Pubdate: Sun, 01 May 2005
Source: Huntsville Times (AL)
Copyright: 2005 The Huntsville Times
Author: Taylor Bright, Times Montgomery Bureau


Biggest Drug Threat in State, Says
DEA; Bills in Works but Efforts Are Late

MONTGOMERY - There in the total darkness was a 24-year-old with two
collapsed lungs, trying to pray to God.

Repenting for the booze, the weed, the girls, the $2,000-a-week job
dealing drugs. The guy he beat up and kidnapped. The friends he had
lost. The drug deals gone good and bad. The hunting trips that turned
into drug binges.

After eight years of doing methamphetamine, this is what had become of
Eric Butler - crumpled on the floor in a dark house in Guntersville
with two collapsed lungs, trying to pray to God after an overdose.

His prayer, half-muffled, half-in-his-brain, almost inaudible, was a
plea. God if you help me, I'll get off this stuff. I'll serve you for
the rest of my life.

As he got out some of his prayer, some of it never leaving his lips,
Butler's sister heard a sound and walked through the dark house.

Then she turned on the light.

Butler lay in the fetal position, tears streaming down his face. He
couldn't talk; he could barely breathe.

"I knew I was dying," Butler said.

His sister took him to the hospital. Eight years of meth addiction
ended with a week in intensive car.

Methamphetamine, a homemade white powder drug, similar to speed or
ecstasy, is fast becoming Alabama's favorite, and law enforcement
officials say, most dangerous drug.

Twelve years after Butler, now 29, began his meth use, Alabama has
just set up a methamphetamine task force and is on the verge of
passing bills that would make it more difficult to buy the ingredients
to make the drug.

"It is exploding in Alabama," said Alabama Attorney General Troy King.
"We come into this battle at a strong disadvantage. It is already all
over this state. And we're now coming in not to meet it as it begins.
We're coming in to try to beat it back, get a handle on it and stop
it. That is much, much more difficult."

The problem is compounded, said Greg Borland, the assistant special
agent in charge of Alabama for the federal Drug Enforcement
Administration office in Montgomery, because not only can the drug be
made at home, it is shipped into the state from Mexico.

"We do consider methamphetamine the biggest drug threat in Alabama
right now," Borland said.

While the drug hasn't surpassed cocaine use, it is spreading at a
faster rate, Borland said.

"It is growing exponentially," Borland said. "It has surpassed cocaine
in terms of its growing problem."

Since the DEA began keeping track, meth labs in Alabama have grown
from 355 in 2002 to 523 in 2004. Borland expects the numbers to keep
growing in 2005.

"We're going to approach 600 meth labs in Alabama this year," Borland
said. "Frankly I suspect there are many more than that."

The growth of the drug is even surprising to Borland.

"We've seized loads as big as 108 pounds in Alabama. Recently there
was a seizure in Atlanta of 175 pounds, which to me, is mind
boggling," Borland said. "In my early days with DEA when I was in
Philadelphia, a one-pound seizure was considered tremendous. Now one
pound is insignificant," Borland said.

Butler was on the front lines of the meth explosion in North Alabama.
He began doing it right out of high school. Then he started dealing

"I got into dealing it pretty heavy. That coaxed my habit along,"
Butler said.

In the end, he said he wouldn't bother getting out of bed without an
"eight ball" - an eighth of an ounce, or 3.5 grams of meth.

"For a while it was kind of a medicated thing from so-called reality,"
Butler said. "I started off snorting it, and got into smoking it. It
ended up the last 2-3 years that I was on it, I was shooting it pretty
hard," Butler said.

While he gained an addiction, he lost the people around

"I slowly lost close family and friends. I couldn't hold a

Butler said he turned into a different person, "a Dr. Jekyll and Mr.
Hyde kind of thing."

A guy who had enjoyed the outdoors, Butler became someone else. He
spent nine days in jail and received a suspended sentence for felony
assault after he went with a friend to collect money from a man from a
drug deal. Butler beat the man up and kidnapped him, he said.

As he made thousands of dollars a week from dealing the drug, he
bought himself nice things. He always had girls around, he said. He
and his friends would stay up for days taking meth.

"I couldn't see any other way of life," he said.

Later in his addiction, he tried, always unsuccessfully, to kick the

"For the last two years I really wanted to get away from it, but it
was so prominent around here," Butler said.

Throughout the methamphetamine explosion, government has been slow to

While Butler was dealing, the police were slow to react to the new

"The didn't know how to handle it," Butler said. "They had never seen
anything like it."

U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, said he saw law enforcement
swamped as the drug swept through Jackson County.

"The law enforcement community was overwhelmed by the issue," Cramer

Then, Cramer said, he tried to get federal law enforcement to pay
attention to the methamphetamine explosion.

Now, more people are paying attention.

Last Wednesday, the task force that King set up to combat
methamphetamine met for the first time. Two bills in the Legislature
are moving again after the Senate ended a deadlock last week. One
would require stores to put cold medicine with ephedrine or
pseudoephedrine, ingredients in making methamphetamine, behind the
counter and limit the amount that could be bought. Last month, Georgia
passed a similar bill.

The other bill would make it a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in
jail, to expose a child to a meth lab. If the child was hurt in the
operation of a meth lab, a person could serve 20 years in jail.

Also, Cramer has co-sponsored a bill in Congress which would give more
federal money to train law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in
handling methamphetamine cases.

Mike Anderton, who represents the Jefferson County District Attorney's
office on the task force, said law enforcement is only starting to
learn how to deal with methamphetamine in the state.

For instance, Anderton said, the labs that cook methamphetamine have a
"pungent odor." But, few people know exactly what it smells like, he

"We need to teach people to be on the lookout for that smell,"
Anderton said.

King said the problem isn't only a law enforcement

"This is not a problem that the police are going to solve, this is a
problem that all of us are going to have to solve," King said.

 From the jails to the hospitals, meth is changing Alabama.

"We see it frequently," said John Meade, an emergency room doctor in
Foley, and a member of the task force. The meth user who comes in to
the hospital is often combative, Meade said.

"It causes some patients to be psychotic," Meade said.

Mary Holley of Arab knows that all too well. A doctor who formed
Mothers Against Methamphetamine and who sits on the task force,
Holley's brother killed himself after becoming addicted to

"It made him crazy," Holley said. Educating people about how dangerous
meth can be is the first step to fighting it, she said.

"It's a devastating addiction," Holley said.

It also takes much longer to rehabilitate methamphetamine users,
Holley said.

"The more successful programs tend to be the longer programs," she

Butler stayed in a Christian rehab program for over a year - Outreach
Ministries near Huntsville. He has stayed clean ever since and works
with Holley's group.

Now he sees the destruction in the communities in Alabama. Sand
Mountain in Marshall County is now called Meth Mountain, he said.

"It's totally changed our community," Butler said. 
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