A plague is sweeping Tennessee.
They call it crank, ice, tweak, Okie coke, shards or tina.
Its common name: meth.
This drug has become a menace here, one that has eluded easy remedy despite success in other states in regulating its key ingredient: the over-the-counter decongestant pseudoephedrine.
It touches — directly or indirectly — every person in this state.
Tennessee is the buckle of the Meth Belt, which stretches roughly from Oklahoma to South Carolina. For the better part of the past decade, Tennessee has been in the top three methamphetamine states in the nation, along with Missouri and Indiana.
It is a story told daily in the vacant stares of the longtime addicts, in the odd tics they pick up as the disease ravages their brains, in the scars and skin grafts that illustrate how dangerous it is to make the drug — and the burnt-out homes that remind just how dangerous it is to live near.
It is told in dollars and cents and statistics, whether it is the $1.6 billion Tennesseans pay every year to fight and clean up the meth epidemic or the 722 children placed into state custody in 2010 and 2011 all because of meth. It is told in the shrugs of neighbors who have grown accustomed to living near the toxic waste dumps left behind by meth labs.
It is told in broken promises, broken families and broken lives.
This is Tennessee’s story.
Meth blinds us to others’ pain
,Tennessee’s small towns and cities had hope.
Sometimes there wasn’t enough work for everyone to make a good living. A dry spell might make it a tough year for the local farms. And sure, things could get boring. It’s all a part of living in a small town.
But at least, the towns were not ravaged by drug addiction and crimes committed to feed that addiction. The sickness of methamphetamine has gripped Tennessee by the throat and won’t let go.
A series beginning in today’s Tennessean took journalists into some of these communities, from Dyer County on the Mississippi River to Carter County in the mountains bordering on North Carolina. Meth production has evolved from the labs in shacks in the woods to “shake and bake” operations you can carry in a soda bottle, and that portability has spread this wretched and deadly drug through every county in the state.
Meth is so insidious in its level of addiction and damage to the user’s body that it puts pain pills and heroin to shame. Its chemistry is so volatile that if using the drug doesn’t maim or kill you, being around those who manufacture it will. There is a whole industry built around hazardous cleanup of meth-lab sites.
The addiction causes people to make their family and friends lie, steal and cheat to help them get a little more crank. Meth cooks hire homeless people off the streets and turn them into “smurfs” to supply them with the over-the-counter ingredients to keep production going.
And it keeps on going — aided by a pharmaceutical industry campaign to prevent lawmakers from approving a prescription requirement for certain cold medications.
Law enforcement officials, who are on the front line of meth crime and cleanup in counties such as Dyer and Carter, have made thousands of arrests, often having to turn meth-world cronies against each other in order to catch the biggest cooks. And still they will tell you that they will not be able to significantly reduce meth’s presence in their communities until the supply of ingredients is cut off.
Pharmaceutical lobbyists tout current systems designed to restrict the ability of meth makers to obtain ingredients, but they cause no more inconvenience to purchasers for illegal use than for legal use. Their dollars go into lawmakers’ campaign pockets to prevent restrictions that would actually be effective against this scourge.
We invite you to read this three-day series in detail to learn about what meth does to the brains of its users, along with the endless medical problems it causes when survival is even an option.
A prescription requirement might be an imposition for some law-abiding people. How much of an imposition is the $1.6 billion every year that Tennesseans pay for health costs of meth users, cleanup of lab sites, crimes committed by meth dealers and users, and for the hundreds of children who end up in state custody because they are abandoned or abused by their meth-addicted parents?
Don’t think for another moment that you can say you are a Tennessean and this is not your problem, too. We all have a meth problem.
In Dyer County, it’s hard to find someone not touched by meth
DYERSBURG, Tenn. – Charles A. Haynes had been out of work for four months after he got laid off from his job as a diesel mechanic. A relative — known by police to be a major methamphetamine cook — promised Haynes and a friend $50 each if they’d bring him a box of pseudoephedrine, the main ingredient used to make meth.
“I ain’t no meth head. I’m just looking to keep the electricity on,” Haynes says. “He knows I don’t have a job, and he knows he can throw some change in my pocket real quick.”
Now that money won’t be coming.
Haynes, 31, stands outside his aging, brown pickup truck, gas gauge on “E,” as Dyer County Sheriff’s Lt. Ken Simpson and investigator Stoney Hughes shake down him and a friend for information about the meth cook.
Simpson, 51, has the demeanor of a Marine drill sergeant turned church pastor, the straight man to Hughes, whose wry sense of humor provides comic relief. Hughes, 38, says the pair admitted that they bought the pseudoephedrine for Haynes’ relative. They had two options: cooperate or face criminal charges.
They chose the charges.
In this northwest Tennessee county of just more than 38,000 people, it’s hard to find someone who hasn’t been touched by meth in some way. But its stranglehold over this state goes a lot deeper than that. The highly addictive drug grabbed Tennessee by the throat a decade ago and has strengthened its grip, spreading to nearly every city, town and hamlet.
The drug has numbed the sensibilities of addicts, saddling them with unshakeable cravings that sometimes drive them to eat their own scabs or distill their own urine for that last drop of meth.
