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The community is banding together to ‘STOMP’ out what law enforcement officials say is the “biggest problem in this county.”
These bottles contain a mixture of ammonia, water, lithium, various solvents, sodium, hydroxide and other ingredients used to make meth.
These household items are routinely found by law enforcement officers when executing a search warrant at a “one pot” meth lab.
The black pieces embedded in the pink material are lithium. The liquid around the pink material is meth.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
A crowd of about 100 members of the community gathered at Floyd County High School in Floyd on Tuesday night for a program put on by Standing Together to Overcome the Meth Problem.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Jeff Dalton, chief investigator in the Floyd County Sheriff’s Office, speaks during a program at Floyd County High School in Floyd on Tuesday night. During his opening remarks he said it’s time to raise awareness. “We’re here to clean up our county of this devastating drug that is tearing up families, tearing up our community and destroying society as a whole.”
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Art from area students decorates the walls in the Floyd County High School cafeteria, including this logo submitted for a contest. Organizers of the event hope to find ways to overcome the meth epidemic that is occurring in the community.
Saturday, March 23, 2013
FLOYD — It was about seven years ago when Torrey Clark said he first experimented with the drug. He had told himself he would try it only one time — to impress the friends who he was hoping would accept him fully into their clique.
Five months ago, Clark said, he walked out of an 18-month inpatient rehabilitation center, finally free after also spending two months incarcerated.
Now 25 and sober for two years, Clark says the drug that took away crucial years of his young life is always in the back of his mind.
Methamphetamine, he says, is not a drug you can try only once.
"The first time you do, you'll never forget it," Clark said. "It'll haunt you forever. There's almost never a day that I don't think about it."
Clark says meth "became really popular" in Floyd County, where he grew up and attended high school, making his story a far too common one.
So common that the county's commonwealth's attorney says 90 percent of her court cases are meth-related. So common that the county's director of social services says the drug is one of the main reasons children are removed from their homes and placed in foster care.
And so common that law enforcement officials are calling meth manufacturing and use the "biggest problem in this county."
Meth is not unique to Floyd County. In recent years, the stimulant has slowly traveled beyond the borders of Southwest Virginia and found its way into every corner of the commonwealth. It's an even bigger issue in other states, such as Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri and Indiana, according to data from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
But Floyd County community members have taken a specific approach to trying to combat the problem. Two concerned citizens started a group that they hope will bring awareness to the meth "epidemic" in the area, and on Tuesday night, STOMP (Standing Together to Overcome the Meth Problem) made its public debut, with help from law enforcement officials and addiction counselors.
During Jeff Dalton's opening remarks to a crowd of about 100 people gathered in the county high school auditorium, the chief investigating officer for the sheriff's office said it's time to raise awareness.
"We're here to clean up our county of this devastating drug that is tearing up families, tearing up our community and destroying society as a whole."
Rise of the 'one pot' method
Joe Baum has spent years 49 years practicing medicine. During his stints in emergency rooms, he witnessed the effects of meth firsthand. In 2011, a letter to the editor that he wrote about substance abuse was published in the Floyd Press. It caught the attention of at least one reader. Cheri Baker, the owner of Tuggles Gap Restaurant & Motel, contacted Baum. The two sat down with Sheriff Shannon Zeman at Tuggles Gap in October 2011, and STOMP was born.
The group — which includes a local psychologist, a physician, a seasoned minister, recovering addicts and representatives from the sheriff's office, the school system and social services — meets monthly to discuss objectives for acquainting the community with the issues surrounding the manufacturing and consumption of meth, Baum said.
"We have moved slowly," he said. "We had our first public airing ... in part because of funding from the sheriff's office."
STOMP's goal is to let the community know how dangerous and expensive meth is for the county, Baum said.
The upper, made with household chemicals and cold medicine, can now be manufactured just about anywhere, posing a greater threat to the environment and passers-by. Meth labs of the past, commonly referred to as "garage labs," required hundreds of cold tablets, a large quantity of fuel, glassware, other chemicals and a room large enough to set up in. Now, meth cookers typically pour all of the ingredients into a plastic soda bottle and shake. This "one pot" method, as it has been termed, has made possible the mobile meth lab.
"All drugs have their problems but meth is so addicting," Baum said. "We have local labs, people who do this and have kids, users getting caught up in illegal activity. It's terribly expensive for the community to hunt these people down, clean up the labs and put these people in jail."
