LEXINGTON COUNTY, S.C. — Shortly after midnight on June 5, Lexington County sheriff’s deputies and narcotics officers swooped down on a single-story home in one of the county’s rural areas.
Acting on a tip that people were inside cooking up batches of methamphetamine in not one but two kitchens, officers surrounded the house. Deputies tiptoed to a window and peered inside.
“I was at this time able to detect a strong chemical emitting from the residence,” investigator M.L. McCaw later wrote in his report.
Officers had found yet another active illegal methamphetamine lab – one of 43 meth kitchens busted so far this year in Lexington County that led to the arrest of 60 people. At this rate, meth labs and arrests in 2013 will far outpace last year’s total of 51 labs and 70 arrests.
If you thought meth was gone, you were wrong.
Lexington definitely is seeing “more hits on labs this year than in years past,” said Sheriff Jimmy Metts in an interview.
Meth labs and meth arrests are part of the drug scene’s new normal in Lexington County, a sprawling Midlands county that contains million-dollar-home neighborhoods along Lake Murray’s shores and scattered rural communities, stretching in a rough crescent from Swansea across I-20 up to Batesburg-Leesville.
The June 5 bust, on Fish Hatchery Road near Gaston, netted four men and four women, who ran “frantically” around after a deputy knocked on the door. Deputies then bashed in the front entrance and arrested the eight, charging them with manufacturing meth.
Meth is an illegal drug that you don’t necessarily have to buy from someone. You can cook it up at home or even in a car, in powder or chunks that can be snorted, injected or smoked. Its most popular name is “crank.”
Users say the drug provides a heightened alertness and powerful sense of well-being. People sometimes go for days without eating or sleeping, just fueling their high.
“Meth is incredibly addictive,” said Jimmy Mount, public information coordinator for the state Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services. “It is also incredibly dangerous, because of the accompanying damage to one’s health that comes along with using it. Sometimes, after a year or two of using it, you can’t even recognize it’s the same person.”
Although meth users initially experience a rush, repeated use can cause acne, loss of appetite that leads to wasting away, rotting teeth and skin that appears years older. Brain functions deteriorate, and users can exhibit psychotic behavior, including paranoia, anxiety, aggression and hallucinations.
Metts said several reasons account for his county’s increase in meth busts:
• Deputies have received increased training on what to look for.
• Lexington has a lot of rural areas, and meth cooks prefer to cook meth – which produces pungent chemical odors – in houses well away from other houses.
The public is increasingly aware of how to recognize meth kitchens and report them to law enforcement.
• A pre-made, hyper-addictive form of the drug, called “ice,” is still being shipped in from Mexico. The recession did nothing to blunt its import.
• It’s easier than ever to produce meth at home. The most popular method, “shake and bake,” involves putting various chemicals in a large soda bottle and putting the cap on. The chemicals, including lye, ammonia, and lithium, react with each other along with pills containing the key meth ingredient ephedrine, and – in several more cooking steps – produce small quantities of meth.
• Psedoephedrine, found in some allergy and cold pills and used to make the drug, is still being acquired, even though it’s sold only behind the counter at S.C. pharmacies and drug stores, law enforcement sources say. S.C. lawmakers have not passed a bill making the drug available by prescription only. Two states, Mississippi and Oregon, require prescriptions for pseudoephedrine; law enforcement officials there say meth lab seizures have plummeted since the laws were enacted. In Mississippi, which adopted a prescription-only law in 2010, authorities say meth lab seizures dropped by nearly 70 percent the next year.
Meth chemicals are so dangerous that the smoke and other chemical waste products given off during the cooking process often pollute a house, motel room or car to such an extent that special hazardous waste experts must clean the site if it is ever to be used again.
Chemicals used to make meth are also explosive. And the drug is explosively ripping apart familes in the Gaston-Swansea-Pelion part of the county that’s dubbed the Meth Triangle.
“We’re talking about a potential bomb, the hazard to our environment, to other people, the long-term health care effects and to our children,” said SLED narcotics Lt. Max Dorsey, who manages SLED’s various meth lab programs, including a $1 million a year state cleanup fund.
Dorsey said the small meth labs headed up by a cook and a small band of followers have upended traditional law enforcement drugfighting methods. When it comes to meth, cops have no major drug trafficking networks to target – they have to devote a lot of resources to small labs.
Then there are the children. Last year, Dorsey said, law officers across the state took more than 100 children found in met lab homes into protective custody after their parents were arrested on manufacturing meth charges.
The Lexington County Sheriff’s Department doesn’t keep statistics on how many children are found at meth labs and turned over to the state Department of Social Services. However, the department said in at least two raids so far this year, children were found and taken into custody.
SLED Chief Mark Keel said Lexington County is one of several major busy pockets of meth activity around South Carolina, but it is not the largest. Greenville, Spartanburg and Laurens counties have substantial meth cooking activity and meth arrests, Keel said.
State law doesn’t require all polluted meth sites to be reported to any central statewide databank. However, SLED does have a General Assembly-approved fund of $1 million a year to clean up meth sites. It keeps two environmental cleanup companies on contract to do the cleanup, and keeps some, but not all, figures on how many meth labs are located. (Not all counties report their meth labs to SLED.)
In the 2011-12 fiscal year, Keel said, SLED spent $800,000 on meth lab clean-ups. In the most recently finished fiscal year, SLED spent some $1.2 million on 523 meth lab clean-ups, Keel said.
“We have $1 million this current fiscal year, and we’re probably going to use every dime of it,” Keel said. He said he may well ask the General Assembly to increase the cleanup fund next year.
Across the Congaree River in Richland County, Sheriff Leon Lott said meth is not yet a big problem. “Our drug of choice is crack cocaine,” Lott said. “We have some meth, but not on the same scale as other counties.”
The one place his deputies are seeing more meth activity is in the areas that border Lexington County, such as the St. Andrews Road area.
“Motel rooms in those areas are being used to manufacture meth,” Lott said. “Often, they use the coffee maker and coffee filters in a motel room as part of the ‘shake and bake’ method.”
Lott said that sometimes the meth cooks put the coffee maker – contaminated with hazardous chemicals – back in place. “It might not get washed, and then who comes in afterwards and uses it get exposed.”
U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said what Metts and other Lexington law agencies are doing is crucial.
“Given that meth is often made in a local community, it’s particularly important that local law enforcement work to protect the community from this extremely addictive substance,” Nettles said. “I’m certain the residents of Lexington County appreciate what their local officers are doing.”
Metts said that despite meth’s many dangers, there’s one major reason why meth cooks and addicts keep on.
“Once they start taking meth, they cannot stop,” Metts said.