It has upended the lives of ordinary citizens who find themselves helpless to do anything about the escalating danger in their midst — in their neighborhoods, on their streets, sometimes even in their own homes.
Talk to farmers who have watched as thousands of dollars in copper and chemicals have been stolen to fuel meth binges. Or residents who have watched neighbors carted off, leaving toxic waste dumps behind in their abandoned homes. Or mothers and fathers who have been burglarized by their own children, needing to scrape up enough money to buy pseudoephedrine.
Even the cops have their stories.
“He was my best friend in school. We did everything together,” said Dyer County Sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Petrie, who has spent his whole life living here, in this small farming community. “I’ve arrested him twice now. He was a good guy back in school. I never thought he’d get hooked on meth. He’s been in jail for six months now. I don’t even know him anymore.”
Most of all, though, the stories are told on the faces of children like Madison and Wes, abandoned by James F. Mooring, 36, when he was at the mercy of the drug that police, prosecutors and doctors say is worse than anything they have seen.
“You don’t think about who you’re hurting. You don’t think about your family. You don’t think about any of your values. You just think about getting high,” Mooring says. “I missed Christmas, I missed birthdays, I missed a lot of stuff that I should’ve been there for.
“I think about all the people I’ve harmed by doing that. That really hurts. That probably hurts … .”
Tears well up in his eyes. And the words won’t come.
A wasp’s nest
Dyer County overlooks the Mississippi River, just 35 miles south of the Kentucky border. The county seat, Dyersburg, was once a thriving cotton town. But its largest producer, Dyersburg Fabrics, closed its factory in 2001.
The entire region is scenic, particularly along the river and around Reelfoot Lake, just to the north, with gently rolling fields of soybeans, corn and cotton sprouting up in the spring and summer.
Today, one in five Dyer County residents lives in poverty. Its double-digit unemployment rate puts it near the top in the state.
In 2013, there was about one meth lab seized for every 1,000 people in Dyer County.
Jeff Box was elected sheriff in 2010, largely on a promise to tackle drugs. He figured that drugs fueled the large majority of crime here. And no drug fueled as much crime as meth.
“I think that it’s devastating a lot of families. Most of the Tennessee sheriffs will tell you that methamphetamines are causing the most crime,” Box said. “Anytime you’ve got a meth house in your neighborhood, you’ve got a wasp’s nest full of thieves.”
The crimes involved thefts of meth-making materials such as anhydrous ammonia, which was often used to make meth until recently, when easier, less caustic recipes were discovered. Addicts also broke into homes to steal jewelry and electronics and raided farms for copper, which they’d sell to scrap dealers.
In response, Box made radical changes to how he deployed his deputies. He decided early on, drug cases wouldn’t be limited to detectives. Instead, he empowered all 19 of his uniformed deputies to investigate meth cases.
He has detectives, of course — Simpson and Hughes being the heavy hitters — but road deputies are trained to go just as hard at the problem.
As a result, their meth busts and arrests have skyrocketed, according to stats from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Some property crimes have plummeted.
“Our burglaries went down. Direct correlation. We were having five, six, seven thefts a week until we started going after those people for meth. Now we’ll have maybe one — knock on wood,” Box said. “Some of them are avoiding our county because we have strict enforcement.”
But even the most paranoid cooks have no problem scooting just one county to the north.
Small bottle, big threat
Last fall, in neighboring Obion County, at Adam and Main streets in Union City, firefighters ran hoses around a bungalow house that had stood at that corner since 1916. Upstairs, more firefighters smashed out windows and used fans to vent the house.
Downstairs, a 93-year-old woman was slowly escorted out of the home, which police said was contaminated with meth. She would eventually go to the hospital, but not by ambulance.
“The ambulance wouldn’t carry her,” Obion County Sheriff Jerry Vastbinder said without inflection. “She needed to be decontaminated.”
Not long thereafter, men in full hazmat suits marched out the back door with the culprit: a regular-sized water bottle full of an opaque, yellowish liquid.
That such a small object could contaminate a 2,700-square-foot home is testament to how toxic the meth-making process is, even in small quantities. The chemical reactions going on inside that small bottle are volatile enough to send the entire house up in flames. The entire block was evacuated as firefighters turned the massive water hoses on the backyard to spray the grass.
“In case it blows up,” Vastbinder said wearily. “It’s still bubbling.”
The scene is commonplace in this region.
Down the street, neighbors congregated to gawk at the house. There was no panic — they’ve seen this before.
Meth is a part of life here, where folks discuss the discovery of a lab the way they might describe a neighbor’s dog getting loose.
“There’s probably been five in the next 10 blocks in the last six months to a year,” said Devonda Orsborne, 46, who has lived in the neighborhood for nearly four years. “The little yellow house by the tennis courts is still boarded up from meth. Then there’s one on Greenleaf, which is the northeast area. Then, wasn’t there one on High Street, which is one street over from us? It’s an epidemic.”
She didn’t know the woman in the bungalow well. When asked if she personally knows anyone touched by meth, she counts.
“Three, four … five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10 — probably 10,” she says. “I’ve known at least 10 people or people whose families were affected.”
