A decade ago, northwest North Carolina and surrounding states appeared to be drowning in methamphetamine and clandestine meth labs. It seemed like another operation was raided every week, particularly in Watauga County, but also in Wilkes and the surrounding area.
There were so many clandestine labs being operated that law enforcement resources were being stretched.
In 2003, this dangerous situation was addressed through a task force, a county-by-county thing under a northwest area umbrella. State, federal and local law enforcement officers and prosecutors held sort of a landmark meeting in Jefferson to organize the task force and make sure everyone was informed about the seriousness of the meth problem.
The notion behind the task force was to train more officers, buy equipment to deal with the toxic labs, provide intensive law enforcement and educate the public about this drug and the dangerous labs used to manufacture it.
With the full backing of prosecutors, law enforcement officials and judges, the General Assembly strengthened the law regarding the manufacture of methamphetamine.
Prior to this, the law governing the illegal manufacture of this drug was fairly toothless. First offenders didn’t go to prison, and probation was still a possibility, even likely, for those with prior convictions.
More importantly, restrictions were placed on over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines containing pseudophedrine, which is a crucial ingredient in meth manufacturing.
At the time, it really seemed likely that all this attention from law enforcement, coupled with revamped laws, would spell the demise of the meth business. In fact, that seemed to be the case in the following years, borne out as the number of labs dropped.
Recently, the discovery of meth labs has again been on the rise. Most of these have been small operations, using the “one pot” method. Some labs have been large enough to create salable amounts of the drug, but most create just enough for personal use.
Either way, the labs are dirty and dangerous, and the drug itself is highly addictive and reduces a majority of addicts to a state of dereliction. My point is that this problem never entirely went away and it is again very much on the rise. A number of labs have been located in Wilkes County this year.
Methamphetamine goes by different names on the street, such as crank, ice, crystal meth and speed. Those who use this highly addictive substance– whether by smoking, injecting, snorting or ingesting– tend to stay up for days, even a week or more, at a time.
At the end of a long period of use, people tend to be extremely irrational and violent, and many are hallucinating from sleep deprivation. Most tend to mix large amounts of alcohol with their high, turning themselves into very dangerous drunks.
If the subject in question has a knife or gun, the situation can quickly become deadly.
Those are just the users.
The labs themselves are highly toxic, meaning that those cooking the drug and anyone exposed to this process, children included, become contaminated. Some of the vapors released can be deadly even in small amounts.
I’m not convinced that heightened law enforcement and strengthening the law alone have provided a long-term solution to this public health threat, though certainly making a big impact.
Education of the public, including providing information to children in public schools, must be just as much a priority. It must be comprehensive and done on a long-term basis. Those mired in addiction need access to in-patient treatment facilities, allowing them to at least have a shot at recovery.
It does no lasting good to arrest meth lab operators if society doesn’t reduce the demand for the drug.