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America's Heartland Grapples With Rise of Dangerous Drug

By Phil Stewart and Gita SitaramiahSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 13, 1997


To most people, Independence, Mo., evokes two words: Harry Truman. Like its most famous son, this town set among the majestic oaks and gently rolling hills of America's great plains is solid and straightforward - a Kansas City suburb of 112,000 people that has managed to keep its small-town feel.

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It is Midwestern to the core, where family-owned restaurants line city streets and many people still get their hair cut at barber shops, not boutiques. But there's a different side to Independence, too - one far removed from the idyllic town square and boulevards.

Last year, authorities busted 75 methamphetamine labs here - the largest number per capita in the nation. This year, local law-enforcement officials have already added 94 more. In fact, Guy Hargreaves, the unofficial "meth czar" at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Washington, calls Independence the meth capital of the United States - and worries that it could be a sign of things to come.

A man-made substance, meth is quickly replacing cocaine as the nation's drug of choice, and it is growing its deepest roots in the Midwest. Almost half of all meth labs seized last year were in the Midwest, and seizures in Missouri have increased by 535 percent in the past two years alone.

Relatively easy and inexpensive to make, meth has grown from an obscure drug used mainly by motorcycle gangs to perhaps the most serious drug threat in the US today. But it is here in America's heartland, where neighborliness is as much a part of the social fabric as Fourth of July parades, that the problem is most acute, as Midwestern values clash with the rise of a destructive drug.

"Methamphetamine is the real threat of the future," says Mr. Hargreaves in his Washington office. "It could ... be worse than the crack-cocaine epidemic."

For frustrated DEA agents, there are no easy answers. Theories about why Independence has become such a hotbed for meth production are plentiful. Some experts say that because meth can be concocted virtually anywhere, producers have gravitated to suburbs like Independence to escape sophisticated big-city antidrug programs. In addition, meth users tend to be white, blue-collar males - fitting the demographics of the Midwest.

Independence is indeed an ideal location, says Bill Pross, an Independence police officer. It is only a day's drive from most major Midwest cities. Plus, "cookers" and dealers can do business at low cost, and rental units are cheaper than in other areas.

That's what attracted Lawrence McCollum, who is now serving life without parole for killing a woman to obtain cash for methamphetamine. Rent was cheap, he says, and neighbors kept to themselves so long as no trouble was visible.

Meth's history

The drug is hardly new - Nazi troops used meth to stay awake during World War II battles and the Hell Angels motorcycle gang controlled US distribution for more than a quarter-century.

But meth abuse exploded in recent years when a far more potent formula was developed using common chemicals, such as pseudoephedrine, found in cold medicine. Known as "crystal," "crank," or "speed," the new version of meth is as addictive as crack cocaine and can be smoked, snorted, or injected.

For heavy users, a meth binge can last up to a week and unlike the one-hour high from crack, a meth high lasts as long as eight hours.