Floyd County taxpayers write, on average, a $1,600 check each time drug investigators discover and shut down a meth lab. Dalton, who is also a member of the New River Valley Drug Task Force, said that the manufacturers will get a bill for the cost of the cleanup, but those manufacturers will also typically be spending years in prison. With no way for the criminals to foot the bill, taxpayers pick it up, he said.
Data on meth labs busted and the costs were not available from the Floyd County Sheriff's Office last week.
But whatever the cost, county Superintendent Kevin Harris said that's money that could be allocated to the school system, which is one of the reasons he got involved with STOMP and opened the high school's doors to the group.
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars to clean and shut down labs, we could redirect it to education and the school system?" Harris said. "For me, if we could shift the resources that we're spending on cleaning up this mess into educating kids as to why not to get involved, it would be a win-win."
Though the drug extends far beyond the boundaries of Floyd County, officials agree that one reason the drug has become so popular in the area is simple economics. About $20 of ingredients yields about $100 of product, Dalton said.
County Commonwealth's Attorney Stephanie Shortt said that while urban jurisdictions have affordable drugs like heroin, meth has become the cheap drug for rural areas like Floyd County.
"The materials to make meth are pretty available," Shortt said. "It's a pretty inexpensive way for people to make a drug. Mexican meth became too expensive so people figured out they could make it themselves."
About nine years ago, Floyd County was introduced to crystal meth — a rocklike substance typically smoked — brought into the area by Mexican drug dealers and dubbed "Mexican meth."
Mexican meth in Mexico sold for about $1,000 a pound, but by the time the drug made it to Floyd County, it was marketed at $12,000 a pound, Dalton said.
"We targeted that very heavily and were able to kind of knock that out because it was so expensive," Dalton said. "It wasn't just a thing that anybody could go buy because of the price of it."
Then, about 2008, meth reappeared. This time it came in several different colors and textures, found in the bottom of soda bottles. The "one pot" method was slowly trickling into Floyd County, and by 2010 it had become a major problem, Dalton said.
People who use the drug can smoke it, snort it, shoot it or swallow it. The effects are largely the same: a rush of energy and a high that can last hours. It's akin to cocaine — often being called "the poor man's cocaine" — and can create increased wakefulness and physical activity, euphoria, decreased appetite and rapid breathing and heart rate, according to the DEA.
"It really made you feel like you're on top of the world," Clark said. "It's like the greatest thing ever. At first you feel like it's something you want, but then it's something that you need, that you can't go without."
This desire for more once the supply is gone may cause a person to "do just about anything to get it," Clark said.
Shortt said 90 percent of the cases on her docket are meth-related, and about 80 percent of her drug indictments are for meth. Not only is she seeing more cases of manufacturing and possession , but she has also seen an increase in breaking and entering cases related to meth use , she said.
"As their addiction gets worse and worse, you see more desperate types of break-ins to support their habits," Shortt explained .
Shortt said whenever judges from other areas preside over hearings in her circuit court, they are shocked by the extent of the meth problem in Floyd County. Though there haven't been any homicides related to the drug, she does see crimes that often involve guns or violence.
"They're extremely paranoid, and they can be pretty dangerous," Shortt said of the users. "Domestic cases, assaults; when they're under the influence of meth or coming off of meth, they're experiencing 'tweaking,' which is what it's called when they're coming off of the drug and they need more, and they get violent."
Shortt has been requesting emergency funding from the state since June 2011 to support the salary of a part-time assistant. It has been difficult to handle the influx of meth charges without additional help, she said. That emergency funding is now running dry, too.
"A large reason that our criminal docket is so large is because of meth cases," Shortt said. "It started off in 2005 and 2006 with mostly cases involving Mexican meth, and then I would say probably between 2009 and 2010, it was like an explosion of these one-pot cases. We've just had so many drug sweeps."
The toll on children
Several of the community members who attended STOMP's first public meeting voiced concern about the effects on children in the community. The typical meth user in Floyd County is between 24 and 40 years old, and it's not uncommon for them to have children — sometimes inside the home with them while they are cooking the drug.
Carl Ayers, director of Floyd County social services, said about 80 percent to 85 percent of the children in foster care in the county came from homes where parents were using and abusing drugs. Though he doesn't have exact numbers, he said "a substantial portion" of the
children in custody care are there because of meth.
Ayers said he's never had a case in which a parent who was manufacturing was ever reunited with his or her child. That's something that differentiates meth from other controlled substances, he said. While it may be easier to kick the addiction with other drugs, meth users struggle.
