Area not exempt from drug problem

Published 5:00 am Monday, June 9, 2003

An epidemic is sweeping across the nation, and its talons arealready set deep into Mississippi’s forested heartland.

It’s not a viral or bacterial invasion, but one created byamateur chemists mixing chemicals from common household items,despite the explosive and toxic dangers. It’s methamphetamine, andit’s sweeping through the state at an alarming rate.

“Meth is an epidemic,” said Chad Griffin, a Mississippi Bureauof Narcotics agent who works solely on methamphetamine cases.

Griffin’s partner agrees.

“Any time you have an agency, such as MBN, that will dedicatetwo agents in a district to a single problem, such as meth, itshows you how serious it is,” said Conner Magee.

“We’re trying to get a grab on it now and stay ahead of it,” hesaid.

Those states that didn’t “get a grab on it” are now sufferingfrom the effects of their failure to dampen methamphetamine abusebefore it took hold.

Meth is a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powderthat easily dissolves in water or alcohol. It can also be inhaled,making it the first major drug that can be used in any of thecommon forms of abuse: snorting, injecting and smoking.

Methamphetamine trafficking and abuse in the United States hasbeen on the rise for years. Law enforcement and public healthagencies report methamphetamine availability is widespread in thewestern and central U.S. and is spreading rapidly into the easternand southeastern regions, according to the 2003 National DrugThreat Assessment (NDTS) report issued by the National DrugIntelligence Center of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Law enforcement officers and NDTS data agree that the threatposed by methamphetamine will increase over the next year — andpossibly years.

Regional reports from law enforcement agencies show an eastwardexpansion of methamphetamine use from the western United States.Agencies in the Pacific, West Central and Southwest regions reportthe availability of methamphetamine most highly, but the Southeastregion is gaining rapidly, according to the NDTS. In the southeast,73.3 percent of law enforcement agencies report methamphetamine asa growing problem with high availability.

NDTS data show that 31 percent of state and local lawenforcement agencies nationwide identify methamphetamine as theirprincipal drug threat. In the Southeast, only 22.9 percent reportit as the principal threat but acknowledge it as a growingthreat.

“Methamphetamine is rapidly replacing cocaine and other drugs,except for marijuana. Marijuana will always be a drug of choicebecause it’s cheap and plentiful,” said Capt. Chris Picou, anarcotics officer with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department.

Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department Narcotics Agent JimmyBarton said meth doesn’t need to replace cocaine to become thedominant drug in the state.

“Per capita, I think Mississippi has the worst problem with methin the nation,” he said. “We have an unusually large amount for ourpopulation.”

When asked why, he just shrugs and hangs his head.

“I don’t know. I just don’t know,” Barton said.

Most of Mississippi’s methamphetamine problem is homegrown andproduced by locals for their own use and consumption or possibly toshare with a small tight-knit circle of friends, Griffin said.

About two years ago, MBN and Lincoln County law enforcementagencies worked jointly to bust a major dealer here who wasimporting methamphetamine. His sources were primarily in thewestern U.S. He was sentenced to more than 140 years in prison.

Most producers, however, prefer to “cook,” or make their own, orhave it “cooked” by someone they know, Griffin said.

The two MBN agents estimate that since 1997, an average of threemeth labs a month have been taken down in MBN District 9 alone. Itincludes Lincoln, Lawrence, Pike, Franklin, Walthall, Amite, Adamsand Wilkinson counties.

The labs are spread fairly evenly across the district without asingle county producing more than any other.

“It keeps us busy,” Magee said. “The increase is unbelievable.We do nothing but work on meth now.”

Magee said he has been in law enforcement since 1995 and haswatched the epidemic spread. Magee rarely saw meth back then, hesaid, and only saw a little more when he began working narcotics in1998, but in 2001 he saw meth explode across the state.

“We’re doing everything we can do, but trend-wise we arrest moreand more people each year. That would indicate it’s continuing toincrease,” he said.

Barton agreed. He said he saw meth between 1996-1999, but itwasn’t until 2001 that it erupted into a major problem.

“Overnight, my God, it just took off,” he said. “It’s been anepidemic ever since.”

Next: A look at the nature of the drug and its long- andshort-term effects.