The first time she saw her mother passed out on the living room floor, Amanda thought she was dead. There were muddy tracks on the carpet and the room looked like it had been ransacked. Mary wouldn’t wake up. When she finally came to, she insisted nothing was wrong. But as the weeks passed, her 15-year-old daughter’s sense of foreboding grew. Amanda’s parents stopped sleeping and eating. Her once heavy mother turned gaunt and her father, Barry, stopped going to work. She was embarrassed to go into town with him; he was covered in open sores. A musty stink gripped their increasingly chaotic trailer. The driveway filled up with cars as strangers came to the house and partied all night.
Within minutes, agents burst into the trailer. They slammed Barry up against the wall, put a gun to his head, and hauled him and Mary off in handcuffs. It would be two and a half years before Amanda and her 10-year-old sister, Chrissie, would see their father again.
The year was 2005, and what happened to Amanda’s family was the result of a revolution in methamphetamine production that was just beginning to make its way into Kentucky. Meth users called it the “shake- and-bake” or “one-pot” method, and its key feature was to greatly simplify the way meth is synthesized from pseudoephedrine, a decongestant found in cold and allergy medicines like Claritin D and Sudafed.
Cops are waging two battles: one against meth cooks, the other against wealthy, politically connected drug manufacturers.
Shake and bake did two things. It took a toxic and volatile process that had once been the province of people with Breaking Bad-style knowledge of chemistry and put it in the bedrooms and kitchens of meth users in rural America. It also produced the most potent methamphetamine anywhere.
If anyone wondered what would happen if heroin or cocaine addicts suddenly discovered how to make their own supply with a handful of cheap ingredients readily available over the counter, methamphetamine’s recent history provides an answer. Since 2007, the number of clandestine meth sites discovered by police has increased 63 percent nationwide. In Kentucky, the number of labs has more than tripled. The Bluegrass State regularly joins its neighbors Missouri, Tennessee, and Indiana as the top four states for annual meth lab discoveries.
As law enforcement agencies scramble to clean up and dispose of toxic labs, prosecute cooks, and find foster homes for their children, they are waging two battles: one against destitute, strung-out addicts, the other against some of the world’s wealthiest and most politically connected drug manufacturers. In the past several years, lawmakers in 25 states have sought to make pseudoephedrine—the one irreplaceable ingredient in a shake-and-bake lab—a prescription drug. In all but two—Oregon and Mississippi—they have failed as the industry, which sells an estimated $605 million worth of pseudoephedrine-based drugs a year, has deployed all-star lobbying teams and campaign-trail tactics such as robocalls and advertising blitzes.
Perhaps nowhere has the battle been harder fought than in Kentucky, where Big Pharma’s trade group has broken lobbying spending records in 2010 and 2012, beating back cops, doctors, teachers, drug experts, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. “It frustrates me to see how an industry and corporate dollars affect commonsense legislation,” says Jackie Steele, a commonwealth’s attorney whose district in southeastern Kentucky has been overwhelmed by meth labs in recent years.
Before it migrated east to struggling Midwestern farm towns and the hollers of Appalachia, methamphetamine was a West Coast drug, produced by cooks working for Mexican drug-trafficking organizations and distributed by biker gangs. Oregon was particularly hard hit, with meth labs growing ninefold from 1995 to 2001. Even then, before shake and bake, police had their hands full decontaminating toxic labs that were often set up in private homes. Social workers warned of an epidemic of child abuse and neglect as hundreds of kids were being removed from meth houses.
Bovett knew that law enforcement couldn’t arrest its way out of the meth lab problem. They needed to choke off the cooks’ supply lines.
Bovett first approached the Legislature about regulating pseudoephedrine in 2000. “The legislative response was to stick me in a room with a dozen pharmaceutical lobbyists to work it out,” he recalls. He suggested putting the drugs behind the counter (without requiring a prescription) to discourage mass buying, but the lobbyists refused. They did eventually agree to a limit on the amount of pseudoephedrine any one person could buy, but the number of meth labs remained high, so in 2003 Bovett tried once again to get pseudoephedrine moved behind the counter. “We got our asses kicked,” he admits.