It takes, on average, about 18 months of treatment for a meth addict to have a chance of getting clean, according to Doug Chancey, a certified substance abuse counselor with an office in Floyd.
Chancey said meth, cocaine and heroin are the most addicting drugs on the market. Getting over a meth addiction is a little more difficult because the drug has a stronger psychological hold on its users, he said.
"The initial amount of dopamine produced when the drug hits the brain, it's five to ten times the amount of the pleasurable hormone that's produced in the brain, and it gives such an incredible high," Chancey said.
Serving a prison sentence and going through the proper inpatient treatment is a lengthy process, during which parents cannot care for their children, Ayers said.
"Meth is an epidemic," Ayers said. "I've seen nothing good come with any of the situations we handle in our agency. It's torn up families permanently."
Whenever drug investigators discover a meth lab in a home with children, social services is called to the scene. The children then go through what Ayers calls a "traumatizing" series of events. Their clothes are stripped, since they may be contaminated, and the children are provided clothing brought to the scene by the social services agent. The children are not allowed to take anything from the house where the lab was located. "You can imagine for younger children who have stuffed animals, possessions; it's a challenging situation," Ayers said.
After watching their parents get arrested, the children are taken to a hospital — usually Carilion New River Medical Center — and put through an extensive medical workup.
Hopefully, Ayers said, the agency can then place the child with a family member. If not, the child enters the social services system.
At the STOMP meeting Tuesday, before the opening speeches and a short video about the meth epidemic around the country, the attendees had a chance to view student artwork entries for STOMP's logo contest. The group had about 100 high school students submit their designs for a potential logo, which is one of the ways the group says it hopes to raise awareness with the younger generation.
Many of the community members who attended the meeting Tuesday were teachers and staff in the county school system. After the video, several asked questions about how to keep meth out of the hands of teenagers.
Harris said the school system has partnered with the June Bug Center in Floyd to host a variety of after-school programs. Children and teenagers are most likely to get in trouble during the period of time after they leave school property and before their parents return home from work, Harris said.
Dalton said the sheriff's office has not yet seen high school students involved with meth.
"The school system has a lot to gain through [STOMP] with the education of the next generation about the dangers of meth," Harris said. "We prepare people to be career and college ready, and part of that is making good decisions about one's health and dangers to one's health."
Can a community pull together?
In 2012, 221 meth labs, "dump sites" or "chemical and glassware" seizures were recorded in Virginia, according to the DEA. That's an alarming increase from the 21 recorded meth incidents in 2008.
Wade Collins, deputy director of the technical hazards division for the department of emergency management, said that while Southwest Virginia has been "inundated" with the drug for some time, it took longer for meth to travel to the northern areas of the state.
Hazard materials officers with the department of emergency management occasionally respond to meth labs to help separate the dangerous substances and aid in cleanup. They've responded less frequently in recent years because the Virginia State Police has trained officers who can deal with the hazardous materials, Collins said.
"Floyd County has been one of the counties with higher instances of meth through the years," Collins said. "I applaud them for taking steps and raising awareness. I haven't heard of many groups around the state that are doing that."
Collins said the materials used to make meth are toxic and can be harmful to the environment if cookers and users dispose of the residue in rivers or throw the bottles on the side of the road.
Floyd County Sheriff's Office Deputy Sheriff Rick Morrison said the department has seen several structure fires and burns from meth cooks gone wrong.
"It's getting worse every year," Morrison said. "It's not like old-time drugs with informants on the street, and you can just arrest them. It's made in the home, and sometimes you don't find out about it until it's too late and something has happened, like fires or child neglect."
That's why, Morrison said, the sheriff's office needs the community to be keenly aware of the problem — something he said he hopes STOMP can help accomplish.
"We need the community to be our eyes and our ears," Morrison said. "The sheriff's department can't do this by themselves."
Clark said that's why he decided to tell his story to a room full of strangers.
"I wanted to give back to the community and share my story," Clark said. "I grew up in a good home, with a good family and was brought up in a good way. Meth can reach anybody."
Joe Klein, a private counselor in Floyd, spoke briefly at STOMP's meeting, stressing that while the meth problem will be a difficult one to overcome in the county, Clark's story proves that there is hope.
"There's two ways to deal with the drug problem," Klein said. "One is the supply side. ... But we also have to deal with the demand side ... that's sending so many of these young people looking for that type of pleasure, that type of novelty in their life, and again, if it's so accessible in certain family systems or parts of the county, what might we be able to do about that as a community?"
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