An all-consuming drug
Professionals who deal with drug addicts will tell you that there’s something different about meth when compared with other street drugs. It takes hold of a person, changes them, makes them lose sight of anything other than that next high.
Rob Hammond runs the 29th Judicial District Drug Court, which serves Dyer and Lake counties. The court has about 20 people at any one time in a 12- to 18-month outpatient program designed to let drug addicts avoid jail and get clean. The overall success rate is about 50 percent, meaning that the addicts get clean and, more importantly, stay clean.
But it’s different when it comes to meth.
“I would say we’re lucky if it’s 25 percent,” Hammond said. “Their whole world revolves around their methamphetamine use. Their families are secondary … it becomes everything to them.”
Spend a few minutes with anyone who’s been hooked on meth and they’ll tell you a similar story.
There’s the high, which can keep you up for days on end during a binge. But there’s also the excitement of outthinking “the system” designed to limit sales of pseudoephedrine. There’s also the notoriety of outsmarting police, and the prestige among criminals of being someone who can make meth.
Meth addicts don’t mention the health problems, the filthy living conditions, the jail time, the loss of family and friends. The ruined lives.
“One thing I got addicted to was motel rooms and the women. I’m more addicted to just the crowd, you know, being the man,” says Kenneth Pollock, 29, as he sits at a small table in the Dyer County jail. “It’ll grab a hold of you, and it won’t let go.”
He smokes meth. He injects it. He even eats it, wrapped up in toilet paper.
“I eat it a lot,” Pollock says. “To be honest with you, thought’s crossed my mind every day. It runs through my head all the time.”
Meanwhile, his girls, 12 and 9, have grown up largely without a father.
Pollock was jailed in 2011, convicted of meth-related charges. He served his term and was released last November.
Shortly before his release, when asked whether he’d go back to using meth, he said:
“It’s probably a 60 percent to 70 percent chance.”
In January of this year, he was convicted again and sentenced to two years in jail.
‘An everyday thing’
Mooring, whose children, Madison and Wes, were at risk of the same fate, hopes he will be one of the few to truly break the hold of meth. He grew up in nearby Lake County, just a mile from Reelfoot Lake. He had a good life, good parents.
In high school, he started drinking, moved on to marijuana and then got hooked on prescription pills. He struggled with drugs through two divorces, the second of which put him at his lowest.
It was then, at age 31, that he tried meth.
“The meth would keep you high longer, keep you up longer. It peps you up. If you can go to work, you can stay focused on work. There was times I would go two to three weeks, sleep maybe three or four hours,” he said. “The more I did it, it was like I can do things and work and feel better. After six months it was just about an everyday thing.”
And yet, the effects of meth on the body of a typical user are decidedly ruinous. There’s the premature aging, the acne, the paranoia, the mood swings — even irreversible damage to parts of the brain that correspond with pleasure.
Obtaining enough psuedoephedrine was easy. Users were willing to take the risk of running afoul of legal purchase limits or laws that prevent “smurfing,” in which meth cooks enlist others to purchase pseudoephedrine. When he couldn’t find others, he stole.
He stole from his retirement, burning through his 401(k). He stole from strangers. He stole from his family.
“Your values just go out the window,” he said.
And then, in 2012, he got caught.
For many meth users, the drug is so powerful that the only way to get clean is to go to jail. Mooring was no exception. In May of that year, he got a wake-up call that put him on a path toward staying clean. He received a letter from another powerful force in his life: his daughter, Madison, age 13 at the time.
“She didn’t know if she wanted me to get out of jail,” he said, choking up. “She didn’t want me back in her life.”
It was then that he decided to try and beat meth. He joined the drug court program and got out of jail Feb. 4, 2013. He rededicated his life to God.
He held his children for the first time in a long time.
“To hold them, it was one of the greatest feelings in the world,” he said.
Even with his new dedication, he knew it would be tough. The temptation was still there, particularly when he felt down. But he tried to focus on God and family.
Hammond, who has seen most meth users try and fail to kick the habit, said Mooring had a chance.
“We have high hopes for him,” he said.
As of February, he was still working through the program.
‘We show no mercy’
A day after the Union City meth lab bust, Simpson and Hughes, the sheriff’s office investigators, tailed a suspected meth cook to rural Obion County. They thought the man had taken to the miles of forest trails.
With backup, they tore into the driveway, jumped out of their cruisers and plunged into the humid, mosquito-filled darkness behind the house. They came across a gas generator in a small clearing, but no suspect.
Suddenly, they heard a yell.
“Get your hands where I can see them!” commanded Shawn Palmer, an investigator with the 27th Judicial District Task Force.
The suspect dropped a Smart Water bottle — a small, mobile “shake” meth lab — and was arrested without incident. But that left the meth lab behind.
They called in a meth disposal trailer. Hughes suited up, from head to toe, in hazmat gear to dispose of the bottle. It seemed like a lot of work for such a small item.
But the components to make meth are volatile. Coleman camping fuel is usually used along with strips of lithium, torn out of batteries and used as a catalyst to start the chemical reactions.
The lithium is particularly flammable and can go up if exposed to too much water. As Hughes poured water to help neutralize the bottle, the lithium ignited in his hand, sending huge flames into the air.