But the meth cooks soon came up with a work-around: They organized groups of people to make the rounds of pharmacies, each buying the maximum amount allowed—a practice known as smurfing. How to stop these sales? Bovett remembered that until 1976, pseudoephedrine had been a prescription drug. He asked lawmakers to return it to that status.
Pharma companies and big retailers “flooded our Capitol building with lobbyists from out of state,” he says. On the eve of the House vote, with the count too close to call, four legislators went out and bought 22 boxes of Sudafed and Tylenol Cold. They brought their loot back to the Legislature, where Bovett walked lawmakers through the process of turning the medicine into meth with a handful of household products. Without exceeding the legal sales limit, they had all the ingredients needed to make about 180 hits. The bill passed overwhelmingly.
Industry’s motto has been “stop meth, not meds.” One lawmaker likens it to the NRA’s “plea to people who own weapons that they are coming for your guns.”
Since the bill became law in 2006, the number of meth labs found in Oregon has fallen 96 percent. Children are no longer being pulled from homes with meth labs, and police officers have been freed up to pursue leads instead of cleaning up labs and chasing smurfers. In 2008, Oregon experienced the largest drop in violent-crime rates in the country. By 2009, property crime rates fell to their lowest in 43 years. That year, overall crime in Oregon reached a 40-year low. The state’s Criminal Justice Commission credited the pseudoephedrine prescription bill, along with declining meth use, as key factors.
For Big Pharma, however, Oregon’s measure was a major defeat—and the industry was not about to let it happen again. “They’ve learned from their mistakes in Oregon, they’ve learned from their mistakes in Mississippi,” says Marshall Fisher, who runs the Bureau of Narcotics in Mississippi. “They know if another state falls, and has the results that we’ve had, the chances of national legislation are that much closer. Every year they can fight this off is another year of those profits.”
On a sunny winter afternoon, narcotics detective Chris Lyon turns off a country lane outside the town of Monticello in southeastern Kentucky, the part of the state hardest hit by the meth lab boom. In a case that shocked the state in 2009, a 20-month-old boy in a dilapidated trailer nearby drank a cup of Liquid Fire drain cleaner that was being used to make meth. The solution burned Kayden Branham from inside for 54 minutes until he died.
This afternoon, Lyon is following up on a call from a sheriff’s deputy about several meth labs in the woods. His Ford F-150 clambers up a steep muddy slope turned vivid ochre by the night’s rain. In the back are a gas mask, oxygen tanks, safety gloves, and hazmat suits, plus a bucket of white powder called Ampho-Mag that’s used to neutralize toxic meth waste. Cleaning up labs is hazardous work: In the last two years, more than 180 officers have been injured in the process. The witches’ brew that turns pseudoephedrine into meth includes ammonium nitrate (from fertilizer or heat packs), starter fluid, lithium (from batteries), drain cleaner, and camping fuel. It can explode or catch fire, and it produces copious amounts of toxic gases and hazardous waste even when all goes well.
Halfway up Edwards Mountain, Lyon pulls over in a clearing along the forested trail. Scattered over 50 yards are a half-dozen soda bottles, some containing a grayish, granular residue, others sprouting the plastic tubes cooks use to vent gas. Lyon snaps on black safety gloves, pulls a gas mask over his face, and carefully places each bottle in its own plastic bucket. Further up the mountain he finds more outdoor labs and repeats the procedure.
Cops in Laurel County, Kentucky, work a meth lab—or, as they put it, a “glorified garbage pickup.”
Lyon will drive his haul back to the Monticello Police Department, where a trailer is jam-packed with buckets he’s filled in the past few days. “No suspects, no way of making an arrest—it’s pretty much a glorified garbage pickup,” he says with an air of dejection. “We have all kinds of information of people selling drugs,” but there’s no time for investigations. “About the time that we get started on something, the phone rings and it’s another meth lab to go clean up.”
