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Five “shake and bake” meth labs sit in bottles with the components for manufacturing the deadly drug displayed after a raid on a lab by narcotics officers in St. Clair County.

[Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a story dealing with the methamphetamine problem that has ravaged the county in recent years.]

It is a plague on the country and law enforcement says that it is a pandemic bordering on an epidemic. It destroys lives, families and the effects on the healthcare system won’t be known for decades.

Methamphetamine has become a growing problem for law enforcement across the United States and St. Clair County is no different. It has no class, racial or gender discriminations when it comes to those who become hooked on the deadly drug.

Meth enters the brain and triggers a release of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, which cause the user to feel an intense euphoria. Some users may become hyperactive, while many are obsessed with a task, thought or activity. Withdrawal from meth is characterized by excessive sleeping, eating and major depression. Possibly the worst effect of someone using meth, even once, is that it is accompanied by high levels anxiety and a craving to use again.

Like many hard drug users, a meth addict will need more and more of the drug to produce the same high that accompanied the first time they used. Law enforcement says that users will typically start off with a habit of around $20 a day and possibly escalate to using several hundred dollars of the drug each day.

Officer Richard Woods of the Pell City Police Department’s Narcotic’s Task Force said that he constantly comes in contact with users who are so consumed with getting their next fix that they resort to an any-means-necessary routine to maintain their daily high.

One officer, who works undercover with the Drug Enforcement Agency, said users will often get their first taste of the drug at a party. “There are meth parties, especially in areas around colleges,” the officer, who the News-Aegis will refer to as Dan, because of their undercover work, said. “[The pushers] will have people lined up at a party buying hits for $5 apiece. Once they use it, that’s a guaranteed customer for life or until [the user] gets busted… I’d say 95 percent of the people I have to interview about [a meth case] told me that the first time they used was at a party.”

Once they’re hooked, the ability to get someone off the drug is as difficult as trying to keep the user from hurting other people, either with violence or emotional stress.

“One of the great dangers of methamphetamine use is the paranoia and aggressiveness and the violence associated with those who use methamphetamine. Where as normally, with a cocaine high, they say it will last up to 30 minutes, a methamphetamine high may last 12 hours.” District Attorney Richard Minor said. “It’s unlike any drug we’ve seen in terms of its devastating effects—not only to [the users] themselves—but to their family. Ultimately, we don’t know what the cost to society on the healthcare side of the issue will be for people who have been abusing methamphetamine.”

Minor sees many cases that are either directly or indirectly associated with meth use and said that it does not look like there will be a decrease any time soon. “We’ve had cases before where people might not have been in possession of methamphetamine, but who have ingested [it] and go on to commit another crime,” Minor said.

From burglary, to forging bad checks to get cash or even committing murder, meth has left its impression on St. Clair County. “I think another aspect that sometimes those that use methamphetamine forget—because I think they place all their emphasis on themselves—is their family,” Minor said.

Minor pointed out a rather tragic example of the price that other people who are on the outside edge of the meth user’s world.

He often uses the example when he talks to students about the dangers of meth. He shows a photo of a drawing that was seized in a search. The photo is of a worksheet that a child was given by a social worker. At the top a caption reads: “Draw a picture about a problem you family has. Write about drugs and alcohol.”

The child had drawn a series of events. In the first picture, you see a figure standing next to a stove and the child wrote: “Making it. Meth.” The picture below it shows a circle with what is supposed to be a heap of the drug on a plate. The child wrote: “Chopping it up on a plate. Meth.” The final picture is what looks like someone’s smiling face with a cigarette in their mouth with “Smoking it. Meth” written beside it.

Along with another picture with the child’s scrawled caption of “pot” beside it, the child wrote at the bottom of the paper “my daddy does drugs and makes them.”

Minor said that the photo is a direct link to the problems associated with children who are often abused and sometimes face horrible health problems from inhaling the toxic fumes used to make the drug. “A child drew this,” Minor said pointing to the picture. “So they’ve actually watched their father make meth.”

Besides the emotional toll it can take on loved ones, the physical effects of using meth are usually easy to spot once someone has been using for a while. It usually starts with weight loss, since the dopamine inhibiting effects on the drug make users not crave food. Since the high can last for hours on end, the user will typically not eat during a binge.

Long-term effects include brittle bones that break easily because of malnutrition; kidney failure from the loss of weight and muscle tissue, “meth mouth” and dry, grey skin with sores or abscess caused by the toxic chemicals used in manufacturing the drug exiting the body.

“Meth mouth” is caused by the drug not allowing the body to make saliva, so teeth and gums end up turning black and rotting. Law enforcement says that a long-term user will sometimes exude an odor caused by the drug leaving the body.

Methamphetamine users sometimes take sedatives as a means of easing their “come down,” anxiety or enable them to sleep.

The availability of the drugs used to make meth is part of the problem. Most of the ingredients can be purchased at department stores. One of the ingredients, pseudoephedrine, has been regulated over the last few years. People who purchase pseudoephedrine have to show their ID and sign a form that can be used by law enforcement to track people who are suspected in making the drug.

Part of the cat and mouse game played by authorities and users involves people traveling to several locations throughout the area to purchase pseudoephedrine.

Another issue that complicates the meth plague is the “shake and bake” method that has become the main way to produce meth in this area. It is drastically cheaper and much faster than any method previously used.

“You just can’t go out and make cocaine, you need a coca plant,” Minor said. “You can go to the convenience store and make a purchase of five or six items and you’ve got everything you need to make methamphetamine. You don’t need the mason jars that we used to see for those who make meth. Unfortunately, with shake and bake, all you need is a Gatorade bottle and the ingredients.”

In addition to the toll it takes on humans, manufacturing meth produces a large amount of toxic waste. Leftover toxic chemicals and bi-products are often poured down drains or dumped directly on the ground. Clean-up of a meth lab typically costs $2,500 to $3,000 and around three hours of trained law enforcement officials’ time.

“It’s everywhere at all times of the day and night and I don’t foresee a drastic reduction anytime soon,” Officer Woods said.

[Next week: Law enforcement’s struggle to keep meth off the streets and what you can do to help.]

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