out information since the program was launched on November 6th.

With tougher laws, extra funding for treatment, and new educational campaigns, the state seems to have curbed the meth epidemic somewhat. At least for now.

But new threats of imported meth face the state, and according to Gibbons, Shelby County is especially vulnerable.

"What we're beginning to see is Tennessee-produced meth being replaced with meth brought in from the West Coast," says Gibbons. "It's a slightly different form that's made by taking an extra step in the process."

Gibbons says Hispanic gangs and drug traffickers have noticed the vacuum in the state since the new laws were passed. In August, five people were arrested in Putnam County on charges of trafficking meth made in "super labs" in Mexico.

"We're very concerned about this taking hold in the urban areas," he says. "Since it's coming from the West Coast, what's the first place they'll hit? Memphis."

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