It’s a problem Lieutenant Eddie Hawkins, methamphetamine coordinator for the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, was all too familiar with before his state passed its prescription bill in 2010. Since then the number of meth labs found in the state has fallen 74 percent. “We still have a meth problem,” Hawkins says, “but it has given us more time to concentrate on the traffickers that are bringing meth into the state instead of working meth labs every night.” Now, he says, they go after international criminal networks rather than locking up small-time cooks.
The spread of meth labs has tracked the hollowing out of rural economies. Labs are concentrated in struggling towns where people do hard, physical work for low wages, notes Nick Reding, whose book Methland charts the drug’s rise in the Midwest: “Meth makes people feel good. Even as it helps people work hard, whether that means driving a truck or vacuuming the floor, meth contributes to a feeling that all will be okay.” But the highly addictive drug can also wreak havoc on users, ravaging everything from teeth and skin to hearts and lungs. And the mushrooming of shake-and-bake labs has left its own trail of devastation: hospitals swamped with injured meth cooks, wrecked and toxic homes, police departments consumed with cleaning up messes rather than fighting crime.
Meth-related cleanup and law enforcement cost the state of Kentucky about $30 million in 2009, the latest year for which the state police have produced an estimate. That doesn’t include the cost of crimes addicts commit to support their habit, of putting out meth fires, of decontaminating meth homes, of responding to domestic-abuse calls or placing neglected, abused, or injured kids in foster care. Dr. Glen Franklin, who oversees the burn unit at the University of Louisville Hospital, says his unit alone sees 15 to 20 meth lab burn patients each year, up from two or three a decade ago. They are some of his most difficult cases, often involving both thermal and chemical burns to the face and upper body from a bottle that burst into flames. Many, he notes, have also been abusing OxyContin or other prescription opiates, “so it makes their pain control that much more difficult.” According to a study coauthored by Franklin in 2005, it costs an average of nearly $230,000 to treat a meth lab victim—three times more than other burn patients—and that cost is most often borne by taxpayers. Meth use as a whole, according to a 2009 RAND Corporation study, costs the nation anywhere between $16 billion and $48 billion each year.
With silver hair, glasses, and a gentle manner, Linda Belcher looks like the retired grade school teacher she is. Though her district, just south of Louisville, has a meth lab problem, she didn’t know much about the issue until Joe Williams, the head of narcotics enforcement at the Kentucky State Police, invited her and a few other lawmakers to state police headquarters. After a dinner of barbecue, coleslaw, and pork and beans, the guests descended to the basement to be briefed about key public safety issues. One was meth labs, whose effects and increasing numbers were depicted in a series of huge charts. One of Williams’ officers laid out the startling facts. Meth labs were up for the second year in a row in Kentucky, and they were spreading eastward across the state. They were turning up in cars, motel rooms, and apartment buildings, putting unsuspecting neighbors at risk. Police had pulled hundreds of children from meth lab locations. Prisons were filling up with cooks, and officers were being tied up in cleanup operations.
Belcher had been aware of methamphetamine, but she’d had no idea how bad things were getting. She set about learning more. “I went to a meeting and there was a young lady there who had been on meth,” Belcher recalls. “During the time she was on it, she didn’t care about anything—not her daughter, not her parents. All she wanted was to get money and get meth. That convinced me.”
Theresa Hall kisses her boyfriend goodbye. For being caught with meth paraphernalia and violating house arrest, she faces a year in jail.
Belcher asked Williams and other law enforcement officials what they thought should be done. They told her about what had happened in Oregon. It could work in Kentucky, they said. In February 2010, Belcher filed a bill to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine.
Soon her phone started ringing off the hook. The callers were angry. If her bill passed, they said, they would have to go to the doctor each time they were congested. It wasn’t true—more than 100 cold and allergy drugs made without pseudoephedrine, such as Sudafed PE, would have remained over the counter. And for those who didn’t like those alternatives, doctors could renew prescriptions by phone.
