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Meth-Makers Become Addicted to N.C.

Manufacturers take root in the Blue Ridge Mountains, finding that the rugged terrain offers the protection that moonshiners enjoyed.

March 14, 2004|Holly Hickman | Associated Press Writer

BOONE, N.C. — Mark Shook says he's fighting a war in this mountain town -- complete with explosions, abandoned children and an enemy that won't give up.

Shook is Watauga County's sheriff and, for the past year, he and others have tried to beat back the spread of methamphetamine through the hills and hollows of western North Carolina.

"Meth is choking this town," Shook said recently, moments before taking a call about yet another raid on a possible meth lab. "We are fighting a war -- and it's going to spread. I've never seen anything like it."

Meth is a highly addictive and potent powder "cooked" from such common ingredients as ammonia, lithium from car batteries and pseudoephedrine from cold tablets. After snorting, eating or injecting the drug, users experience rushes of energy and euphoria.

"You feel like Superman," said David Mclemore, a former addict who now counsels substance abusers here. "You can get addicted the first time. And then it takes more and more and more to get high."

Popularized by bikers and truckers in the late 1980s, meth and its makers have migrated eastward from California and other Western states.

They've increasingly taken root in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. The latter state led the South with more than 1,150 of the nation's roughly 8,000 meth lab seizures last year.

Boone, a town of 13,500 that is home to Appalachian State University, is surrounded by rugged terrain that offers meth-makers the kind of protection it once provided to moonshiners. The open, isolated spaces diffuse the pungent, nauseating odors that are the meth labs' giveaway.

"You can't cook when you're living on top of each other in a city," Shook said.

Last year, 34 meth labs were seized here, and social workers removed 17 children from homes where the chemicals saturated the walls, furniture and carpet.

Because these so-called "meth orphans" were often covered in dangerous toxins, doctors had to decontaminate them. Their toys, books and clothes had to be burned.

"The kids didn't always understand why they couldn't take their Barbie with them," social worker Chad Slagle said.

Children sometimes unwittingly caused their parents' arrest. A first-grader told her teacher how to cook meth. An older student included meth cooking in a "How I Spent My Summer" essay.

"We call Watauga County ground zero," said State Bureau of Investigation Director Robin Pendergraft, who is urging North Carolina lawmakers to increase penalties for operating meth labs.

The list of problems presented by the meth boom is long.

Meth-making, with its combustible ingredients and "cooks" who are often strung out, comes with the ever-present possibility of explosions.

Meth-makers dump poisonous byproducts into sewage systems, streams and fields. And their labs render houses uninhabitable and depress surrounding property values.

With every meth-lab bust, taxpayers must spend $2,000 to $4,000 to have hazardous materials teams and other specially trained workers clean up the toxic mess, which includes phosphine gas, a chemical weapons component.

The human cost is also high. Some 3,300 "meth orphans" were removed from homes nationwide last year, authorities said.

Many have ingested meth, said John Martyny, industrial hygiene expert. "Kids crawl on the carpet, put their fingers in their mouths. They might as well have been taking it directly."

Martyny recently led a study of meth labs at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver. It found that meth and its ingredients drifted down hallways and seeped under closed doors. They saturated walls, carpeting, sofas and ventilation ducts. Even tests on clothing fibers and the interiors of microwave ovens came back positive.

Many of the ingredients of methamphetamine are linked to cancer, kidney and liver damage, and respiratory failure.

What leads people to this dangerous drug? Boredom as much as anything, said one recovering North Carolina addict, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"There's nothing to do here," said the woman, recalling how she snorted meth for the first time at her kitchen table. She and her husband lost all their savings and isolated themselves in their mountain home.

She only recently regained custody of their three children after satisfying a judge that she had been drug-free for a year.

Dr. Andrew Mason, a Boone forensic toxicologist, said the woman is a rarity. Efforts to get meth users off the drug fail at a rate of 94%, he said.

"This thing is worse than heroin. It's worse than crack. And it's going up and down highways," said Shook, predicting its spread, like moonshine's, to bigger cities. "That's why we're attacking it here, now."

AP Science Writer Joseph B. Verrengia in Denver contributed to this report.

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