April 4, 2013 10:29:58 AM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
For someone addicted to methamphetamine, the cost of using the illegal drug goes far beyond the price of getting high.
Known as Ice or crystal meth, just one hit of the drug can have lifelong effects on the user. With a dismal four percent recovery rate for first time users, crystal meth addicts are created in an instant. Both crystal meth addicts and law enforcement officials say that after the second exposure to the drug, it is nearly impossible to recover.
Mark is a former crystal meth user and manufacturer. He is among the fortunate few who have beaten the addiction. While he is free from the addiction, he is not free from the stigma associated with the drug and has asked that his identity not be revealed.
Although it has been three years since he beat the habit, Mark said he still struggles with the lure of meth on a daily basis.
After a particularly hard day, Mark says he feels the pull to return to his old ways and cook a batch of the drug that almost claimed his life.
"It's days like today I really miss doing hard drugs," he said. "I'm not going to go back there but sometimes you just want that escape."
A Columbus native now living in Memphis, Mark first started doing drugs in the late 1980s as a teenager. He began smoking marijuana and then moved to experimenting with cocaine, heroin and, finally, meth.
In a decision that would change the rest of his life, Mark began running drugs to support his habit. What began as a one-time favor for a friend quickly turned into a profession.
"A lot of it was small stuff," he said. "I was picking up five-to-10 pounds of pot. It escalated later in the years and was hundreds of pounds of pot."
One fateful day, Mark claims he was kidnapped by members of a drug cartel, where he endured torture for several days and feared for his life.
"When they put me in the car, I thought I would never see anyone again. It terrified me," he said.
For reasons he cannot explain, Mark said he gained the trust of the drug lords and earned his freedom by becoming their drug mule.
"I made the cut and began running drugs from Texas to Arizona," he said.
While he was accustomed to transporting marijuana for small-time dealers, he said transporting for the cartel was a different matter altogether. Mark never asked what he was transporting and, for a while, thought the white powdery substance was cocaine. Then he realized it was meth.
"I was bringing back chunks of meth from Arizona. Thirty, forty, fifty balls at a time," he said.
Mark claims although he transported the drug, he never tried it. Then one night it was easier for him to say "yes" than it was to say "no."
"We sat down one night and it was over from there," he said. " I was wide open. I've watched meth tear families apart, tear people to shreds from the inside out and ruin lives. It did mine."
Attacking the epidemic
Mark's story is not uncommon.
Primarily used among whites, crystal meth addicts run in tight circles. Due to landmark legislation regulating the sale of pseudoephedrine (commonly known by its brand name, Sudafed), the key component in meth manufacturing, the meth industry is attracting a new breed of dealers who are changing the landscape of how the drug is made and distributed.
In 2005, Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 as part of the revised Patriot Act. Pharmacies were mandated by law to place pseudoephedrine under lock and key and require buyers to sign for the drug. Purchasing the drug was also limited to 3.6 grams of the product in a single day period or nine grams in a 30-day period.
Despite the legislation, the epidemic still continued as the Drug Enforcement Administration frantically tried to track the sale of the over the counter drug. Then, in 2006, the state of Oregon struck a crucial blow to the meth industry when it required that a prescription be required to purchase pseudoephedrine. In 2004, before the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act law went into effect, Oregon reported 448 meth labs throughout the state. When its state law went into effect in 2006, the number of meth labs dwindled to 63. In 2012, law enforcement officials reportedly discovered just seven meth labs in the state.
Lowndes County Sheriff's Department Commander Bobby Grimes said when Mississippi officials saw the success Oregon was having combating meth labs, state lawmakers followed suit and became the second state to mandate a prescription be required to purchase pseudoephedrine. The law went into effect in 2010.
Since then, Grimes and Lowndes County Sheriff Mike Arledge said they have seen a drastic decrease in meth labs, not only in Columbus but throughout the state.
In 2012, state law enforcement officials reported 253 meth-related incidents in Mississippi: 21 of those were active labs. In 2013, there have been 39 meth-related incidents to date. Of those, five people have been arrested on manufacturing meth charges in Columbus since January.
While Grimes and Arledge insist meth manufacturing is on the decline as a result of the law, there is a higher demand for the product. With a higher demand, dealers are devising new schemes to get the drug on the streets.
While the cartels have been in the meth business since the 1980's, gangs have gotten into the trade more recently. Known for making their money through drug sales, gang members primarily sell cocaine. However, due to market demands, gang members are now beginning to sell crystal meth.
"As users change their drug of choice, dealers are having to change," Arledge said.
While Alabama does not currently require its residents to show a valid prescription, in light of the Mississippi law regulating the pseudoephedrine, Alabama lawmakers decreed that any Mississippi resident attempting to purchase the drug in Alabama must produce a prescription.
Grimes said now that gang members have entered the trade, dealers are finding ways to work around both Mississippi and Alabama law.
"A dealer will give a cocaine addict a $20 crack rock. That addict will then go buy a box of Sudafed and bring it back to the dealer. That dealer will turn around and sell that box for a hundred bucks," Grimes said.
