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Houses of Meth: Is There One Coming to Your Neighborhood?

How public attitudes, Big Pharma and medical insurers all contribute to the continuing rise of meth-labs

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By A.J. Dugger III

07/15/14

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Nearly every day in America, a meth lab is raided. Lonnie Dawson of Louisville, Kentucky will never forget the images of his neighbors being dragged out of their house screaming as they were arrested for cooking meth. Dawson referred to his former neighbors' house as a “shake and bake” lab, noting that they would sometimes create small batches of meth by mixing over-the-counter decongestant pseudoephedrine found in many cold remedies with some other substances, and with the aid of plastic two-liter soft drink bottles. “I figured something like that was going on over there. The windows were almost always open, even in January when it snowed. Something was really off with those damn people,” said Dawson.

“This is scary to me,” said Dawson. “Just imagine if folks who do coke (cocaine) or heroin knew how to cook up the recipe themselves? That's what so damn scary about this meth situation. The addicts know how to set up shop and create it on their own. The stuff they need is sold right over the counter.”

Police officers nationwide have ranked methamphetamine as the number one drug they confront on a regular basis, even more so than heroin, marijuana and cocaine. The addictive and destructive to mind and body dangers of methamphetamine have given rise to numerous solution attempts around the country.

Methamphetamine (or meth) is known for being highly addictive and longer-lasting than most other drugs. It's cheap and easy to create by using household chemicals and pseudoephedrine from cold medicine. In fact, there are many secret meth labs in homes all across America.

Meth, as it happens, is dangerous to make. It puts its makers in peril along with their home residents and neighbors because of potential explosions, fires, toxic waste and hazardous fumes. “I'm really pissed off about this,” said Dawson. “They had a senior citizen and kids living in there. It's bad enough to endanger yourself, but old people and little kids? Come on, man.”

According to www.meth.us.com, the percentage of meth users nationwide cannot be calculated as of yet. However, according to federal estimates, 12 million Americans have given the drug a try and 1.5 million use meth regularly. Some surveys suggest it is the leading drug of choice in the eastern half of the U.S.

Authorities have identified over-the-counter pseudoephedrine as a key ingredient in the meth-manufacturing recipe. It can be found in the following drugstore cold remedies: Chlor Trimeton Nasal Decongestant, Contac Cold, Drixoral Decongestant Non-Drowsy, Elixsure Decongestant, Entex, Genaphed, Kid Kare Drops, Nasofed, Seudotabs, Silfedrine, Sudafed, Sudafed 12-Hour, Sudafed 24-Hour, Sudafed Children's Nasal Decongestant, Sudodrin, SudoGest, SudoGest 12 Hour, Suphedrin, Triaminic Softchews Allergy Congestion, and Unifed.

The reality that this drugstore product can be so easily obtained by meth labs has touched off a national contest of will and political power between important elements of society.

As one example, in 2012 The Consumer Healthcare Products Association in Oklahoma, a trade group for makers of over-the-counter medicine, succeeded in lobbying and PR efforts against reformer and police attempts to require prescriptions for any product containing pseudoephedrine. They had little opposition from consumer advocates. "We believe that requiring a prescription for these medicines containing pseudoephedrine will not solve this problem, but will only place new costs and access restrictions on law abiding Oklahomans who rely on these medicines for relief," said association spokeswoman Elizabeth Funderburk. "We have a shared goal in making sure these medicines do not end up in the hands of criminals, but we believe law abiding citizens should not be forced to bear the burden of a prescription mandate."

In Kentucky, since 2007 the number of meth labs have more than tripled. Kentucky's neighboring states, Missouri, Tennessee, and Indiana, have also become notorious for meth lab discoveries in recent years. Reformers in Kentucky have been fighting hard to control over-the-counter sales. In response, Big Pharma's trade group broke lobbying spending records in 2010 and 2012, beating back an alliance of cops, doctors, teachers, drug experts, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. In this Pharma had some not-surprising help from insurance companies who hardly want to pay for more doctor visits.

"It frustrates me to see how an industry and corporate dollars affect commonsense legislation," says Jackie Steele, a reform-minded commonwealth attorney (called a district attorney in most other states) whose southeastern Kentucky district has been overwhelmed by meth labs.