Hughes was not injured, but he was reminded how dangerous the meth chemicals can be. It’s part of why investigators take the meth problem personally, particularly because children are often in danger.
“We show no mercy when there are kids in the house,” Hughes said. “We charge them with everything we can.”
Their meth cleanup ended around 8:30 p.m., but Hughes and Simpson were not finished. They raced over to the nearby town of Trimble, population 800, to follow up on a tip about another possible meth lab.
The tip didn’t pan out.
And so Simpson headed home, eager to greet his 8-year-old boy, Cole, adopted when he was an infant.
A little boy born addicted to meth because his mother was a user.
It’s hard to find anyone in this region who doesn’t know someone whose life has been affected by meth.
Sometimes, you find it right at home.
Reach Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 and on Twitter @brianhaas.
What is meth?
Methamphetamine is an illegal, highly addictive stimulant that is smoked, injected, snorted or eaten. It is made using household materials such as lithium strips from batteries, drain cleaner and over-the-counter cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine.
Where did it come from?
While meth has been around for more than 100 years, it was widely used in mainstream settings in the earlier part of the 20th century. It was used during World War II to help pilots and soldiers stay awake longer and later by doctors to treat congestion and heroin addictions. By the 1960s, the drug grew in use and abuse, prompting the U.S. government to make it illegal in 1970. The drug faded until the 1990s, when it popped up as a drug of choice in California.
Meth slang terms
Amp, batu, bikers’ coffee, black beauties, chalk, chicken feed, crank, crystal, dope, go-fast, go-go, crystal, glass, hirpon, ice, methlies quick, poor man’s cocaine, okie coke, shabu, shards, speep, stove top, tina, trash, tweak, uppers, ventana, vidrio, yaba and yellow baron.
Meth mouth holds mysteries
Dentists don’t know exactly what causes the distinctive pattern of tooth decay called “meth mouth.”
The ring of cavities around the gum line was something Dr. K. Mark Anderson, a professor with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, saw when he worked as a dentist at Tucker Unit, an Arkansas prison that houses inmates with addictions.
“It is very widespread,” Anderson said.
“It tends to involve almost all or most of the teeth.”
And that is with an early stage of meth mouth. Often, the inmates had only nubs for teeth.
The American Dental Association attributes meth mouth to a combination of factors based on behavior spurred by the drug and bodily reactions to it. But the direct cause and effect has not been determined in a scientific study for fairly simple reasons. First, few people addicted to methamphetamine seek regular dental care. Secondly, ethics gets in the way of monitoring people taking the drug.
It’s hard to know how differently the teeth are affected whether someone snorts, smokes or injects the drug. That’s just one of the mysteries of meth mouth.
Anderson said he thinks the pattern of decay is caused by some sort of chemical erosion, bad hygiene, dry mouth and diet.
“Patients that are using meth tend to have a second drug of choice, which is Mountain Dew,” he said. “Their diets are terrible and highly carcinogenic. They are sucking down very, very sugary drinks, probably food as well that accelerates the process. It is a combination of factors.”
Pinpointing a specific chemical as a culprit is difficult because there is more than one way to make the drug.
The pattern of decay around the gum line is different from the typical cavities that occur on the biting surfaces and grooves of the teeth. It is similar to what would be expected in an oral cancer patient whose saliva glands have been damaged by radiation, he said, noting that saliva has a cleansing and anti-decay purpose.
Meth mouth doesn’t take years to develop. People in their 20s end up with nubs for teeth.
Chronic dry mouth occurs soon after regular use of the drug, Anderson said, so the teeth don’t get cleansed biologically — or manually for that matter.
A scarlet letter
Users on a 24-hour or two-day binge rarely make time to brush their teeth, said Nancy Williams, a UTHSC professor and dental hygienist who has studied the correlations between addiction and oral health. Meth mouth might as well be a scarlet letter, she said, because it holds people back even if they are able to go into recovery.
“Meth mouth is so well known now,” she said. “Employers know if somebody kind of looks like a meth head. They don’t want to employ that person.”
The department of dental hygiene and occupational therapy at UTHSC College of Allied Health once got a grant to restore the smiles of recovering addicts at a halfway house in Memphis. But in most cases, it was too late to save teeth.
“Usually, it just meant extracting some teeth and putting in dentures,” Williams said.
2 women will forever bear pain, scars of meth lab explosions
The explosion happened in 2011, but Jessica Biggs still bleeds.
She bleeds when the sores on her leg pop open. She bleeds on the operating table during the skin grafts. And she still cries.
She was 22 that September night when the father of her children went into the bathroom of their Madison apartment to cook meth and something went wrong. He died two weeks later in the burn unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where she also was hospitalized.
Selena Humphrey was just 15 when she went to the Vanderbilt burn unit. She was cooking methamphetamine Dec. 4, 2000, in Grundy County when the chemical brew exploded in her face. She’s done with the skin grafts, but her scars will never go away.
The explosions that forever changed the lives of these young women happened more than a decade apart — a timeline that demonstrates the longevity of Tennessee’s meth problem. Surgeons at the state’s burn units in Nashville and Memphis continue to rebuild the melted body parts of addicts. And even after having suffered horrible, disfiguring injuries, their patients still struggle with addiction.
