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Scourge of meth quickly overtaking the rural West

Denver Post:
August 20, 2003
By Gwen Florio, Denver Post National Writer

The methamphetamine epidemic sweeping the West is hard to see - the region's draw for meth-makers is, after all, its isolation - but is making itself felt in unexpected ways.

Farmers find storage tanks drained of the fertilizer used to grow crops - and to "cook" crank.

Fishermen discover pristine trout steams fouled by the toxic byproducts of the meth manufacturing process.

Mountain police departments more accustomed to reports of bear and cougar sightings face a rash of burglaries by users looking to fund their next fix.

And then there are highway workers, for whom picking up roadside trash can mean coming across discarded "death bags" filled with poisonous gases and liquids left over from making meth.

The drug has invaded the rural West with a speed that confounds even experienced drug-enforcement offices. Local authorities in 23 states, all of them in the West and Midwest, say it's their most serious drug hazard, according to this year's National Drug Threat Assessment from the Justice Department.

"Probably 90 percent of the crime we investigate here we can track back to meth," said Lt. Phil Matteson of the Central Montana Drug Task Force in Great Falls.

His office now prints brochures for distribution to farmers and ranchers, hunters and fishermen, and anyone else who might accidentally run into a meth lab, or the remains of one, in the rural heart of Montana's "Golden Triangle" wheat district.

All around the Golden Triangle, thefts of toxic anhydrous ammonia are on the rise from tanks sitting unguarded along lonely gravel roads.

"My biggest fear is that (the thieves) are going to cut holes or cut off a valve and not be able to stop a leak, and cause a big release" that will poison anyone inhaling it, said Bruce Clark, general manager of Mountain View Co-op in Great Falls, adding that thefts of his clients' anhydrous ammonia have become "too numerous to remember."

Detective Mark Overman of the Western Nebraska Intelligence & Narcotics Group said that meth is made, and sold, all over Nebraska's sparsely populated and policed Panhandle region.

"They like to just go out to a rural location in their vehicle" - the latest trend, he said, is mobile meth labs in trucks and vans - "some place where they can see for quite a long ways," he said.

Meth "really disproportionately affects rural areas. There are a lot more places to hide," said Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning.

The evidence fattens police blotters around the region:

In South Dakota's Black Hills on Aug. 4, state Highway Patrol officers made a routine stop and found two teenagers with $45,000 worth of meth in their car. A speeding stop last month in New Mexico's Four Corners region yielded $400,000 worth of the drug.

Earlier this month in Gillette, Wyo., a man carrying meth was accused of throwing a rock at a woman and trying to set himself on fire. In the farming region of southern Idaho, 12 people were nabbed in a single bust and charged with trafficking in meth and marijuana last month.

In Colorado alone, the number of federal prison sentences for meth- related offenses is twice the national average. Seizures of meth labs in the state have skyrocketed, from about 25 in 1997 to 452 in 2001.

"My God, I've never seen a problem like this," said Sgt. Jim Gerhardt, of the Denver-based Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. "I don't know where this trend ends."

Ninety percent of the 303 so-called super labs - those producing 10 pounds or more of meth at a time - busted last year were located in the West and Southwest, according to the 2003 Drug Threat Assessment.

Back in 1992, the total number of labs seized nationwide was 288. In 2001, there were 8,290 meth-lab busts, an increase of 2,779 percent.

But no matter how big or small the lab, cooking crank is a hazard-prone process whose effects go beyond those directly involved, authorities said.

"We're talking about clandestine labs that create 6 pounds of toxic waste for every pound of meth, about the potential for fires and explosions, about children ... having to be removed" from homes where the drug is being produced, said Steve O'Neil, a program administrator for South Dakota's Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. "With meth, particularly with its manufacture, people who would never be affected by a drug problem are affected if they live next door."

Meth is made by mixing common ingredients - pseudo ephedrine, found in over-the-counter cold medicines such as Sudafed, is one - and heating, or "cooking," them. But if the ingredients are overheated, deadly gases and even explosions can result.

Those gases often linger in the so-called box labs - meth operations small enough that their equipment can be packed away in a cardboard box.

Matteson said that one of his deputies who was exposed to meth gases six months ago is still having respiratory problems.

In Colorado, a Department of Transportation employee was disabled for a month after being exposed to meth fumes while cleaning a trash container.

Around the region, states are scrambling to cope. South Dakota - where meth abusers rose from 1 percent of those seeking state-funded treatment in 1997 to 33 percent in the first six months of this year - will hold a joint state and federal conference this week on the issue. Gov. Mike Rounds proclaimed August Methamphetamine Awareness Month.

In Montana's far northern Hi-Line ranching region, radio station KSEN in Shelby airs public- service messages warning of the dangers of meth and meth labs.

"Meth labs are becoming a huge problem here ... but now the public is pretty well aware of what to look for," said KSEN news director Mark Daniels.

Montana officials estimate that meth lab cleanups alone cost state taxpayers more than $1 million last year, compared to $98,000 in 1999. Five years ago, Billings, Montana's largest city, was featured in a Time magazine story on crank. "We're still seeing an increase (in abuse) and it's going younger," said Rhonda Stennerson, a licensed addiction counselor at Journey Recovery in Billings.

Montana and Colorado are among several states to make it illegal to expose children to meth labs; Colorado's law took effect July 1.

Even before Montana's law passed, authorities there were dealing with the effects of crank on children, whose parents, when using the drug, frequently neglected them.

Kathy Moore, 35, of Billings, who began using crank as a teenager, had five children by three different men and saw all of them removed by authorities. Her idea of fun was smoking an "eight-ball," or an eighth-ounce, in a single sitting. A fraction of that amount is considered a typical daily dose.

The drug revved her up so much she went days without sleeping or eating, and her large frame became nearly skeletal. She once picked at imaginary sores on her face for so many hours that real ones formed. Some of her teeth fell out.

Despite that, she said, when you're using "you feel like you know it all. I had an answer for everything."

Last year, during the most recent of several jail stints, she took hard stock of her life.

"I was like, 'This is pathetic. I'm living with my mom, and my kids have been taken away,"' she recalled.

Moore went directly from jail to rehab. Still on probation, she works at a Billings convenience store and bowls for recreation. She's gained 50 pounds, and her skin is smooth. She has resumed contact with her 16-year-old daughter and hopes to someday visit her two youngest children, who have been adopted by another family. When she considered that possibility, Moore - who retains the in-your-face attitude that once led her to threaten to shoot a fellow dealer - began to cry.

"I can't believe some of the stuff I did," she said. "I'd never do it again. Meth - it's bad."