Every recovering addict can recall a moment in their life when they hit their lowest point. For Jenny Green of Waynesville, that low point was December 2014. She was incarcerated in the Swannanoa Women’s Correctional Facility, suffering from excruciating physical opioid withdrawal symptoms and missing her infant daughter’s first Christmas.
On any given day, the Haywood County Detention Center is full of people suffering from substance abuse and/or mental illness — to the point where Sheriff Greg Christopher said it sometimes feels like his staff is running a mental health facility as opposed to a jail.
Jean Parris of Canton has been telling anyone who will listen about the growing drug addiction problems facing Haywood County since 2011, which is when she helped form Drugs in Our Midst.
Law enforcement officers in Haywood County are pulling double duty in the war on drugs: they’re saving lives as well as fighting crime.
It’s been a while since the old Mountain Credit Union building in Cherokee saw foot traffic from people looking to deposit checks or get financial advice, but its doors still swing open and closed with regularity — though for a much different purpose.
It takes a village to combat a drug addiction or mental illness, and Richie Tannerhill is hoping to see a multitude of villages turn out when the inaugural Western Regional Rally for Recovery comes to Lake Junaluska Sept. 19.
The numbers are unforgiving.
One in three unexpected deaths in Haywood County are likely prescription drug overdoses. This year alone, there have been eight drug-related deaths — out of 25 unexpected deaths in all. And that doesn’t include two deaths last week that the county medical examiner suspects are overdoses as well.
I was recently among a group of friends who were discussing habits — what they are and why we have them. Something I noticed pretty quickly is how those of us participating in the conversation, me included, tended to justify those habits we want to keep no matter how destructive they are for our health or emotional wellbeing.
“I don’t do this, so I should be able to do this,” the line of reasoning generally went. Or, to bring the thought from the abstract to the concrete, the logic seemed to follow this pattern: I gave up smoking (substitute your favorite addiction) so I don’t worry about eating five gallons of ice cream a night. If that’s what it takes not to smoke, oh well, I earned that right.”
The problem with this sort of reasoning is that there’s no great scorekeeper in the sky keeping tabs on our giving-ups with our substitutings. Just because I quit smoking the two packs of cigarettes a day I once smoked doesn’t mean that devouring bowls of ice cream or eating entire packs of cookies won’t kill me, too.
I have what’s commonly referred to as an addictive personality, mixed with an attractive sprinkle of obsessiveness. Anything I like a little, I soon find myself overdoing and wallowing about in excess. This extends to the obvious habits: smoking, drinking, food. But I have to be wary of over-exercising when I’m exercising, or reading one book by an author only to find myself trapped in having to read every book ever written by that author.
Which brings me to a digression: If you have a personality similar to mine, do not, I warn you, make the mistake of “sampling” Henry James. I fell into this trap because I long felt a certain need, an itch that needed to be scratched, of filling a James gap in my education. I’d read and enjoyed James’ The Portrait of a Lady in college, but that was about my only exposure to this great writer. That being the case, last summer I decided to read “a bit” of James. Four or five months later, and I’m trapped: James was horrendously long-lived and prolific, with three distinct writing periods that included some 20 novels and what seems an endless number of shorter works.
It took me — and I’m a fast reader — about eight weeks to wade through The Wings of the Dove. I’m still not sure I even liked the damned thing. I’ve been eyeballing The Golden Bowl, but haven’t yet been able to make the mental commitment to read it. But given my personality, this isn’t as much about choice as one might think and hope. This last James novel must, at some point, be read — and I might as well admit it and start.
Recent scientific studies show that some people literally might be hardwired for addiction.
The BBC last week reported on a study of addiction that recently finished up in the United Kingdom. The news service noted it long had been established that the brains of drug addicts have some differences to those of other people. But experts were unsure whether drugs changed the wiring of the brain or if drug addicts’ brains were wired differently in the first place. Researchers studied the brains of cocaine or crack addicts with brains of “clean” brothers or sisters. They found abnormalities in both, suggesting, they said, that addiction is in part a “disorder of the brain.”
But the study, by revealing identical abnormalities in both the addicts and their “clean” siblings, indicates more than just hopeless acceptance in the face of addictions: self control plays a role, too. The non-addicted siblings had very different lives despite sharing the same susceptibilities.
Cocaine and crack use aside, where the application of these findings are obviously of the greatest import, the study I think contains hints about behavior for the rest of us.
