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Community effort needed to overcome drug use

| June 4, 2004 12:00 AM

EDITOR¹S NOTE: The following is the second article in a three-part series discussing drug and alcohol abuse in Lincoln County and the ongoing effort to combat the crisis.

By Paul Boring, Western News Reporter

Until methamphetamine users and distributors are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, the drug will continue to circulate, leaving behind a trail of broken and highly erratic addicts, said a local drug detective.

Detective Duane Rhodes of the Lincoln County Sheriff¹s Office has watched local meth use increase as the drug has become more readily available and has gained popularity on the drug scene.

³The problem with meth is that the ingredients are everyday household products,² Rhodes said. ³Anybody can make this stuff. Recipes are on the Internet. The ingredients are out there and most people have all of them. It¹s just a matter of making it.²

Twenty drug arrests involving meth were recorded in Lincoln County last year. Many users quickly become addicts, less than 6-percent ever successfully completing rehabilitation. Educating youth on the harmful effects of the drug may not be enough, said Rhodes, a parent himself. Punitive measures must also be in place to dissuade potential users, he said.

³We can¹t do it all,² he said. ³We need parents being more responsible and we need tough prosecutions. If you¹re not going to get society and parents involved in this, you can only do so much.²

First time offenders often receive a deferred sentence, the laxity of the punishment clearly sending the wrong message, Rhodes said. Given the addictive component of meth, tougher stands are imperative.

³If you¹re going to fight this and really do it, let¹s get everyone involved and have a consequence for your actions,² Rhodes said.

Although meth has been in existence for years, as methods for ³cooking² have been disseminated, a greater number of cookers of the drug have sprouted up. Cooking meth involves extracting ephedrine from cold tablets using a heat source, and adding a slew of toxic chemicals to the mix.

³You can snort it, you can inject it, you can smoke it,² Rhodes said. ³Most people, usually the hardcore users, start out smoking it.²

Around the country, reports of meth labs exploding have been widely publicized by the media. Due to the combustibility of the cooking process and the ineptitude of many of the ³cooks,

² making the drug can be even more dangerous than ingestion.

³People that are normally cooking it are all twizzed out anyway,² Rhodes said. ³This isn¹t a laboratory, they¹re cooking it on a kitchen stove. ³

Meth produces in its users greater energy and a drastically altered self-perception. The latter effect makes the drug especially appealing to females.

³This definitely appeals to women because they lose weight and they feel good about themselves,² Rhodes said. ³But if you¹ve watched the aging process, it¹s frightening. They go from good looking to old. It ages them so fast that looking good and being thin is very short-lived.²

Meth is extremely dangerous because of how good it makes users feel. Rhodes and fellow drug detective Darren Short were given a firsthand account of the drug¹s potency while attending a weeklong program in Denver held to familiarize law enforcement officials with the drug and the manufacturing process.

³A chemist giving a presentation said that while she was working with a rookie deputy on a case, they had all of these vacuum-packed bundles of meth in the room,² Rhodes said. ³For whatever reason, the deputy sliced a bundle open and it put up a meth cloud in the room. She said she went home and cleaned her house. When she was done, she cleaned the walls. She said it was good stuff. And that¹s what makes it scary.²

Users of meth are incapable of objectively examining the harmful effects of the drug. Rhodes has watched the narcotic ruin the lives of residents in Lincoln County.

³We¹ve watched certain people in this community go from a fairly normal, prosperous life to nothing,² he said. ³They¹ve sold their soul, their possessions, everything they¹ve owned, just to chase this drug. So, the effect that it has on the people who are really getting into this is that it has ruined their lives. It¹s sad to see. They¹ve turned into walking zombies.²

In Lincoln County, most of the ³mom and pop² labs are used to cook meth for personal use, not for wide distribution.

³We¹ve got plenty to do,² Rhodes said. ³We¹re not lacking for work. Many of the users and cookers buy it and trade it back and forth.²

Meth labs in Lincoln County are markedly different from those in urban areas, where the focus is on production and distribution. Consequently, cooking takes place in enclosed areas, often with children in the vicinity.

³It trickles down,² Rhodes said. ³The labs that we¹re seeing often involve children. When you get into the meth superlabs that are being run down in California and Mexico, it¹s not a family run business. They¹re making pounds of it. But the mom and pop stuff here, they¹ve got kids running around the same room they¹re cooking in.²

Businesses in the county have been diligent and proactive in reporting people who are repeatedly buying meth ingredients.

³We¹re a small town and business owners pick up on when people are buying the same products over and over,² Rhodes said. ³We get a lot of tips from the businesses. Stores have taken it to the step of putting a limit on the boxes of Sudafed you can buy. A lot of it is behind the counter, so you have to ask for it.²

Private citizens may also discern meth red flags in the form of odd, chemical smells being produced in residences or even in the forest, where cooking also occurs. Tips from community members have been effective in helping detectives locate meth labs.

³There are different variations of the smell depending on the cooks,² Rhodes said. ³To us, it¹s more of a solvent, chemical smell. Everybody relates that a little different. Once you smell it, you always know it.²

Physical signs of meth use include dilated pupils, nervous and twitchy behavior, dramatic weight loss, and lack of hygiene.

³They¹re up for days and then they¹re going to crash for days sleeping,² the detective said. ³That whole sleeping cycle is off. Meth at that point is their big focus. It¹s all they care about. They¹re going from one fix to the next.²

Meth producers are a drain on the economy. Cleanup of a meth lab can cost up to $6,000. Historically, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has picked up the tab for cleanup, but the entire community still pays for the busts.

³Everybody, the taxpayers, all pay for this, it¹s just a smaller portion because the DEA is picking it up,² Rhodes said.

A more dire economic consequence of meth is the adverse effect it has on the workforce. As Libby struggles to bolster its economy, meth addicts act as a collective deterrent for prospective businesses looking to relocate.

³Economic-wise, I see it hurting the community at this stage of the game just by the effect that it has on the citizens,² Rhodes said. ³When people are looking to move businesses into the area, they look at the local workforce. If you don¹t have a viable work source, they¹ll go somewhere they can find it.²

Rhodes applauded the community for its efforts in helping law enforcement with the uphill battle against drugs.

³We really appreciate the community¹s effort,² he said. ³All of the businesses have been great to us. And the tips that we receive really do help us. It¹s going to take us all working together.²