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Methamphetamine Called No. 1 Drug Threat, Deadly

By Bill Poovey, Associated Press

May 26, 2003

CHATTANOOGA - Methamphetamine, described by a federal Drug Enforcement Agency spokesman as the No. 1 drug threat in rural America, has a public price beyond money.

"The scary part about methamphetamine is not only the addiction it causes but the devastation that is left" to people and the environment, DEA spokesman Will Glaspy said.

Fires, deaths, orphaned children, hazardous material cleanups at clandestine meth labs - these are some of the costs.

Cumberland County Sheriff Butch Burgess said he knows at least nine meth addicts who have died this year in his county along the Cumberland Plateau between Knoxville and Nashville.

"They have died of heart attacks and kidney failure and things like that, but they are in their 30s and they shouldn't be dying. They stay up and going so long it just wears them out," he said.

About 85 miles south in Athens, a meth lab explosion in April in the bathroom of a home killed a 48-year-old man and injured at least three other people, including two children.

Neighbors saw a man on fire running from the house. A 15-month-old girl suffered chemicals burns on her feet and an older child had burns on her back and head.

In Franklin County along the Alabama border, a family became sick after renting home that had previously been used as a meth lab, said Diane Easterly, a Tennessee Department of Children's Services regional team coordinator in Chattanooga.

"They started to have respiratory problems," she said.

Law officers say an increasing number of meth cookers are coming out of their country kitchens, firing up "labs" in motel rooms and urban apartments with recipes of drain cleaner, iodine and red phosphorous.

"If somebody is cooking beside you in a motel room beside you can die from phosphene gas," said Ben Graves, a McMinn County detective who raided a meth lab in an Interstate 75 motel in late January. Five people were arrested.

Investigators in East Ridge, a Chattanooga suburb, seized meth-making chemicals from an interstate motel in April.

The "chemical smells are so overpowering, if you come in behind it you can be contaminated by the phosphorous," Graves said.

Records show the DEA seized more than 7,000 meth labs last year, including 387 in Tennessee, up from 177 in 2000 and 2 in 1996. Those numbers are likely only part of the totals, Glaspy said, since some agencies don't report to the DEA.

The cleanup cost for a lab: about $5,000.

"It's moving into the cities because of the nature of the drug being so addictive," Graves said.

U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tennessee, said last month that a regional methamphetamine task force was being expanded to reach through all of East Tennessee, while getting another $1 million grant.

He said meth first became a law enforcement problem in Tennessee in Grundy and Franklin counties in the late 1990s but now "meth labs are showing up in urban areas in East Tennessee."

Nationally, most of the labs are in California but "methamphetamine has been moving from the West Coast to the East Coast like a tidal wave. It is the number one drug threat in rural America right now," Glaspy said.

The drug is popular with the "white working class," he said.

"Their buddies introduce it to them because they can work so much overtime and then they are on meth and not working."