Methamphetamine is extremely addictive, highly explosive and rapidly destroying the families of those it touches, yet, much to the dismay of Sampson County law enforcement officers, its manufacture and use here is quickly reaching epidemic levels again.
“We’re at the highest level we’ve ever been,” a frustrated Sheriff Jimmy Thornton said in a recent interview, pointing to a map of North Carolina projected on a wall in the department’s conference room, letting the numbers tell the story.
That map, color-coded to show counties where clandestine labs were discovered and destroyed during 2013, has Sampson highlighted in yellow, a large 27 begging a closer look.
“Look at this, here we are right here, ranked fourth in the state,” Thornton said. “We had 27 labs in 2013, that’s our highest. In 2008, we were at 24, before that we barely got out of the teens, and after 2008, we went down significantly, then you saw it climb a little bit, then we hit the ceiling again.”
The numbers mirror the growth in meth use in other areas of the state, though, ironically, not really across North Carolina.
In 2013, Wilkes County, in the western part of N.C., ranked No. 1 in clandestine labs, with 50, followed closely behind by Onslow County, just over an hour’s drive from Sampson, with 46 discovered labs. Anson was ranked 3rd with 30 and Catawba, also to the west, tied with Sampson for a 4th place ranking.
In counties bordering Sampson, the numbers varied, with Duplin having 13 labs; Johnston, 22; Wayne, 9; Harnett, 8; Pender and Cumberland, 2; and Bladen only 1.
Thornton, sitting down with the captain of his department’s drug enforcement division for the interview, acknowledged that meth continues to be the most sought after drug in Sampson, most likely because of its highly addictive nature and the relative ease with which it can be manufactured.
“Right now, for our county, it’s meth, but prescription pills are off the charts, too, particularly among those younger,” the drug captain said, asking that his name not be used because of the often dangerous undercover work he does.
“It’s an epidemic,” Thornton chimed in. “There’s really no way to get a firm handle on it, but we don’t back off, we can’t.”
In fact, it’s been the constant enforcement — from traffic stops and undercover buys to the crackdown statewide of pseudoephedrine purchases and federal prosecution of some meth manufacturers — that had brought Sampson’s numbers down over the past five years.
But as with most who work outside the law, Thornton said, meth cookers and users eventually find a way to circumvent the system. That’s when a spike often occurs.
“Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” the sheriff stressed.
That way has included meth cookers using others to purchase the highly scrutinized items that are the main ingredients of the powerful drug, particularly pseudoephedrine, now limited to over-the-counter sales of two boxes every 30 days.
“When they first started tracking the ingredients, it made a huge dent,” Thornton said, “but dealers are now trying to avoid having those purchases being traced back to them, and it’s working, at least for now.”
At first, tracking cut off a meth cooker’s quick supply, making manufacture of the drug more difficult. But, today, the cooks turn to users of different illegal drugs to swap a purchase of pseudoephedrine for money. And, by all accounts, it’s working.
“A crack addict will buy pseudoephedrine and then sell it to the meth cook. The crack addict needs the money and the meth cook needs the ingredient. It’s as simple as that,” the drug captain explained. “You get several different crack addicts making those purchases and suddenly you’ve circumvented the system and you’re able to cook again.”
There’s also a change in the way meth is cooked and where it’s manufactured. Once mostly manufactured in labs assembled in outbuildings and in wooded areas behind residences, if not in homes, themselves, the drug is now made more “on the go,” in what Thornton called the one-pot method.
“They do it a number of ways. We still have those using residences and going in the woods behind their homes, but we also have some who will put it in a backpack or travel bag and cook to go. It’s a quicker way to cook. You only have one container, you can mix everything up … “
But it’s also just as explosive, perhaps more so on the go. “It’s just not a good mix, but then you’re talking about meth heads and they don’t see the dangers,” the drug captain attested. “When you are addicted, common sense goes out the window.”
Statistics show that for every 100 people who try meth, 98 of them will become addicted, a powerful testament to the strong elixir that gets into a person’s system, gnaws away at it and refuses to let go.
And while meth has been known to rot teeth, cause boils to rise up on a user’s skin and eat quickly away at any will to resist it after it has first been snorted, injected or orally ingested, demand for the drug in Sampson remains strong.
Ironically many meth heads are former crack addicts who get on the drug to release them from the grips of cocaine.
“Most meth heads will tell you that,” the drug captain pointed out. “They’ll say meth will get them off their crack addiction. But they’re just trading one addiction for another, and it’s actually a more powerful addiction.”