Members of the House Health and Welfare Committee, the key panel Belcher’s bill had to clear, were also getting calls. Tom Burch, the committee’s chairman, says the prescription measure garnered more calls and letters than any he’s dealt with in his nearly 40 years at the Capitol, except for abortion bills. “I had enough constituent input on it to know that the bill was not going to go anywhere.”
Yet the legislation had gotten hardly any media coverage. How had Kentuckians become so outraged?
In April of that year, Donnita Crittenden was processing monthly lobbying reports at the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission when a figure stopped her in her tracks. A group called the Consumer Healthcare Products Association reported having spent more than $303,000 in three weeks. No organization had spent nearly that much on lobbying in the entire previous year.
Curious, Crittenden called CHPA. It was, she learned, a Washington-based industry association representing the makers and distributors of over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements—multinational behemoths like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. CHPA had registered to lobby in Kentucky just weeks before, right after Belcher filed her bill. But it had already retained M. Patrick Jennings, a well-connected lobbyist who’d earned his stripes working for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and GOP Rep. Ed Whitfield.
The bulk of CHPA’s record spending, though, was not for lobbyists. It was for a tool more commonly used in hard-fought political campaigns: robocalls, thousands of them, with scripts crafted and delivered by out-of-state PR experts to target legislators on the key committees that would decide the bill’s fate.
CHPA’s Kentucky filings don’t show which firm made the robocalls, but the association’s 2010 and 2011 tax returns show more than $1 million worth of payments to Winning Connections, a robocall company that typically represents Democratic politicians and liberal causes such as the Sierra Club’s campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline. On its website, the company boasts of its role in West Virginia, where it helped defeat a pseudoephedrine bill that had “strong backing among special interests groups and many in the State Capitol” via focused calls in key legislative districts. CHPA’s former VP for legal and government affairs, Andrew C. Fish, is quoted as saying that Winning Connections helped “capture the voice of consumers, which made the critical difference in persuading legislators to change course on an important issue to our member companies.” Nowhere does Winning Connections’ site mention the intent of the bill or the word “methamphetamine.” CHPA spokeswoman Elizabeth Funderburk says the association used the calls, which allowed people to be patched through directly to their legislators, to provide a platform for real consumers to get their voices heard.
Belcher’s bill never came up for a vote. Over the ensuing months, the number of meth labs found in Kentucky would grow by 45 percent, surpassing 1,000.
Belcher had learned a lesson. When she reintroduced the prescription bill in 2011, it had support from a string of groups with serious pull at the Capitol—the teachers’ union, the Kentucky Medical Association, four statewide law enforcement organizations, and Kentucky’s most senior congressman, Hal Rogers. Belcher also had bipartisan leadership support in the Legislature, and the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, Tom Jensen—whose district included the county with the second-highest number of meth labs—introduced a companion bill in the state Senate.
But the pharmaceutical industry came prepared, too. Its team of lobbyists included some of the best-connected political operatives in Kentucky, from former state GOP chairman John T. McCarthy III to Andrew “Skipper” Martin, the chief of staff to former Democratic Gov. Paul Patton. In addition to a new round of robocalls, CHPA now deployed an ad blitz, spending some $93,000 to blanket the state with 60-second radio spots on at least 178 stations. The bill made it out of committee, but with the outcome doubtful, Jensen never brought it up for a vote on the Senate floor.
Meth cooks often set up shop in the woods.
John Schaaf, the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission’s counsel, describes CHPA’s strategy as a game changer. “They have completely turned the traditional approach to lobbying around,” he says. “For the most part, businesses and organizations that lobby, if they have important issues going on, they’ll add lobbyists to their list. They’ll employ more people to go out there and talk to legislators. CHPA employs very few lobbyists and they spend 99 percent of their lobbying expenditures on this sort of grassroots outreach on phone banking and advertising. As far as I know, nothing’s ever produced the number of calls or the visibility of this particular effort.”
In other words: Rather than relying on political professionals to deliver their message, CHPA got voters to do it—and politicians listened, in Kentucky and beyond. There has been no major federal legislation to address meth labs since 2005, when pseudoephedrine was put behind the counter and sales limits were imposed (see “The Need for Speed,” page 37). Lawmakers in 24 states have tried to pass prescription bills since 2009. In 23 of them, they failed.
