Appalachia's new cottage industry: meth
Locals are becoming addicted to both the drug and the production in an area known for illicit stills.
BENSON, N.C. — Known as a hard-working, Bible-thumping corner of North Carolina, Johnston County is also a patch of Appalachia: full of tool shops, tobacco plots, sawmills - and clandestine spirits.
Still one of the biggest bottlers of illicit "moonshine" whiskey in America, Johnston County now faces another sobering distinction: Over $300,000 worth of a methamphetamine known as "crystal meth" was seized here last year - the second-largest find in North Carolina.
But the stuff didn't come from big labs in California and Mexico. Using readily available ingredients like Red Devil lye, ephedrine, and phosphorous from match strikers, locals are now running thousands of so-called "Beavis and Butthead" operations - small labs set up in trailers, abandoned houses, even cars.
The thriving Appalachian trade feeds on a blustery independence that harks back to the days when Scotsmen first refused to pay the taxes on their stills. As it's raced from Ft. Payne, Ala., to Benson, N.C., locals are getting addicted not only to the all-five-senses rush of the drug, but also to the process of making it - or, as they call it, "hooked on the cook."
"[Meth is] the moonshine of the 21st century, but 50 times worse," says US Rep. Zach Wamp (R), who represents eastern Tennessee.
Meth itself is hardly new. Known as "crank" and "tweak," it became popular more than 30 years ago among California biker gangs, and has spread steadily east. There's more of it in Oklahoma City than New York. In Fort Payne, Ala., where the jail population has tripled in the past two years and 60 percent of children in custody come from homes that made meth, the drug's grip has only tightened.
When a couple of West Coast chemists began a clandestine "how to" tour in the mountains six years ago, few realized how quickly it would find a home here along America's rough edge - a largely poor, white area, where illicit manufacturing has been part of life for hundreds of years.
As methmaking methods have simplified, the process today resembles a high school chemistry lab: a bunsen burner, some beakers, a Mason jar, and a handful of household chemicals. In short, a 21st century still.
"There's definitely a correlation [to moonshining]," says Van Shaw, a special agent with the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) in Charlotte, N.C. "It's primarily being manufactured by folks from lower income brackets, who are using it as a means to make some money and provide for their habit."
Instead of finding a few people with a lot of meth, police are finding a lot with a little. To many, "tweaking" on meth is a balm for boredom. The main consumers, police say, are third-shift factory workers looking for a pick-me-up. And as with moonshine, the potential for making money in one of the nation's poorest regions has also fueled the drug's spread.
"They enjoy making it and producing it as much as they do taking the drug," says Chuck Phillips, a drug agent with the Jackson County Sheriff's Department in Scottsboro, Ala.
The sparsely settled landscape has also fueled the meth explosion. "[Meth] is so volatile, and so smelly, that it works best in places that are isolated," says Pat Beaver, an anthropologist at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. But the acrid smell lingers, and police simply stumble on most of their arrests.
In North Carolina, police have made 30 busts already this year, up from a total of four in 1997. And in the past three years, police and social-worker caseload has increased 400 percent on Alabama's Cumberland Plateau. The homemade drug is so pure and addictive that only about a quarter of users are able to quit.
Up on the side of Sand Mountain in northeastern Alabama, Brad Bewley knows what it's like to be "hooked on the cook": He admits he was once "the man" among meth producers.
A refrigerator repairman, Mr. Bewley enjoyed his hobby so much that he traveled across Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee to watch others do it. The process could take from 20 minutes to two days, and he once watched a couple of "old-timers" in Georgia cook the raw product by leaving it foil-wrapped in a hot peanut field for a week.
"It just boosts all your senses at one time," Bewley recalls. "After that, then you're just trying to get that feeling back."
But as he followed the trade, he gave up fishing, hunting, and, finally, his family. Since being released from jail and preaching about the dangers of meth, Bewley has reunited with his wife and is winning local bass fishing tournaments.
In the end, the DEA broke down Bewley's door. But many meth producers are found when fire departments go out to extinguish a blaze.
In Tennessee, the picturesque Sequatchie Valley was, just a few years ago, littered with clandestine "tweaker labs" on hillsides, in trailers, and in motel rooms. Adherents, officials say, were turning $2,000 in raw materials into $20,000 in street profit.
But after several years of aggressive enforcement, helped by a grant from Washington, the East Tennessee Meth Taskforce has largely cleaned up the valley. The process has been difficult, though, and much of the action may have simply moved east to the mountains outside Knoxville, where officials have even found labs stuffed neatly into school book bags.
For now, government officials are training fire fighters and police in how to handle clandestine meth labs safely - and trying find a way to keep meth-makers from returning to their trade.
"Most of the guys who get out of jail for this get caught again," says Mr. Shaw of the SBI.