Tough laws, education key in fighting meth

Published 11:59 pm Monday, July 6, 2009

When it first appeared on the local drug scene in the 1990s, methamphetamine was known as “crank.” Nicknames for the highly-addictive drug vary across the country and include “ice,” “crystal,” “glass,” and “meth.”

Call it what you will, says District Judge Frank “Trippy” McGuire, but it’s poison. McGuire sometimes sits as a special circuit court judge to take guilty pleas — most of which are on drug related charges.

“The first time I remember hearing it in my courtroom was in 1994. They called it ‘crank’ then,” McGuire said. “If you think about it like this — it will make you wonder — some Americans and many Covington County residents voluntarily inflict on themselves the same torture that Hitler inflicted on the Jews inside concentration camps when he had them injected with all sorts of poisons … because that’s what meth is, it’s a poison.”

Among the ingredients used in making the highly-addictive drug are ether, paint thinner, Freon, acetone, anhydrous ammonia, iodine crystals, red phosphorus, drain cleaner, battery acid and lithium (taken from inside batteries).

And the effects of those poisons become visible, McGuire said.

“A lot of them look horrible — like living skeletons,” he said.

The surprising thing, the judge said, is that most of the users are old enough to know better.

“What surprises me about the people that use that stuff is that it’s grandparents and people my age who should know better,” the judge said. “(Meth) was introduced by baby boomers.”

Local law enforcement and judicial officials agree that meth must be fought on two different fronts — in the community and inside the classroom.

The 22nd Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force, along with all local law enforcement agencies, is tasked with combating the use of illegal drugs in the community. The agency, which was created in 2000 through funding by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, is comprised of five agents — two Andalusia Police Department officers, two Covington County Sheriff’s Office deputies and one Opp Police Department officer.

Current DTF Commander Mark Odom estimates that at least 50 percent of the agency’s efforts are devoted to meth cases.

Both Odom and DTF agent/APD Sgt. Ray Dixon said Alabama’s pseudoephedrine law is one thing that has made it easier for law enforcement to locate meth. And but for the efforts of two Covington County residents, Odom said, the law probably wouldn’t be in effect and meth use would be more widespread.

In 2005, Walt Merrell, who then worked as a DTF prosecutor in the district attorney’s office, and Paul Dean, who at the time was the local DTF commander, convinced legislators to make it harder to buy the ingredients for meth in Alabama.

“We called and basically harassed legislators until somebody agreed to sponsor the bill,” Merrell recalled Monday. “Other states were at the forefront of this movement and Oklahoma was the first.”

Merrell and Dean were invited to Montgomery, the former prosecutor recalled, to meet with legislators about the proposed bill. What they didn’t realize was that representatives of the pharmaceutical industry also would be there.

“It was a really interesting situation and we didn’t realize what were getting in to,” Merrell recalled, adding that the two would have taken more representatives of law enforcement with them if they had known more about the meeting to which they were invited. “We stayed there almost all day.”

Later, the DA’s association and the state attorney general joined the fight for legislation. The result was a law requiring 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. Purchases are also limited to two packages or six grams at a time, and purchasers are required to sign for the purchase and must show photo identification or two other forms of identification. The name of everyone who purchases those products in unusual quantities is logged for future reference.

DTF agents refer to that log as the “pill list,” and it provides a who’s-who of meth cooks.

“Pseudo is the key ingredient for meth. You’ve got to have it,” Dixon said. “We say just follow the pseudo. Follow it and you’ll find the meth.”

Odom said the law “slowed meth cooks down quite a bit.”

“Meth would still be wide open here if it weren’t for that law,” Odom said.

Merrell, who has since moved into private practice, said the law was the “single biggest blow” law enforcement agents could have dealt meth “cooks.”

“When you talk about a war on drugs, it has to be more than a case-by-case war,” he said. “This is the single biggest blow we could have dealt meth, and the results were almost instantaneous.”

District attorney Greg Gambril said before the law was passed, agents had to rely strictly on informant-based information.

“When that law was passed, meth labs bottomed out in Covington County,” he said. “And when meth hit hard, it also hit our caseload in the DA’s office hard. I’d say it tripled and we’re still fighting the backlog.”

From 2000 to 2004, it was “nothing but meth cases on the docket,” he said.

“We’re starting to see daylight now, as far as labs go,” Gambril said. “That gives us an opportunity to focus on a different direction — education.”

Gambril believes that’s one key to fighting the problem.

“The more that people know about what meth is and what it can do to a person, the more of a chance they won’t try it,” he said. “The same can be said about any drug. It starts when a child is school … the more times they hear the message that drugs are bad, that alcohol is bad, the more likely it is that the message will stick.”

Initiatives like the state District Attorneys Association’s Zero Meth campaign and the Web site are two educational initiatives targeting youth. The Zero Meth campaign features a 15-minute DVD that Gambril said, “teaches how meth affects the body. Viewers can hear real stories — stories of everyday people who got hooked on meth.”

“You have so many people who say they were out there getting drunk and high and the next thing they knew, they were a meth user,” he said.

And once a person becomes a user, it is inevitable he will be caught, and it will not be long until he is standing before a judge to await a sentence.

DTF agents also do their part to educate local residents about the dangers of the drug. Odom said his agency often is asked to speak to church groups, to schools, and to businesses in which employees might encounter meth labs.

McGuire, like Gambril, credits education as a key to halting the meth problem.

“The more education about meth the better,” he said. “I have two words to describe what I think about meth — disheartened and discouraged,” McGuire said. “Sitting on that bench, you see — time after time — an endless line of humanity wasting their lives.”

Tomorrow: Read the story of a former addict who has overcome his addiction, with information about help available for drug users.