It’s easy for a person like myself to simply give in to my wants. But like it or not, there is an element of self-control at play. I might want to eat a pound bag of gingersnaps, yes — but do I have to? Do I need to? Of course not. And nor have I “earned” the right to eat a pound bag of gingersnaps by not having done something else. Something to perhaps chew on the next time I get a late-night eating urge.
(Now if only I could reason my way to not reading that final, very long, James novel ... of course, maybe if I do read and finish it, I’ve earned the right to eat those gingersnaps after all …)
But a new method for cooking meth has emerged over the past year, threatening to increase the number of “mom and pop” labs at a moment when demand for the drug is high.
“It definitely is on the rise, and I think you can see that in the numbers,” said Special Agent Lee Tritt of the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation.
In 2009, the SBI busted 206 meth labs across the state, compared to 195 labs in 2008 and 157 labs in 2007.
Tritt, who grew up in Sylva, is part of a five-person tactical team charged with dismantling and evaluating clandestine meth labs across the state. Last month, he and other agents took apart a large-scale lab in the Ellijay area of Macon County at the residence of Pamela and David Holland.
It was the fourth such lab discovered in Macon County since the new laws governing the sale of pseudoephedrine took effect in January 2006.
Meth is made by cooking a concoction of household cleaners and over-the-counter medicines. Meth labs peaked in North Carolina in 2005, with 328 labs discovered that year. The number of labs dropped significantly the next year when the new law was passed. Specifically, the law required anyone buying pseudoephedrine and ephedrine to show a photo ID and sign a log book. The law limits buyers to no more than three packages within 30 days from a single location.
But Tritt said the rise of “shake and bake” meth labs, which only use one pot and are highly mobile, has shifted the battle lines during the past year. Now big labs aren’t the primary targets, because anyone with a kitchen can be cooking. And a large quantity of the ingredients are no longer necessary to make a batch.
“Shake and bake is primarily the method we’re seeing in Western North Carolina,” Tritt said.
SBI agents first encountered shake and bake labs in North Carolina around July 2009 in the eastern part of the state. Shake and bake labs have since moved west. The shake and bake process is fast, easy to set up, and produces little waste or evidence for the cook to dispose of.
Meanwhile, the method also requires less pseudoephedrine and yields a cleaner final product.
“It used to take more to cook with,” Tritt said. “Now they can literally cook with one box.”
Tritt has processed more than 300 labs since he began this work in 2003, and he is adamant that if there is one rule to meth production, it’s that it has no boundaries.
“In the western part of the state it could be anywhere. It’s not a rural or an urban thing. It’s everywhere,” Tritt said.
Around 30 percent of all meth labs that SBI agents have responded to so far this year have been shake and bake labs.
With cooking methods readily accessible on the Internet, N.C. Department of Justice spokesperson Noelle Talley said she expects the practice to grow.
“We expect the popularity of shake and bake labs to rise as the method becomes better known throughout the meth production community,” Talley said.
Detective Rick Buchanan of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office investigates drug cases. Buchanan said the poor economy always increases the incidence of drug crime.
“Things are getting worse all over, and I think the economy has a lot to do with it,” Buchanan said. “When the economy is down, our business goes up.”
Buchanan said while the majority of the meth used in his jurisdiction still comes from Mexico, the shake and bake labs have changed the landscape because of what they produce.
“We’ve got labs in Western North Carolina, but a lot of our drugs are still imported,” Buchanan said. “The reason we’re seeing the influx in labs is related to the quality of the dope that’s being imported.”
According to Buchanan meth producers using shake and bake techniques produce products with extremely high levels of purity, while the quality of Mexican meth has declined in response to tougher laws there.
For investigators like Buchanan, the ravages of meth usage go beyond the individual horror stories of physical deterioration and mania. Addiction to the drug increases the rate of child abuse and domestic violence in the household. He said small-scale meth producers have nothing in common with the moonshiners of yesteryear.
“These people have two things in mind,” Buchanan said. “They’re making it to get high, and they’re making it to make money to get more stuff. It’s not like they’re doing it for their families to get by.”
Buchanan said investigators still rely on tips from citizens as the most reliable way to identify meth dealers and producers. Jackson County does not keep track of meth arrests separately, but in 2009 the sheriff’s office recorded 101 felony drug arrests and 52 misdemeanor arrests. Already in 2010 — only halfway through the year — the office has recorded 79 drug felony arrests and 81 misdemeanors, numbers that reflect an increase in drug activity.
For Buchanan, that means finding new ways to put the squeeze on meth producers, whether they’re using one pot or a basement worth of chemicals.
“It has no boundaries. It could be 200 feet from where we’re sitting, or it could be in a tent in the middle of nowhere,” Buchanan said.