Humphrey, who was spared a jail sentence because of her age, wound up serving time later, pleading guilty to possession of meth-related paraphernalia six years after the 2000 explosion. She said she’s still using drugs but wants to stop.
Biggs wound up with another addiction after she stopped using meth. She got hooked on prescription pills after her surgeries, she said, “abusing them to numb my pain.” She had to go to rehab to get off narcotics, but said meth is the drug that dragged her down.
“Meth is not just a speed drug,” Biggs said. “It’s a devil’s drug.”
A revolving door
Burn units can be revolving doors for some addicts.
Dr. Bill Hickerson, the plastic surgeon who runs the unit at The MED in Memphis, said he has treated patients multiple times for repeat burns from meth lab explosions.
Just one bad burn case can carry a high price tag, especially when a patient develops an infection.
“It can go more than $1 million,” Hickerson said, noting that burn victims are prone to serious complications. “It can be $1 million or $2 million with a large burn that gets sick.”
He has worked at burn units in Memphis and Little Rock, Ark., before and since meth infested the South. The initial wave of burn victims were people who made the drugs in large quantities, mixing explosive chemicals while using propane heaters, before the smaller cold-cook “shake-and-bake” method became popular.
“Everything in that lab was obviously volatile,” Hickerson said. “With a mistake, they got a huge explosion and very serious burns. The total body surface area burned would be very high.”
The introduction of the shake-and-bake method accelerated the spread and use of the drug in Tennessee. In shake and bake, household chemicals are mixed in a soda bottle. No flame is needed.
“The shake-and-bake has made it more available for anybody,” Hickerson said.
In a shake-and-bake explosion, the burned body area is generally smaller, but that does not mean people are not at risk for dying.
“They still get very sick because their immune systems have been totally destroyed by the drug,” he said. “Their cardiovascular system is definitely not normal. With their pulmonary system, it is not unusual to see inflammatory condition of their lungs develop.”
Dr. Blair Summitt, medical director of the burn unit at Vanderbilt, said he does not see as many obvious cases of meth explosion burns as he once did.
“Either we’re not getting the full story — maybe we have some and we don’t know it because the burns are smaller — but a lot of times the story can be sketchy,” Summitt said.
Doctors and nurses know to look for telltale clues, such as a patient showing up at an emergency room two or three days after a burn has occurred or giving accounts of accidents that don’t quite add up.
Hospital staff are mandated by Tennessee law to report suspicious cases to police.
Police knew immediately it was a meth explosion at Cedar Crest apartments in Madison on Sept. 17, 2011. It blew out a wall of the apartment that Biggs shared with Jason Scott, who already had a criminal record for making meth.
She cannot erase the memory of his screams for water and the strange whiteness of his face devoid of the top layer of skin the night of the explosion that led to his death. Shards of flesh hung from her hands and feet. Her ears looked like charcoal briquettes.
The couple had once been beautiful. Standing 6-foot-3 with high cheekbones and blond hair, Scott had the confident, closed-mouth smile of a man who thought he had the world by the tail. After years of performing pirouettes, leaps and stretches, Biggs had the body of a dancer and smooth, olive skin.
When they met, she was 19. He was five years older and had just gotten out of prison after serving time for burglary convictions, but he wasn’t using drugs then.
His addiction problem began with pills and graduated to meth, Biggs said. She tried meth and liked it.
Scott was buying the drug directly from a meth cook who told him he needed help making meth.
“Jason, at first, said, ‘I don’t want to learn,’ ” she said. “But he got so bad on it that he eventually learned how to do it. That was his thing every day, all day. That was his life. He would get up, find a way to buy the stuff to cook it, cook it, do it and stay up all night. Of course, I tried it.”
In a two-week time frame, she said, her weight dropped from 140 pounds to 105 pounds.
“We were staying with his brother in Cheatham County,” Biggs said.
“He had just got done cooking. We went to sleep. We woke up the next morning and the drug task force was knocking on the door. His brother called the cops on us.
“I did get my son taken from me,” she said. “But the charges got dropped because Jason took my charges. We stopped after that.”
She got her son back, and the couple had another baby boy. The children weren’t home the night of the explosion. She said she was sleeping on the couch in a room next to the bathroom where the explosion occurred.
She insisted that it had been a year since he had cooked meth. She couldn’t say why he chose to start again.
“I don’t know why,” she said. “He wanted some pills, and he couldn’t find pills. He looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to go cook.’ ”
She was hospitalized in the Vanderbilt burn unit for three months, then had to undergo a month of physical rehabilitation at another hospital. Besides those stays, she was hospitalized again last July because of a serious infection stemming from the injuries. She received treatment for addiction to painkillers in October 2012.
Her last skin graft surgery occurred Feb. 12.
“I have people who look at me every day,” Biggs said. “I went to the zoo at Halloween. This one guy asked me if that was my Halloween costume. Every person just kind of stared at me like I had a disease or something. A lady at Wal-Mart didn’t want to do my nails because of my skin.”
She is on probation for criminal convictions associated with the explosion.
Her grandmother, Peggy Biggs, has custody of her sons. Jessica Biggs also lives with “Granny,” the woman who raised her. She said her goals in life are to be a good mother to her sons and to become a licensed drug counselor.
