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Meth mom: I literally went from June Cleaver to this person who was nuts

Scripps Howard News Service, November 15, 2012

She’s a pretty soccer mom in Dallas who grew up in privilege attending the best private schools. He’s a tatted up Aryan Nations member in rural West Tennessee who has spent a third of his life in prison. If they have nothing else in common, they share a sordid history of using and selling methamphetamine.

“I literally went from June Cleaver to this person who was nuts,” says “Rachael,” whose real name is not being used to protect her from her former supplier.

Today, Rachael is in treatment and remains the most unlikely of experts on the users of meth, a highly addictive stimulant that triggers euphoria by boosting the neurotransmitter dopamine.

“It’s not all people without teeth. There were people from mortgage companies, other middle-class people holding down a job every day, people over 50,” she says.

Her product had utilitarian roots. Methamphetamine was synthesized into crystal form from ephedrine by Akira Ogata, a Japanese chemist, in 1919. During World War II was given to Kamikaze pilots to fight fatigue and boost courage. Later, meth became popular with outlaw motorcycle gangs on the West Coast, including the Hells Angels, earning the nickname “crank” because bikers would transport it in their crankcases.

Over the years, meth migrated east. These days, illegal meth has evolved from a drug made mostly in rural labs to a business increasingly run through a sophisticated urban distribution system infiltrating most major U.S. cities. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows the roller-coaster nature of meth use. It reports the rate of persons 12 or older initiating meth use increased more than 60 percent between 2008 (95,000) and 2009 (154,000) then dropped in 2010 (105,000).

Now 80 percent of the meth on American streets comes from Mexico, smuggled over the Southwest border dissolved in water, windshield wiper fluid or beer or hiding in fruit or produce, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Justice Department's 2011 National Drug Threat Assessment reported that four Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations, commonly known as cartels, were most involved: Sinaloa, Tijuana, La Familia Michoacana (LFM), and Beltran-Leyva.

Southwest border seizures of meth totaled 7,338 kilograms in 2011, more than twice the amount seized in 2009.

"We've seen a big uptick in seizures of methamphetamine," says John Horn, first assistant U.S. Attorney in the Northern District of Georgia. "It has supplanted coke as the main drug imported in the last year -- both in liquid form, where they take it to processing labs, and also 'dirty' meth or brown meth that they wash and make into ice (a clear, rock-like form of the drug)."

Rachael sums it up: "The cartels have the market cornered in Dallas."

Evidence analyzed at DEA laboratories shows that from July 2007 through September 2010, the price per gram of meth decreased 60.9 percent, from $270.10 to $105.49, while the purity increased 114.1 percent, from 39 percent to 83 percent. The caveat: often meth is diluted as it works its way down the chain of dealers before being sold at street level.

“Mexican ice (meth) has been stepped on and cut so many times it’s just not at the purity of what a local meth cook would turn out,” says Detective Charles Teeters of the Memphis, Tenn., Police Department’s Organized Crime Unit.

This creates opportunity for people like “Kevin,” the Aryan Nations member who lives in Tipton County just north of Memphis. His name is not being used because it might make him the target of rival drug dealers. In his neck of the woods, home-brew meth typically goes for about $50 a gram.

All Kevin needs is a 2-liter plastic soda bottle, or even a 20-ounce plastic bottle, to cook a small amount of meth in what is commonly termed the “one-pot” or “shake-and-bake” method. He conceivably could cook anywhere, but he prefers the woods behind his parents’ small crooked house -- slanted ceilings, uneven floors, his mother sitting on an old couch rolling her own cigarettes -- or in a back bedroom where his newlywed wife’s 4-year-old daughter sleeps.

“With 30 bucks (for ingredients), you can make a couple hundred bucks of meth,” Kevin says, adding that he doesn’t feel bad about cooking and selling. “The way I look at it, people were either gonna come get it from me or from somebody else.”

Some, but not all of the ingredients required to make meth in a one-pot cook include: pseudoephedrine (PSE), the key chemical found in many cold and allergy medications; ammonium nitrate, found in cold packs; camp fuel, a common naphtha-based fuel used in lanterns; metal lithium and salt. It’s often said that cooking meth this way, which can be done in less than an hour, is as easy as baking cookies. But Kevin, who claims he made “A’s” in high school science class, says it is imperfect chemistry.

On a late summer morning, Kevin sits in his family’s kitchen where dirty dishes cover the counters and stovetop. He has a shaved head and is shirtless, wears sleep pants covered in little devils and hearts. “My wife got them for me on my honeymoon,” he says.

