Officials discuss meth dangers

LOGANVILLE - More than 300 people attended Tuesday night's town meeting about the epidemic of methamphetamine use in metro Atlanta.

Walton and Gwinnett school officials as well as city and county officials joined hundreds of residents to learn about this drug's rampant spread throughout the country.

The use of methamphetamine, a cheap drug to make and buy, is high in Georgia.

"Meth use does not discriminate. People of all ages, races and economic situations use the drug," said Janie Fulghum of Mothers Against Methamphetamine.

"There are those who think it can't happen here," said Loganville mayor Tim Barron. "But we're no different than many cities across the country."

The meeting opened with powerful testimonies from former meth users.

"I believe you have to hit rock bottom before you can ask for help. Some people get the help and recover, and some die before they ever get the chance," said recovered addict Justin Cowen. "I'll struggle with the addiction for the rest of my life."

Fulghum has crusaded for meth education ever since she started the Loganville chapter of MAMa 18 months ago, citing alarming statistics from the bedroom communities in Walton county.

"In Walton county, meth arrests are up 550 percent. Kids as young as age 11 are using it."

One of the things that sets meth apart as one of the most dangerous illegal drugs available is the rate of addiction - 98 percent of first-time users develop a physical addiction immediately. Brain damage and "rewiring" begin with the first use.

"If people knew what they were taking they'd be shocked. Meth is made from ammonia, battery acid, drain cleaner, Red Devil lye and cold medicine," Fulghum said.

And meth users aren't the only ones paying the price.

"A meth lab produces about 7 pounds of toxic waste for every ounce of meth that is cooked," said Sherri Strange of the Georgia DEA.

Homes and even cars in which meth has been produced are toxic. In fact, California recently passed a law requiring home sellers to provide proof that no meth lab has operated in that home.

People who come into contact with the toxins left behind when meth is cooked can develop some of the same symptoms users suffer - skin lesions, headaches, burning eyes and general sickness.

In Georgia, only a hazardous materials team can detect and eliminate meth toxins from a home or car. There is a portable detection kit recently made available, but it costs around $10,000, Fulghum said.

Law enforcement agents who sat on the panel at Tuesday night's meeting had a strong message for the audience: they need the help of the community to find and shut down these labs.

"If you see unusual activity at a house such as secretive activity, an unusually strong chemical odor or windows blacked out, notify us," said Snellville Chief of Police Roy Whitehead.

Strange said that dead foliage in the yard is another result of toxic meth residue.

Police chief Keith Glass of Monroe added, "No president, governor or mayor can take the place of a mom and dad. Know what your kids are doing. Get in their business."

Something else residents can do, according to Fulghum, is to petition store owners to stop selling those little glass vases with a rosebud in them.

"The glass vase is a meth pipe," said Fulghum, who contracted with all convenience store owners in Loganville to stop selling them.

Signs of meth use are typically weight loss, erratic sleep patterns and sleep deprivation, anxiety and skin lesions on the face, arms and legs.

"Of course, parents can do all the right things, and their child can still make a wrong choice," said Glass.

According to Strange, meth has been around for about 80 years. Military pilots in World War II used it to keep them awake and to decrease their need for sleep, as did the Japanese Kamikaze pilots. Military leaders stopped using it because of its side effects, particularly paranoia.

"Today's meth is much stronger," Strange said.

"Most of the meth here is coming from Mexico," said Maj. Bart Hulsey of the Gwinnett County Police Department.

While meth labs are being busted at a record pace, meth use is rising.

"Even superlabs can only produce about 10 pounds of meth at a time," said Hulsey.

Law enforcements who sat on the panel also remarked that meth use is only the tip of the criminal iceberg that they see. Murder, home invasions, burglaries and domestic violence are all fallout from meth use.

"I can't remember the last time I interviewed somebody that was just a plain thief," Glass said. "They're usually trying to support a habit."

The Gwinnett County drug hotline number is 770-962-6272. Residents can anonymously call to report suspected drug activity.

The Georgia Crisis and Access Line, a 24-hour, seven-day help line, is 1-800-715-4225. People who are using meth, or those affected by a user, can call for help and resources.