Pubdate: Mon, 30 Jan 2006
Source: Hendersonville Times-News (NC)
Copyright: 2006 Hendersonville Newspaper Corporation
Author: Scott Parrott, staff writer
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


Methamphetamine is a man-made, addictive stimulant drug that is
created in illegal laboratories. Ingredients used to create
methamphetamine include, denatured alcohol, rubbing alcohol, iodine,
nail polish remover, drain cleaner and sinus medicine. Lt. Chris
Beddingfield of the Polk County Sheriff's Office bought the items
pictured at local stores. Beddingfield shows the lab to groups during
awareness programs. At right, Lt. Steve Carter cuts chunks of meth
from a rock of methamphetamine to show what the product looks like.

One recent afternoon, Henderson County Sheriff George Erwin pulled his
car onto the side of the road and returned a phone call. It was from a
mother whose son was in rehab, fighting off cravings for

"What are we doing about this?" the mother asked. "This is becoming a

Erwin paused. "No ma'am," he replied. "It's not a problem. It's an

Erwin has good reason to consider meth an epidemic.

Since deputies busted the county's first meth lab in 1999, the drug
has struck the mountains with such force that few pockets of the
community emerged unscathed.

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

Top priority

The drug ranks as the top challenge facing mountain law enforcement

The most visible problem came from home-grown meth labs, drug making
operations tucked away in motel rooms, mobile homes, forests, car trunks.

Authorities think they now have a handle on the meth labs, but they're
facing a growing problem with drug trafficking operations that pump
meth into the mountains and North Carolina.

Law enforcement agencies statewide are dedicating more resources
toward combating the labs and trafficking.

It's a dangerous job. Meth labs can burst into flames and explode.
Officers and firefighters can accidentally breathe toxic fumes. They
can be pricked by disease-ridden needles in the pockets of addicts.

And they are not just handling meth cases. Like other drugs, meth
spurs thefts, robberies, burglaries and violent crimes as addicts look
to cover the cost of another fix.

"It's by far the biggest problem," said Capt. Chris Beddingfield, the
chief of investigations for the Polk County Sheriff's Department.
"Almost all of our investigations involve methamphetamine somehow."

Seclusion fuels mountain labs

The origin of meth in the United States is debatable, as is the reason
it struck the mountains harder than the rest of North Carolina.

Some attribute the overwhelming presence of meth labs to the rural
nature of the mountains. Fewer neighbors and more land translates into
a lesser chance of getting caught.

Some say the mountain spirit that once inspired moonshine stills fuels
today's meth labs.

Emerson, of the DEA, says the mountains could be facing the greatest
problems because they border Tennessee, a state plagued by meth labs.

Whatever the reason, the drug has made its presence felt, particularly
in two counties that neighbor Henderson.

Authorities in Rutherford and McDowell counties seized 105 meth labs
in 2005, representing almost a third of those busted statewide. The
328 labs busted by authorities in North Carolina last year represented
an explosion since 1999, when police seized only nine labs in the state.

The number of labs police busted skyrocketed each year between 1999
and 2004. But authorities seized fewer labs in 2005, bringing an end
to the trend and leading DEA agent Emerson to think the number of labs
has stabilized. The DEA had feared the number would reach 600.

Emerson credited the change to cooperation between local, state and
federal law enforcement agencies, plus tougher laws and criminal
penalties placed on the state books.

Longer sentences

In recent years, lawmakers in Raleigh passed a long list of tougher
penalties for meth.

Meth makers face longer sentences, after lawmakers in 2004 increased
the penalty from likely probation to a mandatory five to 17 years
behind bars.

The DEA and law enforcement in Rutherford and McDowell counties busted
64 repeat offenders last year, a move Emerson hopes will decrease the
number of meth labs in the troubled counties.

The penalties for possessing the main ingredients for making meth also
increased. Lawmakers placed meth among the list of drugs that can
trigger a second-degree murder charge when it causes an overdose death.

State Bureau of Investigation agents find children living in more than
a third of the meth lab homes they bust. State law now makes it an
extra criminal penalty when a child is present in a lab or endangered
by meth. It also adds 24 months to a convicted meth maker's sentence
if a police officer, firefighter or other first responder is injured
in a meth lab bust.

And in January, the state launched a new law that puts cold medicine
that contains pseudoephedrine behind the counter in pharmacies.

Pseudoephedrine is a main ingredient for meth, and Emerson said other
states that adopted similar restrictions witnessed a 40 to 60 percent
decline in the number of meth labs.

But some law officers say restrictions need to be put into place
nationwide to achieve true results. Federal lawmakers are debating the

Trafficking concerns

Meth cooks can drive across the state line into South Carolina, where
the sale of meth ingredients are less restricted. Polk County deputies
know first hand. They recently busted a man as he drove through the
county from South Carolina with the ingredients for meth stashed in
the trunk of his car.

Deputies in Polk County are coming across fewer meth labs these days.
They found no active labs last year, and one dump site where a meth
cook had thrown out used containers and chemicals.

The situation is similar in Henderson County, where deputies seized
three labs in 2005.

But both counties are facing a battle against meth on another front -
trafficking from superlabs, so called because of the large quantities
of meth made in these operations found in Mexico, the southwestern
United States and as close as Atlanta.

They are not alone.

The DEA ranks the battle against trafficking among its top priorities
this year.

The superlabs make a form of meth called ice, regarded on the streets
as a purer and more potent form of the narcotic. The DEA thinks ice is
no more pure than common meth, calling the myth nothing more than a
drug dealers' marketing scheme.

Still, the marketing appears to work.

The Polk County Sheriff's Department made 106 drug charges in 2004,
and Beddingfield said about 90 percent were meth-related. The
Henderson County Sheriff's Department made 120 arrests last year,
seizing more than $687,000 in the drug.

The DEA can't discuss the specific ways it will combat the problem,
but Emerson said agents will attack the trafficking.

"We know it's there, and we're going to be aggressive about it,"
Emerson said.

Enforcement, Treatment, Education

Erwin, meanwhile, said a three-pronged attack must be launched locally
to combat the problem. The first two steps are law enforcement and
affordable drug treatment programs so addicts can kick the habit.

The third step is education - warning the community about the danger
of the drug, training more law officers and firefighters to handle
labs, teaching merchants to know when a meth cook is trying to buy

"This is becoming a real challenge in this community, and we have to
be galvanized and united," Erwin said. "We cannot put our heads in the
sand and say, 'Well, these things do not happen here.'"

"We're fighting wars on all fronts. We're fighting a war on terror
across the ocean. We still have issues of homegrown terrorists. Then
you've got this war."

He paused.

"Then you've got this war."
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin