Hed: Meth crystallizes in Northeast Mississippi
By Michaela Gibson Morris
It’s called crank, crystal meth, ice and speed.
By any name, methamphetamines toasts the central nervous system by overloading it, and many narcotics enforcement agencies are reporting more of them in North Mississippi.
The recipes can be found on the Internet, and the ingredients, many of them toxic or hazardous, are available over the counter.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents based in Oxford and North Mississippi Narcotics agents, who cover 12 cities and eight counties, said they are seeing an dramatic increases in crystal meth activity.
“We’re seizing a tremendous amount in North Mississippi,” said Stephen Cassada, DEA resident agent-in-charge for North Mississippi.
Already this year, North Mississippi Narcotics agents have seized more than double the amount of crystal meth they seized in 1997.
“We’re hitting a big increase,” said Lt. Ronnie Thomas, North Mississippi Narcotics commander.
Earlier this month Itawamba County narcotics agents, who belong to the North Mississippi Narcotics Unit, found a lab producing crystal meth in the Kirkville community, a first for the county. Agents estimate they found about eight ounces of meth in various stages of production.
Lee County Vice-Narcotics also uncovered a small meth lab this year, but they have not seen an overall increase in meth cases, which account for about 12 percent of its caseload, said Unit Commander Maury Schuh.
“Meth is back, but crack is still king,” Schuh said.
Although only a few labs have been uncovered so far in North Mississippi, local and federal agents believe more will be popping up quickly.
“We anticipate that we’re going to be inundated,” Cassada said.
So far this year, narcotics agents in the Little Rock area have uncovered more than 300 meth labs in that area, Cassada said.
Major federal meth investigations are under way in North Mississippi, Cassada said. If they’re successful, Cassada hopes the investigations could eliminate 70 percent of the current problem.
Nature of meth
Crystal meth produces an intense, long-lasting high that is extremely addictive, said Dr. Tony Heines, the new medical director of the North Mississippi Medical Center Behavior Health Center.
“They’re very powerfully addicting,” Heines said.
Users snort, smoke or inject the drug to get high. The synthetic stimulant can be produced in a range of consistencies and colors from fine powder to a gummy solid to a rock-like chunk and from white to beige to dark brown.
Some producers use food coloring to change the appearance, drug agents said.
Meth is often cheaper than cocaine and offers a longer high, Schuh said. About $80 can buy a gram of heavily-diluted but still powerful meth. Cocaine runs about $100 to $120 a gram on local streets.
Unfortunately, the effects of the drug are devastating.
“Meth is the worst of all the drugs,” Cassada said. “It’s so debilitating.”
The drug typically brings on a paranoid psychosis in users.
“They think people are listening in on their thoughts,” Heines said. “That people are tapping their phone.”
The drug will often keep users from sleeping for days on end, agents and counselors said.
Hallucinations, visual and auditory, can occur with meth use, Heines said.
Meth addicts often will scratch holes into their skin, because they feel like bugs are crawling all over them, Cassada said.
Because meth raises the metabolism of users, they are at increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
“They are burning themselves up,” Cassada said.
Meth users often have rotted teeth, said North Mississippi Narcotics investigator Master Sgt. Larry Grissom.
As narcotics agents are seeing more crystal meth on the street, counselors are seeing more addicts come in for help.
About a third of the people in drug rehabilitation have extensively used crystal meth, said Calvin Williams, an outpatient chemical counselor and program coordinator at the Behavior Health Center. About half of the people in rehab have tried it.
“We’re seeing a large amount that tried it,” Williams said.
Most meth users are white, agents agreed. Narcotics agents and counselors said they are seeing younger and younger people hooked on meth.
“It seems to be a drug of choice among young people,” Williams said.
Stimulants like meth tend to attract young people, simply because aging bodies can’t handle the same doses, Heines said.
Not a new drug
Crystal meth is not new to North Mississippi. Narcotics officers first started seeing it in the early 1990s.
Now, the key difference seems to be the changes in the drug’s production.
Before, the drug was produced outside the region and shipped like much of the marijuana, cocaine and other illegal drugs. Now production seems to be shifting closer to home.
In the past producers relied on a hot method, considered dangerous and more volatile, that required specialized glassware and more highly controlled substances.
The cold method, which still includes dangerous chemicals, is highly mobile and requires common household and shot items that are easily accessible.
“You can run a cold lab out of the back seat of a car,” Schuh said.
Small labs that Lee County narcotics agents have busted used borax and lye as part of the process.
The operation uncovered in Itawamba County employed another cold method that used ether, ammonia and drain opener.
However, many of the cold methods are portable and can be set up in the back of a car or a hotel room, agents said.
It can be made from readily available chemicals bought at grocery, hardware and paint stores.
“All the chemical materials are legal,” Thomas said.
The meth recipes, available on the Internet, are relatively simple and don’t require a chemistry background, said Edwina Ard, Tupelo Crime Lab director/analyst. After being shown how to complete the process, the recipes are simple to follow.
“The new methods are simple and there’s not as much special equipment needed,” Ard said.
The labs are often secluded in rural areas to avoid detection from neighbors who might smell the chemicals used in the process, agents said.
Chart: Symptoms of meth abuse
– Snorting meth can cause irritation and bleeding of the nose. Residue may be in nose or dripping out.
– Injecting meth leaves puncture wounds over the vain. Meth often cause a a great deal of trauma to the skin.
– Smoking meth, called “ice,” can leave burn marks on lips, face and hands from handling the hot pipe.
Meth use also can cause:
– hypervigilance, being easily startled
– loss of appetite
– fine tremors
– higher blood pressure
– rapid speech
– rapid breathing
– aggression, violence
The NMMC Behavioral Health Center provides free assessments in 13 Northeast Mississippi cities once a week. For more information, call 1-800-442-2238.