The single exception was Mississippi, where a prescription measure supported by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour passed in 2010. The head of the state Bureau of Narcotics, Marshall Fisher, says one key to the bill’s passage was making sure it was not referred to the Legislature’s health committee, where members tend to develop close relationships with pharma lobbyists. Fisher has testified about prescription bills before health committees in several other states. “It seems like every time we’ve done that, the deck is stacked against us,” he says. “You can’t fight that.” Following the bill’s passage, the number of meth labs busted in Mississippi fell more than 70 percent. The state narcotics bureau, which tracks the number of drug-endangered children, reported the number of such cases fell 81 percent in the first year the law was in effect.
Timeline: Big Pharma’s Fight to Protect the Drugs That Cooks Turn Into Meth
||The federal government tightens restrictions on phenyl-2-propanone, used to make methamphetamine.
||Meth producers switch to ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, used in cold meds, to produce a more potent form of meth.
||Fresh from its, and so far only, victory against a drug—control of the chemical used to make quaaludes—the Drug Enforcement Administration proposes controls for ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.
||Pharma lobbyist Allan Rexinger calls the White House, which “basically intervened on our behalf,” Rexinger tells the Oregonian in 2004. “After that we had useful negotiations with the dea.”
||The Federal Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act mandates recordkeeping for various drug precursor chemicals. Industry wins an exemption for ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in pill form.
||Meth producers and their suppliers switch to ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in pill form.
||The Domestic Chemical Diversion and Control Act closes the ephedrine pill loophole, but pseudoephedrine exemption remains.
||Labs switch from ephedrine to pseudoephedrine pills.
||The Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act closes the pseudoephedrine pill loophole. Industry, with help from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), wins exemption for pills sold in blister packs.
||Labs switch to blister packs.
||The Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act reduces the amount of pseudoephedrine that can be sold in a single transaction. Blister packs are again exempted.
||Meth labs proliferate nationwide.
||Oklahoma becomes the state to put pseudoephedrine behind the counter. Industry fights the measure.
||Meth labs plummet in Oklahoma, encouraging other states to follow suit.
||The Federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act requires stores to put pseudoephedrine behind the counter (without requiring a prescription) and limits how much an individual can buy. Industry says this will hurt consumers and won’t reduce labs.
||Meth lab incidents fall 61 percent nationwide. But cooks begin employing smurfers to go from pharmacy to pharmacy and buy the maximum amount allowed.
||Oregon makes pseudoephedrine a prescription drug despite massive industry lobbying.
||Meth lab incidents decrease 96 percent in Oregon over the next six years.
||Bucking industry opposition, Mexico bans most pseudoephedrine.
||Potency of meth being smuggled into the US plunges as Mexican labs switch to other chemicals.
|2009 to present
||Lawmakers in 24 states try to make pseudoephedrine a prescription drug. In DC, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden drafts a federal prescription bill.
||All but one of the bills are defeated. Citing consumer concerns and “heavy industry spending,” Wyden never introduces his legislation.
Photo Essay: Chasing Meth in Laurel County, Kentucky
Stacy Kranitz: It was a real challenge to put together the logistics for the story. Jonah, the writer, had connected with and written about people that we could not locate. Some were no longer interested in making their story public. He met a young woman who watched her parents succumb to meth addiction when she was 12. Now 23 with a child of her own, she originally agreed to let me photograph her with her family. Her parents initially liked the idea of a family portrait, but, as we approached the day of the shoot, the family had several arguments about whether it was a good idea to dig up a very painful past. The young woman thought it was important to share what they went through in hopes that it would be helpful to others, but her parents felt a lot of shame about this time in their lives. She called me to cancel, and I really could not blame her for wanting to honor her parents’ wishes and keep peace in the house they all shared by keeping her family out of the public eye.
Jason Back, a narcotics officer in the Laurel County Sheriff’s Department, searches for meth-making supplies in an abandoned trailer.