25 states have fought to make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug. However, the process has only worked in Oregon and Mississippi. According to one study, the reason why most efforts failed is because the industry sells an estimated $605 million worth of pseudoephedrine-based drugs a year. Lobbying teams, advertising blitzes and robocalls only strengthen the sales of the drugs and consumer resistance to reform.

In fact, the public relations efforts and ads find a willing audience in consumers. Here is a typical response: “People are always complaining and saying, 'Why is this stuff sold without prescriptions?'” said Dianne Terrell, a medical student living in Memphis, TN. “It's not necessary to write a prescription for every single medicine you might need. If you get a small sinus cold, would you want to go to the doctor and get a prescription just for that?

"I say people should be responsible. If you want to buy medicine over the counter and use it to cook meth, that's on you. Don't punish the people who really are sick and can't afford a doctor or prescriptions. Imagine how stressful it would be on everybody if we had to make everything a prescription. I would also hate to see that happen just because some people have a drug problem.”

There is one man who lives three hours away from Terrell who disagrees. “I'm waiting on something to be done about this,” said George Palmer, a retired boxing trainer in Nashville, TN. Ten years ago, Palmer was training a young prospect who showed potential in the ring. Unfortunately, his 21 year-old protege was arrested for allegedly cooking meth with some friends in a meth lab in the woods. “It's been a while since I've seen a kid who could hit like that,” said Palmer, explaining that the young pugilist had a crushing left hook like former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. “He had a great future in front of him. He had other priors and is still in jail for the meth situation. Drugs ruin lives, but for me the kicker is that the stuff used to create meth is sold everywhere and easy to get. If you know something is harming people, why sell it?”

There are others who ferverently want to put a stop to meth labs. An Oklahoma man named David Sharkey created a website called stopmethlabs.com. “I have been asked several times why I became involved in shutting down meth labs in Oklahoma," he says. "It seemed that every other night there was a new meth fire or explosion from people mixing pseudoephedrine to make their dope.”

On his website, Sharkey notes that a video about a little baby getting severely burned from their parents' meth lab explosion is what triggered him to do something. “When I saw the play pen had melted on top of this baby, that did it for me. I could no longer stand by while innocent children continued to die from these meth fires when it is 100% preventable. You see, pseudoephedrine in gel cap or liquid form is almost impossible to make meth with. I then put up this web site and went in to massive action to stop the meth labs in Oklahoma.”

Despite his good intentions, Sharkey is incorrect about banning tablets in favor of gels and liquids. Both can be used to make meth, though the process takes an hour or two more. In Minnesota, after carefully researching the matter, the legislature voted unanimously to put pseudophedrine products behind the pharmacy counter and to require buyers to show ID and sign their names and addresses rather than go either the gel/liquid or the prescription route. Very quickly the number of meth labs in the state plummeted by 75%, according to the legislative staff.

Even with Pharma companies fighting every step of the way, the Minnesota reform likely has the best potential to stem the tide given the resistance to prescription mandates.

Meanwhile a company called Westport Pharmaceuticals in St. Louis has been claiming it can make a dent in the meth lab epidemic. Paul Hemings, vice-president and general manager, says "We have a solution and technology that can help make domestic meth labs obsolete, a [pseudophedrine-based] product called Zephrex-D. This advanced technology prevents making meth in the most common illicit lab process, one pot (shake and bake), and is 99% effective in stopping all other known clandestine meth making methods today."

Unfortunately, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration disagrees, and strongly. The DEA reported late last year that it was able to produce meth from Zephrex-D in its own lab. 

A side issue about meth labs gaining increased attention is what might happen when meth homes are sold without the buyer knowing the history. One Tennessee man who purchased a home not realizing that the previous homeowners were arrested for manufacturing meth noted. “When we purchased our home in 2004 as a foreclosure, we were required to sign a notice stating that the seller (the foreclosing bank) was exempt from providing a property disclosure because they hadn’t lived in the home. This is standard procedure, so we signed it." When he later learned the home was a health threat because of toxic residues, the title insurance company refused to pay for the cleanup because of the document he signed. 

A. J. Dugger lll is a journalist based in Clarksville, Tennessee. He recently published his first book, The Dealers: Then and Now. His last piece was on the prescription drug epidemic in his home state.

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