The crack ties, again, extend beyond a switch in addiction, too, as Thornton pointed out earlier.
Many crack users, in need of money, will take to selling meth ingredients as a means of making the cash they need to feed their own habits, something that suits meth cookers out to bypass restrictions placed on the main ingredients they need to manufacture their product.
“In many cases, it’s all about the money,” Thornton said. “There’s the addiction and there’s the need for money to feed that addiction. It’s a vicious circle.”
And, as with any drug, meth doesn’t recognize race or socio-economics, but rather takes anyone into its lair willing to try it, yet not everyone sees it as a drug of choice.
“You have certain populations that prefer one drug to another, and that’s very true here. Cocaine is everywhere, touching just about every race and class. But meth is used more by whites, while African Americans prefer crack cocaine and marijuana,” the sheriff explained.
Meth cooks, the drug captain pointed out, are oftentimes older white males, but meth users run the gamut in terms of age.
And they often jump from county to county, particularly where one borders another. “In Wayne, Johnston, Harnett and Sampson, we are often dealing with the same people when it comes to meth,” Thornton said. “It’s one big family.”
to other crimes
As is often the case, when drug use spikes so do other crimes, something Thornton has often stressed when talking about rises in break-ins across the county.
“Drug use is a big factor in our break-ins,” Thornton reiterated. “I’ve said it a million times, and it continues to be true, drugs drive all other crime in our county and every other county. Drug addicts have got to have that drug. If they don’t have the money, they are going to steal to get it, plain and simple.”
As has been the case in the past, eliminating a means may curb a problem for a time, but it won’t completely stop it.
“As long as there is a demand, there will be someone who will find a way to supply it. And as long as there is a supply, people are going to find a way to get it, and that usually means the method to getting it is as illegal as the use and sell of the drug,” the sheriff said.
In past years, when the meth problem had dropped back to an average of 8-10 labs discovered a year or less, traffic stops and “knock and talks” often helped Special Investigation Division agents make a dent in the trade, and federal prosecution of many sent a clear message that active prison time was in the future of those caught using or selling the substance.
But, the sheriff said, users and dealers are smart and quickly find ways to get around the latest enforcement methods.
“Look, right now with the one-pot method, if you totally eliminated that, we’d still be inundated with drugs. We aren’t finding as much right now in traffic stops because users and dealers adapt and conform.
“They know we are out there and all over this problem, but they also know, like we do, that if the need is there, someone is going to meet that need,” Thornton said.
With meth use, comes addiction, and with addiction comes what Thornton calls the “gut-wrenching” fallout that rips families apart, causes financial ruin and leaves those addicted with few places to turn.
A meth user, the drug captain said, cannot see it.
“Those who use meth don’t think they are doing anything wrong, much like any drug user really. They don’t think they are hurting anyone, or at least no one but themselves. They can’t see the impact their use is having on everyone around them.”
As with most drugs, meth users go in search of the drug because of the high and the excitement. Some try it the first time because of peer pressure. None of them understand the addiction or what comes with it.
“There’s really not a lot of help to be had once someone is addicted to meth,” Thornton said. “Our mental health system is in a real mess; those folks do all they can, but it’s very, very limited.”
And that leaves families to deal with addicts who often have no way to kick their habits.
“I see it all the time. Parents, a spouse a grandparent will call or see me, asking, begging really, for help for their loved one, and there’s just not a whole lot of help available. It is gut-wrenching.”
Addicts, the law enforcement officers said, will steal from their family members, often leaving them in financial ruin, all so they can get the fix their body is demanding.
“Homes are left destroyed, children are left without a parent, so many lives are ruined. You’d think people would wise up, would quit trying this mess, but they don’t,” Thornton said.
Tips continue to be a good source of help for the Sheriff’s Department, Thornton said, and a good means to helping officers discover and destroy labs.
He believes those tips continue to come in because residence see the enforcement that follows, and he strongly urges citizens to keep up what he calls “good work within the community.”
“There was a time when no one shared anything, but that has all changed, and we are grateful. Now people call, they tell us of suspicious things they are seeing and that bodes well for our investigations. Sometimes it may take us longer than we want to wrap up an investigation, but it’s the nature of what we do. If we are called, we deal with it, and it has made a difference.”
The sheriff believes it will be those continued tips coupled with intense enforcement that will drive the meth numbers back down again.
“Will we ever get rid of it? It’s doubtful. But you best believe we are going to be out there doing what we can every single day. We won’t back off, we absolutely won’t,” Thornton said.