Teresa Hall kisses her boyfriend Steven Simpson after being found at an abandoned trailer with meth-related paraphernalia.
MJ: Were the law enforcement officers you worked with open to you following them?
SK: Fortunately, we got very lucky with Jason Blank and the entire Laurel County Sheriff’s Department. They were very low-key and open to me spending time with them. I originally asked to spend two days observing Jason work but stuck around for five. The busting of meth labs can be hit-or-miss. So I scheduled five days without any real guarantee that there would be anything to photograph. Fortunately for the story, I was able to witness several types of meth operations.
MJ: Was it hard to shoot Jason while trying to help him keep his cover, since he is an undercover agent?
SK: That was not so hard. I always knew that I could edit out anything that visibly showed Jason’s face. I was always on the lookout for objects that would obfuscate him. Jason always had backup for undercover operations and he would put me in the backup car so that I would not blow his cover. Once the arrest was made, I would pop out of the car with my camera. It felt a little like I was a camerawoman on To Catch a Predator.
Meth-related trash in the woods.
A house that burned down in a fire caused by a meth lab.
MJ: What were some of the more memorable meth crime scenes you saw?
SK: The first call we went on was in an abandoned trailer with no running water or electricity. The walls were covered with cryptic texts and morbid poems. Jason arrested three repeat offenders who were squatting there, and they were very nice about the whole bust. They would joke with Jason and talk about mutual friends. It was much more casual than I had expected. No handcuffs. Later in the week, on another bust, I witnessed the arrest of a couple that were caught cooking meth in their trailer. It was a very nice home that was well maintained with a beautiful view of the Kentucky hills. As we were pulling away, the neighbors—who were related to the arrested couple—stopped us to find out what had happened. They were with the daughter who had caught a glimpse of her mother in the police car and began sobbing. It was a heartbreaking scene.
At the time of her arrest, Hall is supposed to be on house arrest for meth intoxication.
MJ: What’s the relationship there between the law enforcement and the community? It’s a relatively small population; I imagine there might be instances where the police are arresting people they know, that they grew up with?
SK: There were some people Jason knew because he had arrested them many times. Sometimes a last name would trigger Jason to ask if he and the arrested person knew people in common. It helps Jason to do his job to keep a friendly rapport with those he arrests. This way they are more likely to reveal additional information or may become informants later on.
All the supplies needed to cook meth using the one-step method can be found at this Walmart in London, Kentucky.
Back sits in an unmarked car outside a pharmacy, where he’s hoping to catch a suspect who has been forging prescriptions for pain pills.
A woman is arrested outside the Walmart in Corbin, Kentucky, based on information received after seizing a cell phone from an earlier meth bust.
MJ: Did you find yourself sympathizing more with the police or the people being arrested? Did working with the police make people less willing to let you photograph them?
SK: I witnessed both the cops and the addicts behave poorly. I also found both to be kind-hearted and compassionate. When cops behave badly, it is usually learned behavior that can be traced back to poor leadership. It must be draining to work in drug enforcement. You see a lot of good people doing terrible things to themselves and their family and friends. It felt like most of the people I saw arrested had been down on their luck and got caught up on the wrong side of things. I also saw people who were willfully neglecting their children and causing harm to those around them. But I did not have enough information to judge them either way. As the week went on, I became more and more sympathetic to both law enforcement and the addicts.
Every mugshot of an arrest by the sheriff’s department goes up on the Laurel County Sheriff Facebook page. Most people were relieved to find out that I was not making those photos. Much of the county follows this page, and it is embarrassing to have your photo posted for everyone to see along with the official charges of your arrest. When I explained what the story was about, they seemed genuinely interested in the issue as it affected them personally.
Inmates paint the exterior of the Laurel County Detention Center.
Tara, 33, is in prison for shoplifting. She goes to recovery meetings to help with her meth and pill addiction.
Debbie Gilbert runs the Celebrate Recovery programs at the Laurel County jail.
MJ: Were there any instances where you ran into people who didn’t want you to take their pictures?