Motherhood is a tough reality for Selena Humphrey.
Her mother introduced her to meth, she said. Her mother’s boyfriend taught her to cook it. And Humphrey has lost her own rights to be a mother.
“My life is destroyed,” she said. “It took my kids from me. It took my serenity, my pride, my self-esteem.”
She has become the poster child for meth explosion burns — a role she is tired of playing after an appearance on “Oprah,” a feature in Newsweek and having her picture pop up on multiple websites. Her recovery from the physical injuries nearly 14 years ago, as horrible as they were, has been more certain than her recovery from the disease of addiction.
“It took me two years before I could open a car door, almost three years before I could pick up a half gallon of milk,” she said. “I had to learn to eat, talk, walk and sleep. For almost three years, I kept a garbage bag on my pillow because my face was bloody. I’ve had at least 100 multiple skin grafts.”
She became a licensed nurse aide but lost her certification after she relapsed and a 2006 arrest. Now out of prison, she cleans rooms in a Winchester motel that gives her a free place to stay. She is as brutally honest about herself as the reflection she sees scrubbing bathroom mirrors. She counts toking on a joint and drinking beer as using drugs, but said meth remains her drug of choice.
“My heart races, my mouth waters,” she said, describing the craving.
She reads “Our Daily Bread,” a devotional, every night. Humphrey prays for another chance and said she needs a residential option for treatment after a 30-day rehabilitation — a place for a fresh start.
“Something I can focus my life on instead of just sitting around twiddling my thumbs saying, ‘Let’s get high,’ ” she said. “What more have I got to do with my life? Nothing.”
Reach Tom Wilemon at 615-726-5961.
PART 2 OF A 3-DAY SERIES
Drug courts and laws requiring a prescription for cold medicine are seeing results.
What you missed
In parts of rural Tennessee, it’s hard not to find someone whose life hasn’t been touched by meth.
When meth labs go up in flames, treating the injured can prove costly. The Tennessee Methamphetamine and Pharmaceutical Task Force found one meth-burn patient at Vanderbilt University Medical Center who required four months of critical care treatment costing $1 million.
In fiscal year 2011, 1,066 people in Tennessee received publicly funded treatment for meth abuse at a cost of $2.8 million in federal and state funds, according to the comptroller’s report.
Pain beyond the burns: Hear from Jessica Biggs and Selena Humphrey, who talk about their long road to recovery years after being burned in meth lab explosions.
Meth by the numbers: Use interactive maps to see the number of meth labs and meth-related charges in your Tennessee county.
Drug firms spend millions to lobby state
A majority of Tennesseans and law enforcement officials may favor requiring prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, but the idea is still a tough sell in the state legislature.
Part of the reason could be lobbying.
Drug companies have spent at least $5.9 million — and perhaps as much as $15.2 million — lobbying the Tennessee legislature the past five years, more than doubling the financial firepower of police groups and their allies.
More than 100 professional lobbyists have been hired since 2009 to press the cases of pharmaceutical makers and their suppliers. Their influence has helped stop legislation that would restrict sales of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in methamphetamine manufacturing.
Drug companies also have contributed at least $637,600 to lawmakers’ campaigns, over and above the millions spent on lobbyists. These donations have placed the drug industry among the top givers to legislative campaigns.
The interests of drug companies are wide-ranging. But a spokeswoman for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which has lobbied the General Assembly and represents many pharmaceutical companies that also have done so, said pseudoephedrine regulation has been among their top issues over the past five years.
“We’re doing everything we can to ensure that consumers’ voices are heard,” said Elizabeth Funderburk, the organization’s senior director of communications and public affairs.
The lobbying comes as the Tennessee General Assembly, like many other legislatures, has debated tough limits on pseudoephedrine as a means of curbing meth production within the state. A subcommittee in the state House of Representatives is scheduled to hold a hearing today on several pseudoephedrine bills.
One proposal has been to require a prescription to purchase pseudoephedrine, as mandated under federal law until the 1970s. Two states, Oregon and Mississippi, have passed prescription requirements, with both reporting sharp drops in meth production afterward. Several communities in rural Missouri also have begun to require prescriptions.
But drug companies have countered that more restrictions would be an inconvenience to hay fever sufferers and others who rely on pseudoephedrine for extended periods. They have taken their case directly to lawmakers.
Hard figures on lobbying are difficult to come by in Tennessee. State law requires companies and organizations that hire lobbyists only to report their spending with ranges, not exact dollars.
But a Tennessean analysis of lobbying records has found that 35 pharmaceutical companies, two of their major suppliers and three trade associations have hired 107 individual lobbyists since 2009. These companies have spent between $5.9 million and $15.2 million.
And those figures may not include spending that does not relate directly to contacting state lawmakers, such as public relations and lobbying local officials.
By comparison, law enforcement groups, organizations representing local governments and others have spent between $2.8 million and $6 million. Records show this broad coalition has hired only 23 lobbyists, often to work on issues unrelated to methamphetamine production.
The mismatch in resources has been a factor in keeping more restrictions on pseudoephedrine at bay.
“I would say they certainly have had an impact,” said Martin Police Chief David Moore, president of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police. “Certainly, we don’t have PR firms working for us.”
