Pubdate: Sun, 29 Jan 2006
Source: Hendersonville Times-News (NC)
Copyright: 2006 Hendersonville Newspaper Corporation
Author: Scott Parrott, staff writer
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


Methamphetamine, a highly addictive illegal stimulant, struck the
mountains and the state with force in the late 1990s, since topping
other drugs on the priority list for law enforcement.

The narcotic is snatching new addicts from every background,
destroying families, overburdening prosecutors, feeding crime,
engrossing law enforcement, pumping children into foster care and even
changing the way cold sufferers can buy cough medicine from the drug

Where did this drug come from? What does it do? And why is the drug,
known as meth, crank and ice becoming the single most troublesome
narcotic for the mountains, the state and the nation?

In a series of stories, the Times-News examines the powerful drug, the
effect it wrought on the mountains and the people who have taken on
the battle against what authorities call a manmade epidemic.

They have good reason for the name. The main ingredients for meth can
be found beneath the kitchen sink, tucked away in the garage and in
pharmacies. The smallest meth labs can fit in the trunk of a car.

"The devastation that meth has caused in the rural parts of the United
States, you see small town, homegrown America getting ravaged," says
John Emerson, the Drug Enforcement Administration agent in charge for
North Carolina.

"It's not isolated," he adds. "It seems to take over the community,
causing devastation."

Among those effects:

. Police statewide are finding more homemade meth labs. The State
Bureau of Investigation reported 328 meth labs seized in 2005, a
dramatic increase compared to the nine seized in 1999.

But the number of labs authorities seized in 2005 totaled slightly
less than the amount law officers busted in 2004.

Local, state and federal authorities believe the number of homemade
labs should remain stable in North Carolina, because of a joint battle
by law enforcement agencies and tougher criminal penalties that
recently hit the books.

But another battle looms for law officers, as traffickers pump ice, a
form of meth concocted in Mexican superlabs, into North Carolina.

The Henderson County Sheriff's Department busted three homemade meth
labs in 2005. But the number of meth cases deputies handled has
exploded since 1994, rising from none to 120. The main problem,
Sheriff George Erwin says, is trafficking.

Meth spurs other crimes, such as child abuse, domestic violence,
robberies, burglaries and theft.

"It's like a never ending story," says Capt. Chris Beddingfield of the
Polk County Sheriff's Department. "A never ending story."

. Nearly half the children taken into court-ordered custody last year
by the Henderson County Department of Social Services came from
families torn apart by meth. State Bureau of Investigation agents who
bust meth labs say they find children living in more than a third of
homes where the drug is manufactured.

Meth-related cases take longer and prove more difficult to resolve,
burdening case workers.

"When we've got parents that are chasing their next high, and spending
all the family resources trying to achieve that next high, we're
finding that we're involved with those families a whole lot longer,"
says Karen Couch, a DSS official.

And police are finding some children follow in the adults'

"This is how bad it is getting. We did a search warrant on stolen
property and there was a 16-year-old girl, her arms torn all to pieces
from injecting meth," Beddingfield says. "She had been working the
streets to support her habit. Sixteen years old. It just kills you as
an officer, especially if you've got children close to that age, to go
in and see that and you see how bad it is getting.

"A 16-year-old girl who had probably every opportunity in the world.
And this is where she's at."

Homemade meth labs pose physical health risks for children, and
experts say the children can suffer a range of mental health problems
and other issues.

"They're falling asleep in school, unable to really pay attention
because they've been kept up all night by either their parents using
or trafficking, or the parents' paranoia about checking windows and
not allowing children to rest," says Meg Foley, of Appalachian
Counseling, a mental health care provider in Henderson County.

. In her first legislative session, Rep. Carolyn Justus, R-Dana,
returned from a meeting to find her Raleigh hotel room swarmed by
police officers. The officers found a meth lab in one of the nearby
rooms, an increasingly common discovery.

"Methamphetamine is just the most dangerous thing that we can have
going," Justus says. "We need to keep our people safe. It is very
explosive, very flammable. To put it in a motel ... it could have
blown up, and that's where they're finding it."

Police find meth labs everywhere from hotel rooms to college dorms,
upscale homes to car trunks.

Meth cookers rarely hold doctorates in chemistry, yet they mix and
heat hazardous and volatile chemicals, posing a threat for police
officers, firefighters and neighbors.

. District Attorneys statewide are handling more and more cases
related to meth with limited manpower. District Attorney Jeff Hunt,
who covers five counties including Henderson, placed the battle
against meth atop his list of goals in his 2006 bid for

"The last big resource influx has been the '95-96 cycle," Hunt says,
referring to the last time the 29th Prosecutorial District received
extra manpower. "We are really getting starved because the number of
cases has increased dramatically, including the meth cases."

. Before District Attorneys can prosecute meth cases, they must
confirm the evidence by sending the seized drug to Raleigh for
testing. But state labs, too, are feeling the effect from the influx
of meth. Backlogs in testing drag out the time between arrest and

"We've had to wait over a year in the average meth case to get a
result back from the State Bureau of Investigation labs," Hunt says.
"It is not because they are lazy or not processing. It is strictly
because they do not have the resources to get the turn-around."

. Hospitals nationwide witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of
people seeking treatment for meth-related problems through emergency
rooms, two recent surveys reported.

The increase strains hospital budgets, because most meth addicts lack
health insurance and the hospitals must still provide treatment.

. Treatment facilities throughout the mountains are seeing more and
more people struggling to overcome the highly addictive drug. Nearly
90 percent of the people in the substance abuse program at Appalachian
Counseling are trying to kick meth.
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