SK: One day I had some free time while Jason was in court. I decided that, instead of sitting in the hotel waiting for him, I would go back and visit some of the homes where people were arrested. I wanted to talk with families and try to make some photographs that shared more about the circumstances surrounding the addiction. It was awkward because the last time they saw me I was with armed police officers that were taking a loved one away. The first family I met politely declined. I felt awful and thought about giving up on the idea. But I also knew that my desire to speak with family members was not a malicious one and so I went to visit another family. On my second stop, I met the cousin of a woman that was arrested the day before. She was at the house cleaning up the mess the cops had made when they dumped out trash to find evidence of meth production. I spent a few hours with her and her two daughters. She had struggled with her own meth addiction and was now celebrating six years of sobriety. A photograph of her and her daughters made it into the magazine and I just wrote her last week to make arrangements to visit with a copy.
Beverly Burkhardt with her daughters Adrieana, 15, and Britney, 10, on the porch of her cousin who’d been arrested a day earlier for making meth.
MJ: How did you find Karen Moore and how did you get her to let you photograph her and her family?
SK: I met Karen through Debbie Gilbert, who runs the addiction recovery program at Hawk Creek Baptist Church and inside the county jail. Debbie met Karen in these meetings during her yearlong sentence for meth possession. Karen had only been out of jail for two weeks when Debbie invited her to speak about her life at a weeknight recovery service I attended. Karen has a very sweet personality. She and her husband had been caught up in cooking and using meth for some time. I knew from her story that she had lost her children but was now living with them under the care of her mother, who also was in charge of many of Karen’s siblings’ children. Three of the four siblings had been caught up in meth addiction. I spent two hours with the family on a Saturday morning. It was a very loving household. Karen was still adjusting to life outside of prison. She was very open about the transition her three sons went through during the year she spent in jail. I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to try and make photographs that showed how someone could pull himself or herself out of addiction.
Karen Moore, who has been sober for a year and out of jail for two weeks, with her sons Jordan, 9, and Isaiah, 5.
MJ: Your style of photography is incredibly intimate; you’re in the thick of things and make the viewer feel as if they’re right there. How do you get people to open up to you, to get so comfortable having you photographing them?
SK: I don’t fit the stoic, silent observer photojournalist stereotype. For a long time this made me feel very unprofessional, but I have come to realize that it helps makes me endearing to people. I am very unintimidating, physically quite small. I am clumsy; I trip over things. I overshare about my own personal life. Long ago I made a decision that I had to be willing to be as vulnerable and as transparent to the people I met as I was asking them to be for my camera.
A Walmart cashier called the cops after a man bought materials that could be used to make meth. He was caught in a motel parking lot.
A contamination notice on the door of a house where a meth lab was found. The property must be decontaminated at the owner’s expense before anyone can return to live there.
MJ: We really wanted to be careful to not portray the people in this story in a stereotypical light of sad/blighted/ignorant Appalachian people, which is one reason we felt strongly about working with you on this. Do you run into much reluctance from people to be photographed out of fear of how they’ll be portrayed?
SK: I did not have that problem while working on this story. I think most of the people I interacted with understood how meth was affecting their community and were genuinely interested in the issues that the story was raising. I definitely questioned some of the images I made. If I am not doing that then I am not doing my job. I am still questioning some of the images I made during the assignment. I still wrestle with some of the murky grey areas that I ran into during this story while trying to have a positive relationship with both meth addicts and police officers.
Keith Lay was arrested for cooking meth in his home.
Materials for producing meth found at a trailer where Keith Lay and his girlfriend were arrested.
Karen Couch talks with police officers about the arrest of her neighbor and niece for possessing materials to make meth.
MJ: You’ve been shooting in this area for a while. What drew you to this part of Appalachia? How long have you been there?
