The faces of Meth

Published 12:24 am Friday, July 3, 2009

There is a common denominator in their faces – the hollow cheeks, bruised eyes and lank hair – all telltale signs of a manmade poison concocted of drain cleaner, acetone, iodine and pseudoephedrine.

It is called methamphetamine, a drug that is responsible for countless arrests each year of people accused of possessing it, selling it and even manufacturing it within the borders of Covington County

It is also a drug that local law enforcement and judicial officials are committed to eradicating within this county.

Methamphetamine is not a one-time use drug, and there is no such thing as a recreational meth user.

“The thing about meth is that it’s easy and cheap and the first time high a user gets is unlike anything they have ever experienced before,” said Sgt. Ray Dixon, an agent with the 22nd Circuit Judicial Drug Task Force, a multi-officer law enforcement agency created as a direct response to the county’s meth problem.

“Meth users try the rest of their life to get that same feeling of that first high and never succeed,” he said. “That’s why the addiction rate is so high. Once you try it, you’re hooked. That first time is such a euphoric high, it’s like a sexual climax times 1,000. It releases all those pleasure endorphins in the brain, but the more you try to recreate that feeling, the more meth you use.

“But that euphoric feeling very quickly changes to paranoia, a loss of appetite. You start to experience ‘meth bugs’ — itching and crawling. Your teeth fall out and it eventually can lead to organs shutting down and all sorts of cancers,” he said. “Meth is a poison both literally and figuratively. It robs a user of any sort of life — the people they love, their job, their home — and it can eventually cause death.”

What is meth?

Unlike drugs such as marijuana, cocaine and heroin, which are derived from plants, meth can be manufactured using a variety of store-bought chemicals.

According to The U.S. Department of Justice, the most common ingredient in meth, which is also known as “crank,” is pseudoephedrine or ephedrine, commonly found in cold medicine. Through a cooking process, the pseudoephedrine or ephedrine is chemically changed into meth. The ingredients that are used in the process of making meth can include: ether, paint thinner, Freon, acetone, anhydrous ammonia, iodine crystals, red phosphorus, drain cleaner, battery acid and lithium (taken from inside batteries).

Those ingredients are cooked in “labs” in a simple but highly dangerous and toxic process, often accomplished by using a few small glass dishes and a microwave.

It can be produced in several different forms including powder, rocks and tablets. Users can swallow it, snort it, smoke it or by inject it with a hypodermic needle.

The drug works by attacking the central nervous system. Users generally develop a tolerance to the drug, requiring more and more meth quantities to produce a high.

The results include rapid weight loss, anxiety, paranoia, sores, rotting teeth and a host of other physical and emotional problems.

How it got here

Meth made its emergence locally in the mid-1990s, according to District Attorney Greg Gambril, when out-of-state “cooks” came here to teach locals how to manufacture meth. Local and federal law enforcement investigations into national distributors “somewhat contained” the problem.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it exploded on the local market.

In response, the DTF was formed and agents were taught how to spot the drug.

“Our agents went to a clandestine lab school in Quantico, Va., and they learned exactly how to spot meth,” he said. “That information we were able to bring back led to scores of arrests. Instead of relying on information from informants, they were able to go out into the community and target how meth was made. They were able to educate the community on what a meth user looked like, what ingredients were being used.”

Gambril said community response was overwhelming.

“We had linemen working on power lines reporting five or six microwaves on a person’s back porch and cashiers at Wal-Mart calling in tips because people were buying all the necessary ingredients,” he said. “And that’s when the DTF began hitting five and six labs a week. Now, we’re down to three to five every six months.”

Where we are now

Pseudoephedrine laws have helped slow the progression of meth labs not only in Covington County, but also statewide.

Signed into effect by Gov. Bob Riley in 2005, the law requires all non-prescription cold tablets that have ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as the sole active ingredient to be put behind the counter or in locked display cabinets at pharmacies. Tablets in which ephedrine or pseudoephedrine is one of several active ingredients will either have to be placed behind the counter, in a locked case, or kept under video surveillance. Purchases also are limited to two packages or six grams at a time.

The name of everyone who purchases those products is placed on the “pill list.”

For law enforcement, that list provided a who’s-who of meth cooks and has been instrumental in the decreased number of meth labs in the county.

“It’s definitely made our job easier,” Dixon said. “It’s a record of who’s buying pills. In the last year, I’d say we’ve made hundreds of cases off those logs. Pseudo is the key ingredient for meth. You’ve got to have it.

“We say just follow the psuedo,” he said. “Follow it and you’ll find the meth.”

Coming Saturday: A woman, whose methamphetamine use has made her a resident of the Covington County Jail, shares her story.