Several bills have been filed this session that would tighten access to pseudoephedrine. One of the most broadly supported measures has been filed by state Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin. Senate Bill 1791 would require a prescription but would allow pharmacists — not just doctors — to write one out.
Haile, a pharmacist by trade, says the restriction would mean his colleagues could be held accountable for selling pseudoephedrine irresponsibly. When a similar restriction was placed on codeine in 1996, pharmacists were empowered to turn suspected abusers away and recommend alternatives to legitimate users, he said.
Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed an alternative plan that would keep pseudoephedrine available over the counter, but with tighter restrictions. The Republican governor says his plan strikes a balance between the needs of consumers and law enforcement.
Polls on the issue have been mixed. The Consumer Healthcare Products Association cites the results of a poll taken in February that showed 56 percent of Tennesseans oppose requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine.
But a more recent poll taken by Vanderbilt University suggests the opposite. The school’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions found that 65 percent of Tennesseans back a prescription requirement, especially if a link is drawn between a prescription requirement and fighting meth.
Both sides in the debate may stake a claim to speak for the majority of Tennesseans. But plenty of lobbyists also are whispering in the ears of lawmakers.
Reach Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 and on Twitter @chassisk.
Local governments, law enforcement and other legal organizations have spent millions of dollars since 2009 lobbying the General Assembly, but pharmaceutical companies have spent two to three times as much. Reports filed with the state show that pharmaceutical companies spent at least $5.9 million and perhaps as much as $15.3 million directly on lobbying state lawmakers over the past five years:
for pharmaceutical companies
for Law enforcement/ local governments
Source: Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance
Tennessee cities go it alone in anti-meth crusade
Frustrated that state lawmakers were not doing enough to curtail methamphetamine production, 18 Tennessee cities took steps to limit the sale of pseudoephedrine in 2013.
The drug, found in cold and sinus medicine, is the key ingredient used to make meth.
Then a December curveball from the state attorney general threw those cities into a legal gray area.
Law enforcement from across the state has long lobbied the legislature to pass a law that would require a prescription for cold medicines containing the active ingredient for methamphetamine. After state lawmakers killed the effort last year, Winchester police Chief Dennis Young pushed his city to take it on alone.
City leaders there passed a prescription-only ordinance last summer, which was followed by a steep drop in meth lab busts.
“We witnessed a 70 percent drop in meth labs,” Young said. “It’s a safer community for us to live in.”
Emboldened by Winchester’s speedy success, Young traveled across the state urging other cities to follow suit with their own ordinances.
In December, Attorney General Robert Cooper stopped Young in his tracks.
In an opinion, Cooper said enacting a local ordinance “that prohibits the sale, delivery or distribution of over-the-counter products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine without a valid prescription” would violate Tennessee law.
Cities have splintered in their response to the opinion.
Police in Pulaski still enforce their ordinance, but in La Vergne, they’ve stopped.
“We do follow the guidelines of the state attorney general,” La Vergne city spokeswoman Kathy Tyson said. “We are not enforcing that.”
In Winchester, local leaders shrugged at Cooper’s opinion and police are still enforcing the ordinance.
“It’s just an opinion, and I’ve got multiple counter opinions,” Young said, later adding, “Our community wants to keep it in place, so it stayed in place.”
Young has stopped lobbying other cities to adapt their own prescription-only ordinances, but he hasn’t stopped fighting. Instead, his crusade has changed shape.
He now crisscrosses the state to urge cities and counties to “put an end to this nightmare” by lobbying for a statewide prescription-only law.
After the decision was made to stop enforcing the ordinance in La Vergne, the city’s board of aldermen passed a resolution urging state lawmakers to require prescriptions across Tennessee.
La Vergne police Chief Mike Walker, who supported the resolution, said this tougher stance will be more effective than Gov. Bill Haslam’s “middle-of-the-road” bill, which proposes tighter restrictions on the amount of pseudoephedrine people can buy.
“We ought to have more restrictions,” he said. “Let’s put some more teeth into it.”
Several cities and counties have followed La Vergne’s example, passing resolutions of their own and forwarding them to legislators.
‘Not the silver bullet’
Not everyone agrees that a statewide prescription law is the right way to fight the drug.
“It’s certainly not the silver bullet that it’s sometimes made out to be,” said Carlos I. Gutierrez, senior director and head of state government affairs for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association. “We don’t think it’s the most effective, most reasonable approach in dealing with this issue.”
The CHPA has supported tracking and restricting the sale of pseudoephedrine, which is already law in Tennessee. The group also has pushed education and awareness programs aimed at combating meth smurfing.
Gutierrez also said a statewide effort to fight meth addiction is an important piece of the puzzle.
“It can’t just be about the supply of cold and allergy medications. This really is about demand for (meth),” Gutierrez said. “Until that’s dealt with we really won’t see much difference … in meth use.”
A report released in January by the state comptroller noted the early successes of local prescription-only ordinances, but stopped short of a full endorsement because of their short life spans.
“Sufficient data is not yet available to assess the impact of local prescription-only ordinances in Tennessee,” the report says.