SK: I started coming to southern Ohio for a project about a dystopian compound called Skatopia in 2009. While I was there, I began reading about the area and found it to be a very contentious place in terms of the history of how it had been represented through photography and film. I had always been influenced by James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Is Now Praise Famous Men. It became evident that Appalachia was a place where representation had long been vexed. Appalachia proper extends from Mississippi to New York: It is this huge unwieldy thing that is hard to define when looking at the full stretch of land it occupies. I wanted to try and make work that would extend the complicated legacy of photographs made by Walker Evans, Earl Palmer, Doris Ulmann, William Gedney, Susan Lipper, Shelby Lee Adams and many others. I have always been interested in regionalism and was looking for a place where I could make images that addressed a legacy of image making within the documentary tradition. I sort of stumbled upon the perfect place to locate this type of project. I have spent the last three summers in central Appalachia: Tennessee, West Virginia, Ohio, and Kentucky. I just arrived for my fourth summer.
MJ: And what keeps you there? Why do you keep coming back?
SK: I see my work as an ongoing narrative that unravels very slowly. The closer I get to people, the more connections I make with places in the region, the harder it is for me to leave. So I keep investing time trying to say something genuine and unique. Environmental concerns over strip mining, the decline of the coal industry and its economic effects on communities, and the failure of government-funded Suboxone to cure pain pill addiction are just a few of the things that keep me deeply engaged in making work about central Appalachia.
Thomas James Canson is in jail for manufacturing meth. Has been using meth and in and out of custody for more than 15 years.
Meth collected by officer Jason Back during a raid.
MJ: What’s next? Any plans on where you’ll head next, or do you plan on sticking around that part of the country?
SK: I have to move back to California at the end of September to finish my last year of graduate school. I’ll be living out of my car, shooting every day until then. I have a wonderfully hectic year ahead. I am releasing my first book, From The Study on Post-Pubescent Manhood, with a small publisher out of Canada called Straylight Press, this month. I will also be writing 10 short essays, to be published every 6 weeks, about my work and the representational issues it raises for a photojournalism website called Bag News Notes. I’m making a final cut of my first feature length documentary film. It is a companion piece to the book that is being released. It is a very intimate portrait study of someone I met while working in Ohio. I will also have my first solo show next February at Drkrm Gallery in Los Angeles.
Next summer, I will prepare to move somewhere very different from California. It’s never been a great fit for me. I’ve been thinking a lot about Tennessee. It is centrally located to so many compelling places and it will allow me to continue to work on making images in central Appalachia. I have some time to figure that out. More than anything I hope to find a way to make just enough money to continue working on these long-term projects that I refuse to end.
After spending a year behind bars, Karen Moore (right) has returned home to live with her mom (left) and three of her children.
Crystal Math: The Price of Big Pharma’s Pseudoephedrine Addiction
$23.4 billion – Estimated cost of meth epidemic, from child protection to law enforcement
Cost of injury and death from meth labs
Cost of environmental cleanup of meth labs
Estimated number of children affected by meth labs, 2002-11
Incarcerations for murder/manslaughter in state prisons attributable to meth
Portion of car theft offenses attributable to meth
Estimated value of pseudoephedrine sales
States that have considered prescription legislation
States that have passed it
Decline in meth lab incidents after prescription legislation took effect in 2006
Children removed from houses with active meth labs since law took effect
Cost of meth lab cleanup, 2005
Cost of meth lab cleanup, 2011
Drop in pseudoephedrine sold after prescription law went into effect in 2010
Decline in meth lab incidents
Decline in drug-endangered children
Drop in spending on meth lab cleanup costs
Cost of meth labs to the state (including incarceration), 2009
Number of police hours spent on lab cleanup, 2010
Increase in labs, 2008-09
Increase in crimes associated with meth, 2008-09
Share of hospital burn patients who were injured in meth labs
Average hospital cost for meth lab burn victims
Average for other burn patients
Death rate among meth lab burn victims
Rate among other burn victims
Most frequent ages of meth lab victims, 2010
Sources: RAND, GAO, CHPA, Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association, Kentucky State Police, University of Louisville study.
Horrifying Before and After Photos of Meth Users
In the early 2000s, a sheriff’s deputy in Portland, Oregon, was struck by the way people locked up for meth offenses seemed to age years in just a few months between bookings.