Pubdate: Thu, 26 May 2005
Source: Bristol Herald Courier (VA)
Copyright: 2005 Bristol Herald Courier
Author: Matthew Lakin
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


MARION - The labs can be anywhere - maybe next door.

They don't include sterile test tubes or doctors in white coats - just 
deadly chemicals, poisonous fumes and addicts desperate for their next fix.

"Your children could be playing beside a house with a meth lab in it," town 
police Investigator April Morgan said. "It affects everybody."

Authorities found more than 80 methamphetamine labs around the state last 
year, a jump from 34 in 2003, according to the Virginia State Police.

Three Southwest Virginia counties - Washington, Smyth and Wythe - accounted 
for more than 70 percent of those cases.

Police expect the numbers to double this year.

"Last year, there were over 1,200 labs in Tennessee," said Sgt. Michael 
Conroy of the Virginia State Police. "We're going to be there. It's not 
like a traditional drug. I think it has the potential to make OxyContin and 
the other drugs look like nothing."

Addicts make the stimulant, a synthetic form of adrenaline, by using 
household chemicals to break down pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in cold 
and sinus pills.

They smoke it, inject it, eat it, snort it or rub it on their skin for a 
high that can last hours or even days.

The equipment can fit in a duffel bag, a cardboard box or the trunk of a car.

"For less than $100, you can get any ingredient you need," said Special 
Agent Mike Baker of the State Police. "If you can follow the directions on 
the back of a Betty Crocker cake box, you can make meth."

The chemical reactions can produce poisonous gases - some of which kill in 
a few seconds - and lead to fires and explosions. One lab blew up in a 
motel in Smyth County's Seven Mile Ford community in March, police said.

"That to me highlights the greatest danger of methamphetamine manufacturing 
- - the danger to innocent people," said Roy Evans, Smyth's commonwealth's 

The labs turn up in houses, barns, apartments, trailers, campers, cabins 
and motel rooms - even the backs of pickups. Washington County authorities 
reported finding one in November at an apartment in Abingdon's historic 
district - just two blocks from the federal courthouse and down the street 
from the county sheriff's dispatch center.

Washington County led the state in raids last year, with 24 suspected labs 
and more than 50 meth-related arrests, Sheriff Fred Newman said.

Raids since then have dropped to five this year, he said.

"I think the fact that we took a really proactive approach is a 
contributing factor to the number we've had this year," the sheriff said. 
"We've put a lot of these people in jail."

Police believe the drug keeps moving east along Interstate 81. Smyth 
County, which came in second last year with 21 reports of labs, appears to 
be moving into first place, with 12 reports this year.

"It's a race we don't want to win," Morgan said.

Authorities in Wythe County said they've found 12 labs so far this year, 
including three in one night, compared to 16 in 2004.

"It's not going away," Wythe County Chief Deputy Doug King said.

Police can't explain why they find the labs in some places and not others, 
although small towns and rural areas tend to be harder hit.

"Your neighbors in the city are just a few feet away," said Bristol police 
Lt. Darryl Milligan. "Your neighbors in the country are about a mile away. 
With the odors, you're less likely to be discovered in a rural area."

Investigators across the state line in Sullivan County, with its cities of 
Kingsport and Bristol and its more urban population, believe that's why 
they haven't seen as many labs. But raids have doubled there as well - from 
two last year to five this year.

"It's growing exponentially," said Kent Chitwood, Sullivan County assistant 
district attorney general. "It's not a huge problem, but we see it growing."

In Southwest Virginia's coalfields, where prescription drugs such as 
OxyContin and methadone still dominate the drug scene, authorities reported 
just three suspected meth labs last year - a mobile one in Wise County and 
two in houses in Lee County.

"We see it occurring, but it's not a problem like you see in the interstate 
counties," Wise County Sheriff Ronnie Oakes said. "But I'm sure that's 
going to change."

The drug shatters families, puts officers in danger and chokes local court 

"It's really impacting and crippling our families," said Doug Meade, 
director of social services in Washington County. "We've got an epidemic 
here. Forty percent of the kids in foster care in our county come out of 
homes whose parents experience drug-related problems. The Department of 
Social Services is picking up the pieces of these families."

Officers said they sometimes find acid stored in baby food jars or children 
crawling on floors covered with open bottles and jars of chemicals.

"They could be in the back of the room eating rat poison and the parents 
could care less," said Dr. Sarah Carrier, an emergency room physician at 
Johnston Memorial Hospital in Abingdon. "You wonder, are these children 
being fed?"

Many of those parents never reunite with their children. They go to prison 
instead - or through an endless cycle of counseling, relapses and failed 
drug tests.

"It's infiltrated their very existence," said Kris Payne, a counselor with 
Transitions, a state-run drug treatment program. "Relapse becomes 
inevitable for some people."

Officers have walked in on meth labs while serving warrants or responding 
to calls. Sullivan County sheriff's deputies made their most recent arrests 
May 11 while serving indictments on two men already charged with meth-making.

Users can become paranoid and violent. A suspected lab raided March 9 in 
Abingdon yielded guns that included three AK-47 assault rifles, Washington 
County authorities said.

Authorities in some areas believe they can trace as much as 80 percent of 
their crime to meth users - some stealing to buy another fix, others 
stealing to get the ingredients for the drug.

"They'll steal prescription drugs and trade them for meth," Marion police 
Lt. Darrell Hayden said. "The people on it are capable of anything. They'll 
go to any extreme to get it. I really don't know what the deterrent is."

The drug continues to spread, turning up in spots as far east as Norfolk 
and Virginia Beach.

Police here don't expect their job will get any easier.

"For every one we arrest, it seems like one takes their place," said Baker, 
the State Police agent. "I hate to say we can't stop it, but think about 
it. Have we ever been able to stop drugs?"
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