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Last Updated: Monday, 31 October 2005, 09:40 GMT
Fighting the meth epidemic in rural US
By Matthew Wells
In Tennessee

Methamphetamine warning sign
Users say meth provides an ecstatic high that increases the sex drive
A generation ago, rural Cumberland County's only minor drug problem was home-brewed "Moonshine" and marijuana.

But today, it is at the centre of a methamphetamine epidemic that is crippling small-town America.

Meth, as it is called, is a highly-addictive stimulant that can be made on any kitchen stove using a handful of household chemicals. Its main ingredient is pseudoephedrine, which can be extracted from many common cold remedies.

"You think you've got to have it, to have the energy to go," said Wayne Tayes, one of the first so-called meth "cooks" to start making the drug in Tennessee.

"Anything you need to cook, you can go to two stores in any city in the United States... There is no word to describe what it does to a family," he said, lamenting the fact that the drug rapidly destroyed his life, until he finally quit a few years ago.

Wayne Tayes
It took my wife, my kids. But what I am still working on getting back today, is me
Wayne Tayes
The passion he used to put into meth-making, is now channelled into helping addicts recover at a half-way house in the quiet town of Cookeville.

"It took my wife, my kids. But what I am still working on getting back today, is me," he says.

While crack-cocaine was ravaging the inner-cities 15 years ago, meth was just starting its low-key journey across the US, travelling slowly east from California.

It spreads almost like a virus, from cook to cook, from small town to small town. With the raw materials readily available, "meth labs" can be established anywhere that is relatively discreet.

Alarming statistics

Crossville, which sits on the wooded Cumberland Plateau in central Tennessee, is typical of the kind of place where meth has thrived, from California to the Carolinas.

Since meth first appeared on the radar here around six years ago, life has changed dramatically for the 50,000 people who live in the county.

Sheriff "Butch" Burgess
I sat down last year and counted 13 people I knew that have died from it
Sheriff "Butch" Burgess
Sitting in his cramped office at Crossville's Justice Center, Sheriff "Butch" Burgess, rattles off some alarming statistics. Violent offences are up 500% - petty crimes have increased six-fold.

They are having to build a extension to the jailhouse and prisoners' health-care costs have tripled, due largely to the appalling effects of prolonged meth use, he says.

"I sat down last year and counted 13 people I knew - some of them were friends - that have died from it.

"The average life expectancy [or hardcore meth addicts], according to statistics, is five to seven years."

On top of the direct costs, the drug poisons everything it touches. Meth cooks frequently burn themselves and torch their homes. The toxic chemicals they wash away can contaminate whole neighbourhoods.

Sold as powder, tablets or crystals
Can be snorted, smoked, injected or swallowed
Can alter personality, increase blood pressure and damage brain
But the most poignant victims of the meth scourge, are the children.

"To a parent, there's nothing more dear than a child... Not to these folks. They'd gladly give up their children," says Dr Sullivan Smith, who runs an emergency unit at the main hospital in neighbouring Putnam County.

"Once it hits, it's too late... It will never go away in my career, or for the rest of my life. It will always be with us."

Children care

People like Dr Smith and Sheriff Burgess, are taking a stand against what meth is doing to their communities. In Crossville, they have built a unit to temporarily house the children of meth addicts, called the House of Hope.

It borders a wood on the edge of town, in a clearing that was made when a tornado barrelled through the area a few years ago. Soft toys and furnishings give it the feel of a children's sick ward in a cottage hospital.

It is an environment that is the exact opposite of the one they have left.

"Usually they are hungry. Most of the time, they don't even cry for their mother or father," says Denise Melton, who co-ordinates the volunteers at the house.

When parents are making or taking meth (it can be snorted, injected, eaten or drunk), they often forget to feed or care for their own, she explains.

More than 70 local children have passed through this year already, and they are planning their second extension to the property. The children stay until they can be placed in foster homes.

The sheriff and his wife have been leading by example, taking in 30 children in the past 12 years.

Blackened teeth

According to users, meth provides an ecstatic high, that increases the sex drive and lasts for days at a time.

Neglect, violence and sometimes sexual abuse against children, are not the only catastrophic side-effects.

"Meth mouth" is a phenomenon that has seen dental bills sky-rocket - that is, if the patient can be persuaded to come back for a full course of treatment.

"Teeth end up being black stubs, with roots only - all 16 on top, and all 16 on the bottom. It's horrible," says dentist Dr Richard Herd, who had a rural practice in Putnam County.

He has seen dozens of cases of meth mouth, but says it is impossible to tell how much of it is down to the drug itself, or the shattered immune system that results.

In declaring a local war on meth, the authorities acknowledge that arresting the perpetrators and relying on jail time alone, is no solution.

State-wide laws banning the sale of pseudoephedrine over the counter have dramatically cut down the number of rural lab seizures in recent months, but the demand is still strong and criminal gangs are beginning to fill the void.

Everyone here knows that there is no return to an age of innocence where meth is concerned.

"They're trying to contain it, but it's going to take a lot more money and effort," says Kathleen Ross, a Crossville mother who is sanguine about the future, while she watches the boisterous high school homecoming parade.

One cause for optimism lies in the growing population. The Cumberland Plateau is attracting more and more retirees and young families, whose tax dollars just might help authorities to contain the modern-day plague of meth.

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