Oregon and Mississippi have prescription-only statutes at the state level. Meth lab incidents in 2012 in Oregon remained at low levels and in Mississippi continued to decline, according to the comptroller’s report. Still, the report noted, it’s hard to gauge the true impact of any single effort to cut back on meth production because different strategies overlap and vary from state to state.
Still, Young has remained resolute about the efficacy of a prescription-only ordinance in his city. Statewide action is the most effective option, he said.
“We know the solution and we know how to stop meth production in our state,” Young wrote in an email to supporters last month. “This is a non-partisan issue to deal with a public health emergency. It is time to stop the pain and suffering of our children.”
Meth can lead to unsafe sex, STDs and burnout
The Internet is the meet-up place for people who mix sex with methamphetamine either because they are trying to score the drug or chase a thrill that’s long gone.
The personal ads on Craigs-list Nashville use code words such as “parTy” to introduce people to meth through sex. The capital T in the middle of the word is a tipoff that someone is looking for a casual encounter while using “tina,” one of the many urban slang terms for meth. Another is “pnp,” which stands for “party and play.”
The come-ons begin with an offer of a line or a toke. The burnouts are inevitable.
While methamphetamine may seem like an aphrodisiac at first, causing people to lower their inhibitions, it eventually shuts down the pleasure sensors in the brain. By the time burnout occurs, a meth user may have contracted a sexually transmitted disease. The drug increases the likelihood of infections, according to multiple medical studies.
Women who used meth were 48 percent more likely to have tested positive for gonorrhea and chlamydia than those who did not, according to one study published last year in a journal called Sexually Transmitted Diseases. It analyzed data on patients who visited clinics in Los Angeles County over a two-year period.
The links between use of the drug and HIV as well as syphilis have been well documented in males, especially men who have sex with men.
While most of these studies focused on urban areas, people living in rural areas also are putting themselves at risk.
That’s the conclusion of “Risky Sex in Rural America,” a study published last year in the American Journal on Addictions. It followed 710 stimulant users in rural areas of Arkansas, Ohio and Kentucky over a three-year period. The researchers got users to answer questions by paying them $50 for completing two- to three-hour survey sessions and $10 for travel expenses.
The study determined that meth users were almost 40 percent more likely to engage in sex than if they had not used the drug.
“Rates of inconsistent condom use were alarmingly high in this study sample, and the majority of current or former stimulant users continued to use condoms inconsistently over the study period,” the article concluded.
Pleasure and anxiety
Brock Searcy, a licensed professional counselor in Nashville, said the drug spurs the release of dopamine, a pleasure chemical, and norepinephrine, an anxiety chemical, into the central nervous system.
“A little bit of anxiety can be a good thing,” he said. “It’s like the butterflies when you first meet somebody. You even need a certain amount of norepinephrine to have an orgasm.”
Cocaine and other stimulants cause similar responses, but meth lasts longer and greatly impairs judgment.
“I have definitely worked with people who have done some things on meth that they regretted,” Searcy said.
Over time, the drug inhibits the brain’s ability to produce pleasure chemicals.
“You get to the kind of situation where you are burning out pleasure neurons possibly,” he said.
“There have been situations with depression and increased anxiety. Depression will completely kill your libido.”
Slang for meth
batu, bikers’ coffee, black beauties, chalk, chicken feed, crank, dope, go-fast, go-go, crystal, glass, hirpon, ice, methlies quick, poor man’s cocaine, shabu, shards, stove top, tina, trash, tweak, uppers, ventana, vidrio, yaba and yellow baron
Law enforcement officials signal support for possible meth-bill compromise
Law enforcement officials, on Monday, signaled their support for Gov. Bill Haslam’s meth bill if the legislature agrees to dramatically tighten controls over the sale of over-the-counter medicines, increasing the chances that a compromise is in the offing.
Haslam’s bill would require Tennesseans to get a pharmacist’s or doctor’s permission before buying more than a 10-day supply of medicine containing pseudoephedrine in a month. An amendment backed by law enforcement would further tighten regulations, requiring Tennesseans to get a doctor’s permission to buy more than six boxes in a year.
Interactive map: See meth charges by Tennessee county
“This certainly is a step in the right direction,” said retired Sheriff Terry Ashe, executive director of the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association.
Tennessee law currently requires consumers to show identification before buying the drug, and purchases are tracked using the National Precursor Log Exchange, a computer system that links pharmacies. Individuals can buy no more than 3.6 grams in a single day or 9 grams a month.
Haslam’s bill, which is scheduled to come in front of a House subcommittee on Tuesday, would cut monthly limits to 4.8 grams., the amount of the chemical typically found in a single 20-tablet box.
Ashe and Chief David More, president of Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police, say the governor has presented an amendment to them that would cap yearly pseudoephedrine sales to 14.4 grams per customer, or six boxes of the medicine. Customers could use a prescription to get more.
Winchester Police Chief Dennis Young, a champion of a prescription-only law, said the amendment was a suitable compromise but not the solution in the war against meth.
“It’s a far cry better than where we’re at,” said Police Chief Dennis Young of Winchester, but “I don’t think it’s low enough.”
Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said on Monday afternoon that an amendment with a yearly cap is being considered, but a final number hadn’t been established.