America's Heartland Grapples With Rise of Dangerous Drug

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.

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.

"We see well more methamphetamine use than we see crack cocaine, or any other [drug]," says Norman Heisler, medical director of Two Rivers Psychiatric Hospital in nearby Raytown, Mo., adding that 1 of 4 patients at Two Rivers is treated for methamphetamine abuse.

And, as in many other cities, meth abuse here has been linked to an increase in domestic violence. Hope House Clinic, a battered women's shelter in Independence, has seen a rise in the number of women fleeing spouses who use meth.

"They claim there was no violence before [their spouses] started using methamphetamine," says Terri Rathburn, a former substance-abuse counselor at the Hope clinic. "About 40 to 50 percent of the women here [who report drug abuse] report use of methamphetamine."

One middle-aged woman says she took refuge at the Hope House from an abusive partner hooked on methamphetamine. "It seemed like every time he used this drug, he'd lose his mind," says the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.

Independence's experience reflects a growing trend nationwide. A recent survey shows that use among 18- to 35-year-olds increased 36 percent in 1996.

Faced with such statistics, Hargreaves is forging ahead with Operation Velocity - a heavily funded federal strategy that targets community education, police training, and interdiction to fight meth. He plans to:

* Set up a massive methamphetamine database in El Paso, Texas, to track meth chemists.

* Double the number of training programs nationwide, to give DEA agents and local police a better chance of emerging from busts unscathed. The explosive chemicals and lethal gases involved in "cooking" meth make raids dangerous.

* Go ahead with community education initiatives, teaching local store owners how to spot meth chemists - people who buy massive quantities of cold medicine or other "precursor" chemicals.

Current spending bills being debated in Congress would earmark an additional $20 million and create 114 new DEA positions targeting meth. Lawmakers are also planning to allocate $5.2 million for new US attorneys, who would help prosecute the growing number of meth offenders.

Making a dent

But DEA agents and local law-enforcement officials say making a dent in meth use will be difficult.

Making meth in any kitchen is relatively easy: The chemicals are available in any drug store, and the formula is on the Internet. The economics of the drug have also made meth one of the fastest growing cottage industries in the Midwest.

"Meth is cheap, that's the bottom line," Hargreaves says. "Why send millions of dollars to hire boat handlers to pay pilots to pay thousands of peasants to pick [coca] leaves in Bolivia or cut opium poppies in Thailand? All you need is, say, $500 worth of chemicals and you can make $10,000 worth of meth in a trailer house outside of Kansas City."

Officials in Independence, however, feel they are making some progress. Dennie Jensen, who heads the Independence meth squad, says the police department's combination of interdiction and community education has yielded results. Police speak at schools about the dangers of meth, and a meth hot line has already led to a number of arrests.

"We're becoming experts at this," says Lieutenant Jensen. "Granted, we have a big problem with meth here, but with our system, I bet we could bust the same number of labs right now almost anywhere in the country."

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