Special report: Covering the meth epidemic in rural America

July 2005

How long will meth stay in my breast milk?” That’s what “Tina,” the main subject of The Deseret News’ six-part series on rural America’s methamphetamine abuse, asked a Utah Poison Control Hotline in a panicked call. “Twenty-four hours,” she was told. Her infant son subsisted on baby formula the next day.

The series in the Salt Lake City newspaper offers another haunting vignette of meth use: “When I was using, the kids knew what to do if they came across a needle,” said Susan Martin, 32, who was just paroled from Utah State Prison in October and is the mother of three. “They knew what to do when Mommy was dope sick,” Susan continued. “They knew how long I needed to sleep. The kids knew what the paraphernalia was all about; the kids knew how to watch for the cops.”

Such are the particulars of covering methamphetamine – a task that occupies an intriguing niche in contemporary journalism. Meth is a problem with both a genesis and fallout in rural areas. Meth first came into journalistic consciousness when biker gangs on the West coast began selling it in the early 1970’s. Easily made from common ingredients like lantern fuel, match books, and the decongestant Sudafed, meth spread easily across the country. Called names like hillbilly cocaine, crank, and crystal, meth appeals to a rural constituency because it’s cheap, easy to manufacture at home, and requires no special equipment or expertise. Now, according to a major series by The Oregonian, more than 1.3 million people in the United States use meth.

This special edition of The Rural Blog focuses on the meth problem in rural areas, how journalists have covered it and how they might continue to follow it. Covered here will be meth’s effects on rural people and property, guidelines for instructing regular citizens on how to spot meth production, and an analysis of government response to what some consider the rural meth epidemic.

Among the many online resources for covering meth are two reports from the Council of State Governments. To read about meth's role in rural America, click here. To read about how states are adopting a multi-faceted approach to the problem, click here.

The rising cost of fighting meth

"A decade after meth took hold in the heartland, the inexpensive, highly addictive home-brewed stimulant is straining rural law enforcement resources to the breaking point," writes Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times. (Read more)

"It's in the Midwest that the drug has most severely tested the justice system, in part because sheriff's deputies, jail wardens and crime lab technicians in rural counties don't have the resources or the experience to deal with a drug epidemic," reports Simon. "Officers struggle to subdue addicts so high on meth that even a Taser won't stop them. They complain of a justice system clogged with so many meth cases that it can take a year after an arrest for prosecutors to file charges."

Just entering a meth lab is a costly affair for investigators. In the Midwest, where meth is mainly homemade, explosive chemicals are being cooked and stores in makeshift labs, according to this article printed on June 27, 2005. Many law enforcement agencies are spending thousands of dollars for equipment and personnel.

"To enter an active lab, a detective must wear a hazmat suit, a respirator and a $2,500 self-contained breathing apparatus," notes Simon. "Once the investigative work is done, deputies must guard the site until cleanup crews arrive. That can take up to 36 hours."

Meth’s effects on people

“Meth addicts interface with multiple public agencies at enormous public expense: criminal justice, human services, environmental health, child protection and emergency medicine," Carol Falkowski writes in the journal Spectrum. She goes on to detail the effects of methamphetamine use on the human body. After using meth, a person “may be in an altered state for eight to 12 hours. After the initial euphoric 'rush,' the behavioral effects include heightened concentration, increased alertness, high energy, wakefulness and loss of appetite.”

Meth can also work as an aphrodisiac, as described in an Associated Press available here. “Who wouldn't want to use it? You lose weight and you have great sex,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Laymon said at a meeting of Tennessee's meth task force. But meth's aphrodisiac effects are short-lived. While meth may at first “makes you want sex all the time,” as Alabama obstetrician Mary Holley claims, meth users can lose the ability to have sex at all after only six months of use. And national drug czar John Walters notes the physical deterioration meth users often undergo: “Hair falls out, teeth fall out. That's not sexy.”

Meth is a neurotoxin, a chemical that ultimately damages cognition and memory. Consequently, Falkowski cautions that meth use “places an individual at heightened risk of long-term, possibly irreversible behavioral, cognitive, and psychological problems over the course of a lifetime.”

Falkowski paints an even more grotesque picture of the effects of meth addiction and its long-term effects on users. Meth addicts binge on larger and larger quantities of the drug as they become reliant on it. As addicts binge, they typically go extended periods of time -- often days on end -- without eating or sleeping. These binges result in a cycle of physical deterioration that occurs rapidly, much more rapidly than that associated with addiction to other drugs. Prolonged addiction, Falkowski says, usually results in methamphetamine psychosis, where victims “see things that aren't really there, including elusive 'shadow people'”and a psychological state where “meth addicts believe that everyone is 'out to get them,' even innocent strangers or inanimate objects.”

Along with the long-term health effects of meth use, injuries associated with meth use and production add to its danger, the Charleston Daily Mail reports. “Methamphetamine producers risk not only legal troubles, but also the safety of themselves and their families,” George Gannon writes. He reports that meth users face an increased risk injury due to fire as well as exposure to hazardous fumes and chemicals.

Treating meth addiction "may be one of the most difficult challenges in the field of substance abuse recovery," Lee Ann Prescott of the Smyth County (Va.) News and Messenger reported in a lengthy, well-researched package. "The drug’s complex array of severe effects, coupled with a changing health care industry, have left treatment professionals seeking new answers." In one sidebar, Prescottt reported, "Police officers know it, but hesitate to say it publicly: Many people begin using methamphetamine because they like what it does to their sexuality. 'Women follow meth,' a local police officer admitted."

Meth’s effects on rural property

Meth has a disproportionate effect on rural areas because of its effects on rural property. Meth labs, the makeshift facilities where the drug is produced, generate toxic waste products that can foul surrounding land and render property uninhabitable, the Ashtabula Star Beacon reports. “These labs are polluting the communities where they crop up” and damage homes “making them un-sellable,” Shelley Terry writes.