He explains that moisture or air temperature can affect the outcome of a particular meth batch, a theory confirmed by University of Oklahoma professor of chemistry Donna Nelson, who also serves as consultant for the cable-TV show “Breaking Bad” in which a high school science teacher and a former student cook and sell meth.

“As a chemist, the idea of putting so many things with so many impurities in your body … I cringe at that,” says Nelson, whose academic research is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Kevin only cringes at the thought of his cooking process failing: “Sometimes it’ll be good, sometimes it’ll be bad. Sometimes, you don’t even get meth. It’s a hope recipe.”

Those who have spent the most time studying America’s meth problem -- its many faces, its many layers, its many victims -- are past hoping that the drug can be eradicated.

“It’s never going away,” says Jane Maxwell, senior research scientist in the Center for Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin and who is engaged in a study of 222 meth addicts. “It’s whack-a-mole.”

The federal government took its whack with the 2005 Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, which requires all products containing pseudoephedrine to be placed behind a sales counter and retailers to maintain a logbook of PSE purchases. Two states -- Oregon in 2006 and Mississippi in 2010 -- went further by passing laws requiring a prescription for PSE.

Joy Krieger, executive director of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, St. Louis chapter, says prescription laws put an unnecessary burden on consumers and that products containing PSE are vital to people seeking an effective decongestant.

“I want pseudoephedrine,” says Krieger. “It will keep you open. It is the medicine of choice.”

This year, at least 16 states pursued PSE-prescription legislation. All failed. Kentucky, the first state to use NPLEx, an electronic system that tracks PSE sales so pharmacies and law enforcement can see when someone is at the legal purchase limit in a 30-day period, was a battleground state. A trade group representing the over-the-counter drug industry, the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), spent $486,053 on lobbying in Kentucky to defeat the prescription legislation.

About $18 billion is spent per year on non-prescription medicine. That money, and the lobbying money, is telling, says Rob Bovett, a district attorney in Lincoln County, Ore., and a driving force behind the state’s prescription law.

“It’s not just chump change,” Bovett says. “It’s the cost of doing business.”

Like many in law enforcement, Tennessee Meth Task Force Director Tommy Farmer says tracking PSE sales doesn’t work.

“We don’t have a problem finding meth labs,” Farmer says, noting that Tennessee was among the nation’s leaders in 2011 with 1,130 meth lab incidents. “We have a problem stopping them.”

In 2011, 10,287 meth lab incidents were reported nationwide -- up 39 percent from 2008; the number includes recovery of hazardous materials left behind. One reason tracking doesn’t work, Farmer and others say, is the practice of “smurfing” in which people use fake IDs or get others to purchase the products containing PSE for them. Street gangs, such as the Bloods and Crips, have started to become involved, too.

Sometimes, the smurfer looks less like someone who would be involved with meth and more like someone who actually bakes cookies. One day in Memphis, Det. Teeters arrests Linda Clark, a 60-year-old grandmother from Jonesboro, Ark. Over the last two years NPLEx shows she has made 38 purchases of products containing PSE in Tennessee -- a pattern that allows him to charge her with the promotion of manufacturing methamphetamine, a felony.

Standing outside the detective’s unmarked SUV on a downtown sidewalk, her sunglasses pushed up on her dyed-red hair, Clark begins to cry as she says she has been selling the blister packs she bought for around $10 to meth cooks for $50.

“I just need the money,” she says.

Others are desperate for the meth rush. Nick Reding, author of “Methland,” which chronicled meth abuse in a small Iowa town, tells one story about a 37-year-old man who “blew himself up in a lab fire.” After three months in a hospital burn unit, after “losing most of his fingers and quite a bit of his face,” as Reding puts it, the man returned to smoking and cooking meth.

Dr. Michael Smock, director of the burn center at Mercy Hospitalin St. Louis, practices in the state that consistently leads the country in meth lab incidents (Missouri had 2,058 last year). He has watched the nature of burns change with the highly combustible one-pot method, which gone wrong can turn a plastic soda bottle into a flamethrower. One thing, however, has stayed the same: about 15 percent of his patients are injured in meth lab fires and most have no insurance. One patient who spent more than 100 days in the burn unit ran up a bill of more than $1 million.

Jeffrey Scott, DEA special agent in Washington, D.C., has viewed the meth problem from just about every angle.

“At the 30,000-foot level, the federal level, the preponderance of meth is Mexican meth,” he says. But he’s also been on ground level, seen flesh melting off people in lab fires, and the toxic sludge and societal waste left behind for others to clean up.

“I worked in California, on the border in Arizona, in Kentucky, and in all those places I found meth labs to be the most difficult to deal with investigative-wise and every other way,” Scott says.

The agent pauses, as though still weary: “If I never did another meth lab it’d be a day too soon.”