While the new law regulates the sale of pseudoephedrine in Mississippi, residents from Alabama are still flooding the local market with the drug, especially on the east side of the state where Lowndes County lies.
With nearly 100 pharmacies in Mobile, Arledge said George County and Jackson County in Mississippi are seeing an influx of crystal meth.
When it was available over the counter, addicts would buy the cheaper and less potent generic versions of pseudoephedrine. A generic box of pseudoephedrine contained 20, 30-milligram tablets. One thousand tablets produced approximately one ounce of meth. Grimes said now that all pseudoephedrine requires a prescription and buyers are taking a higher risk, they are purchasing the higher quality product.
A $10, 10-count box of 12-hour Aleve Cold and Sinus with 120 milligrams can produce one gram, or $100 worth, of meth.
While cartels manufacture meth through elaborate labs, the most common lab in Mississippi is known as a "shake-and-bake" lab. Concocted in bottle sizes ranging from 20 ounces to two liters, a shake and bake lab takes approximately 30-to-45 minutes to make crystal meth. When the manufacturer mixes the pseudoephedrine and lithium strips and other necessary chemicals, a thermal reaction occurs and the bottle swells. Theoretically, a lab should yield 70-percent usable product. Arledge said realistically, a shake and bake lab yields 30-percent product. However, the more pseudoephedrine used, the stronger the meth. Because of the mixture of chemicals, not only can ingesting crystal meth be deadly, but cooking the drug can be as well.
"It can rupture and explode into flash fires," Arledge said.
Grimes said that after a cook from a shake-and-bake lab is complete, users filter the drug through a coffee filter.
He said the effects of crystal meth can make a person almost unrecognizable.
"These people are burning themselves up from the inside out," he said.
Grimes said crystal meth producers have a close bond, with each group member assigned a certain task.
"When you get into a group manufacturing meth, they're all interconnected," Grimes said.
"Each of them has their own place in the group. You have one responsible for getting the precursors, one responsible for cooking, one responsible for distributing, but every one of them is using it."
What he learned
Mark said he learned how to cook crystal meth when he was in prison.
He was arrested on drug-related charges in the mid 1990's and served five years in federal prison.
"I started cooking it (meth) when I got out of prison. I learned inside. I met a couple of cooks in prison. You talk shop and you get a lot of street knowledge. I took notes," he said.
"A lot of people say you go to prison to become a better criminal."
Mark said he had a notebook filled with how to manufacture meth and once he was out of prison, decided to try his first lab.
"I thought 'I'm going to give it a shot' and it was really, really good. I did it all and didn't even sell any of it."
After his first cook, Mark said he began selling it to his friends.
Soon, his body built up a tolerance for the drug and he began to need more of his product to get high.
"I was cooking four-to-five batches a week," he said. "When I was cooking, I would do it every day, every other day."
Mark said that because of his drug abuse, his physical appearance has deteriorated.
"I look a lot older than I am, unfortunately," he said. "I've had six dental surgeries in the last year-and-a-half and I have four more to go. It wreaked havoc on me. You see the before-and-after pictures and it wrecks your body. It's a tragic drug."
"You're taking multiple items that can kill you, putting them together and ingesting them and taking them for pleasure. And it's nasty. It's so dirty."
Mark said he is clean because of a combination of factors. After a friend was busted for cooking meth, Mark said he went on a bender where he was awake for 16 days straight.
"I passed out in my car, with my leg hanging out of my car, just sitting there," he said. "I woke up like I had just smoked a whole bowl of it. I slept 30 minutes and was up for another six-to-eight hours and then my body crashed again. It took me weeks to come off of it," he said.
Then one day Mark said he walked by a mirror and was stunned.
"I didn't even know that guy," he said.
With the help of family members, he checked himself into a long-term recovery program. He said beating a crystal meth addiction involves more than not being around the temptation, it means changing your entire lifestyle. He has left friends, girlfriends and even some family members in the past as he fights for his sobriety. He is a rare success story.
Mark said he still can't bear the thought of coming to Columbus -- the place where he tried drugs for the first time all those years ago.
"I still get physically sick when I see the Lowndes County sign. I have to pull over and throw up," he said.
"Once you've been in trouble, it doesn't matter what kind of present you've got or what kind of future you have. It doesn't matter how long I'm clean and sober or what I do good in my life, everyone in Columbus is only going to see the bad," he said.
Nearly a decade removed from his five-year prison stint, Mark holds down a regular job and said he is going back to school.
"If someone told me when I got out of prison that I would have a functional, get up and go kind of life and not running the roads, clubbing, I would have told them they lost their mind," he said. "I never saw myself where I am now."
For those who are on crystal meth, or considering trying the drug, Mark has words of wisdom based on his own painful experiences.
"I regret so, so much in my life," he said. " I let meth wreck me. If you do meth, stop. If you don't, don't start.
"It's the worst mistake you'll ever make."
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.