Property owners in many states are trying to tackle the problem by acting proactively and developing ways to repair the effects of meth production in houses. Ellis Eskew of Chattanooga’s WDEF-TV reports Tennessee police are advising landlords in the state to require tenants to sign agreements saying that the tenant will no use or produce meth while staying on the property and be responsible for the damages if they violate the agreement. Police in Chattanooga also hold frequent meth education seminars.

Iowa’s KWQC reports that state has issued state guidelines for the cleanup of meth damaged property that “include airing out the property, replacing carpet, cleaning plumbing and ventilation systems and contacting law enforcement.” The State Journal of West Virginia reports on John Simon, owner of Astech Corp., a Charleston-based indoor environmental remediation company. He claims to be one of the few West Virginians certified to remediate meth damage in homes. Remediation, the article claims, “can be as simple as ripping up carpet and removing old drapes, or as elaborate as replacing drywall and flooring.”

Guidelines for spotting meth production

The Record of Leitchfield, Ky., published a meth series that included advice on how to both spot meth users and meth labs. Users, Stephanie Hornback writes, are characterized by paranoia, extreme weight loss, teeth grinding or loss, open sores on their faces and arms, incessant talking, irritability or violent behavior, repetitious behaviors such as picking at skin, false sense of confidence, and severe depression. Her list of signs of meth labs is much longer.

Laura Skillman of the University of Kentucky reports a similar list in an article for local newspapers, detailing Kentucky’s “Walk Your Land” program. The program encourages rural landowners to regularly check their land for meth production they may not be aware of. “The components are things that we use in everyday life — gallon fruit jars, aquarium tubing, plastic spoons, plastic bowls, glassware,” Skillman quotes Cheyenne Albro, director of the Pennyrile Narcotics Task Force. “Because they often overlooked as being a lab when someone sees them in the woods or locates them, they don’t realize the dangers associated with them. They think it’s just a bag of trash.” Albro also cautioned people to not handle suspected materials from suspected meth labs, but rather contact the proper authorities.

Government response to meth

Official response to the meth epidemic has taken many forms. In some states, as reported by Oregon’s Springfield News, a new law requires pharmacies to place pseudoephedrine-based cold tablets behind the counter and to require photo identification to buy them. Pseudoephedrine is a necessary ingredient in meth production. This new law was patterned after a similar initiative from Oklahoma. Oklahoma reported a 60 percent drop in meth lab seizures in the first three months after the law was enacted.

The Deseret News poses the question “Does Utah need a meth czar?” in an editorial by Dennis Romboy and Lucinda Dillon Kinkead. Here the authors make the case that meth use is so pervasive in Utah and has so many social and policy ramifications that a state figurehead may be necessary. But elsewhere, some officials believe that combating meth is more dependent on local action than state action – an important point for rural journalists to ponder.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration claims that approximately 80 percent of meth in America is produced outside the country. But Cumberland County ( Tenn.) Sheriff Butch Burgess, in an article in the Crossville Chronicle, questioned how relevant the federal government may be to the meth problem. “Meth is so different from everything else, it's hard to bring in the DEA or TBI,” the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Burgess said. “It has to be solved from the community level.” He added, “A lot of this stuff can be done on a community level without having to ask the state for any more dollars."

At least 20 states are considering 2005 legislation that would restrict access to over-the-counter medicines and other goods that can be used to make methamphetamine, The Los Angeles Times reported.

National Public Radio reported on small towns' response to meth and other drug problems.

Stories by and for broadcasters, too

National Public Radio and its rural correspondent, Howard Berkes, have done some of the best broadcast reporting on meth, highlighted by a series of reports in the summer of 2004 but dating back to 2000. This year's reports have included "Crackdown on Cold Medicine Helps Curb Meth Labs," aired on Nov. 20; "Meth A Growing Menace in Rural America," Aug. 12; "Drug Plague in Rural U.S. Creating 'Meth Orphans'," July 8; and "Meth Abuse Part of the Beat for Rural Sheriff," July 7. The network's "Talk of the Nation" examined the meth epidemic on March 3. The coverage also included a 2001 report on meth labs in national forests and a 2002 story on a meth-related crime wave hitting farms on New York.

Links to other coverage

Here are some examples to consider when covering meth:

The (Louisville) Courier-Journal series on meth in Kentucky and Indiana: For day one, click here. For day two, click here. For day three, click here. For an interactive display of the drug's eastward march through the state, click here.

The Cherokee County ( Ala.) Herald reported on the dangers of meth.

Louisville’s WLKY reported that an eighty-eight year old woman fought off two would-be robbers on the run from meth charges by brandishing her cane.

The Albert Lea Tribune featured a series on meth’s effects on Minnesota, ending in this editorial.

The Navajo Hopi Observer reported in the documentary ‘G’ detailing meth abuse in Native American communities.

The East Texas Review reported that Texas Gov. Rick Perry is sending a message to meth producers.

Savannah’s WSAV reported that Savannah SWAT team members have begun using special chemical suits complete with air packs and gas masks to raid suspected meth labs.

WTWO reported that a Terre Haute, Ind., day care operator and an alleged accomplice were arrested for dealing meth.

And Samantha Reynolds of Eastern Kentucky’s Paintsville Herald added to her coverage with a poem, titled “Ms. Crystal Meth.” It concluded:

Now that you’ve met me

What will you do?

Will you try me or not?

It’s all up to you.

I can show you more misery

Than words can tell.

Come, take my hand.

Let me lead you to Hell.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

School of Journalism & Telecommunications, College of Communications & Info. Studies

122 Grehan Building,
University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-3168

Al Cross, director , al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: July 5, 2005