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Georgia's problem with meth
A closer look at the 'monster' drug

LAWRENCEVILLE - A Buford man will sit in prison for the next two years after allowing his 17-month old daughter to swallow a batch of his methamphetamine.

In Lawrenceville, a disabled woman returned home from an extended hospital stay to find her utilities disconnected, an eviction notice on her door. The daughter she left in charge of paying her bills instead spent about $10,000 on drugs.

When it comes to methamphetamine - also known as meth, crank, speed or ice, depending on its form - and its impact on lives, those stories barely scratch the surface.

Meth is a highly addictive, man-made drug that has slowly made its way east from the deserts of California to the plains of the Midwest, blazing a trail of destruction right into the neighborhoods of north Georgia.

Requiring household items and over-the-counter drugs, it's relatively inexpensive and easy to make, making it popular among teenagers and young adults looking for a cheap rush. According to the Department of Health, Georgia is third in the nation in total number of meth users between 12 and 17 years old.

Meth affects the central nervous system and the brain - and ultimately behavior - raising dopamine (the brain chemical that allows us to feel pleasure) levels to heights food, sex and even cocaine fall woefully short of. It can be injected, snorted, inhaled or swallowed.

Most of the meth in the United States is manufactured in Mexican "superlabs," smuggled in and stored here in stash houses or distribution points. It is also cooked locally, however, in houses, barns, shacks, hotel rooms and car trunks serving as makeshift labs. Many of these operators, police say, are addicts looking to feed their own habits rather than widely distribute the drug.

These labs - suitcase operations, some cops call them - are not without risk, however, creating their own environmental hazards. For every pound of meth cooked, 5 to 6 pounds of toxic waste is left behind, often haphazardly dumped into nature. Because of the chemicals and methodology involved, the labs are volatile.

Structures used to cook the drug are often left uninhabitable, but law enforcement is left with the labor intensive and expensive cleanup.

"The dismantling, cleanup and disposal of labs is extremely resource-intensive and beyond the financial capabilities of most jurisdictions," said Gwinnett police spokesman Officer Brian Kelly, who was once part of an Iowa drug task force. "The average cost of a cleanup is about $5,000 but some cost up to $100,000 or more."

A relatively new method of cooking meth, apparently all the rage for small-timers, is called the "shake and bake" or "one pot" method. This method - requiring a bottle, some household chemicals and cold pills - allows for the cooking of smaller amounts of meth without the hassle of open flames and powerful odors that might summon law enforcement.

While easier, this method isn't necessarily safer, since the cook would actually be holding the "bomb" when it exploded.

Despite recent surges, statistics suggest meth may not be as prevalent in Georgia as other drugs. In 2008, federal authorities seized 65 kilograms of methamphetamine. During that same year, more than 15 times that amount of cocaine was confiscated.

Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said he believes the problem may be greater in northern, more rural counties.

Two of the biggest busts in U.S. history, though, happened right here.

A raid conducted at a Lawrenceville home Wednesday netted 174 pounds of crystal meth, firearms and thousands of dollars in dirty money. Thirty-one suspects, members of a Mexican drug cartel, were arrested. Right under the nose of its neighbors, the house served as a conversion lab for Mexican meth.

In May, federal authorities raided two Duluth homes being used as stash houses, seizing more than 350 pounds of Mexican crystal meth with an estimated street value of $7.7 million.

"From the perspective of a drug smuggler ... Gwinnett County offers access to major thoroughfares for moving their product around the Southeast and access to transportation corridors facilitating transportation of illegal drugs throughout the country," Kelly said.

Gwinnett County Sheriff's spokeswoman Stacey Bourbonnais said the county jail's medical staff doesn't keep statistics of prisoners' specific drug preference. But according to the inmates being processed, meth is their drug of choice.

"In the last 10 years, the medical staff here has seen the move from crack cocaine being the top reported drug to meth being at the top of the list," Bourbonnais said.

After an intense initial rush and period of euphoria, users may become hyperactive and be unable to sleep. That's when they often resort to different drugs to stabilize themselves.

"For instance, those taking meth are also taking benzodiazepines like Xanax or a sedating antipsychotic like Seroquel to help them come down," Bourbonnais said.

While these additional drugs lead to additional issues, meth is the root of the dental problems (also known as "meth mouth") and psychosis burdening jail medical personnel. It's the reason inmates seeking replacement drugs try to "manipulate the system" during their incarceration and why officials see increased cases of HIV and Hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases.

In 2007, Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner James Donald said the prison system, operating at 105 percent capacity, had taken in nearly 3,000 meth-related criminals in a year.

Gwinnett Medical Center officials reported treating injuries suffered while under the influence of meth, and one case of a man convinced that he could fly.

So meth causes rotten teeth, violent behavior and brain damage. It is responsible for fatal explosions and prison sentences - what's the appeal?

Priscilla Woolwine, director of Gwinnett County's drug treatment court, said she's been told there's not a drug on the market - or black market, as it may be - that makes a person as high as meth.

"It's the nonstop energy they receive," she said. "When they first start doing meth, they have the ability to do anything; They have all this energy and can clean for hours, stay awake and get things done."

The fact that it is cheaper and can be made at home, she said, is also attractive to the prospective user.

Ironically, because meth can turn off the brain's ability to produce dopamine, users can be left with an inability to receive pleasure from anything except more and more meth.

A futile attempt, as Woolwine said that initial high can never be duplicated.

Jim Langford, a native north Georgian, is the executive director of the Georgia Meth Project, a privately funded meth prevention campaign modeled after the Montana Meth Project.

Citing staggering crime and drug use statistics in some Georgia counties, and Montana's success in reducing these incidents, Langford said it is imperative to address the "emergency."

"This drug is a real monster. A flesh-eating, brain-frying, homicide-suicide inducing, child-poisoning monster," Langford said in a release. "And it costs us big money."

Studies conducted by the RAND Corporation suggest he is right. Between health care, incarceration, law enforcement, foster care and lost work productivity, meth use reportedly costs Georgia about $1.3 billion a year.

Attorney General Thurbert Baker agreed that something needs to be done.

"Methampetamine is crippling our state. We spend millions each year on meth-related incarcerations alone, and yet the number of addicts in Georgia continues to grow rapidly," he said. "If we do nothing, our criminal justice system will reach a breaking point. As a state, we must take a stand against this drug that is all too rapidly addicting our youth."