Meth invasion

America’s drug of the moment wreaks havoc in the rural West.

  • Idaho State Police gather evidence from meth lab - Tom Davenport/Spokesma

  • Meth labs are found in sleepy towns like Colfax, Wash.

    Stephen Lyons photo

COLFAX, Wash. - With his short hair, trim waist and strong biceps, Erec Hopkins looks like an all-American farm boy. He could be the hard-working kid in the fields who drives grain trucks and runs combines during harvest. Or the teenager in the short-bed pickup invading Main Street with Garth Brooks on the speakers.

For a while, Erec, 20, lived up to that image. He was a star athlete at Garfield-Palouse High School and once held the Washington state record for the longest field goal - 47 yards. He even used to ride bulls in small-time rodeos in Colfax, Cheney and Princeton, Idaho.

But a little over a year ago, Erec found himself in Spokane, Wash., hatching a vicious plan. Dressed in black and wielding a knife, he would hide in some bushes, then jump out and cut the throat of his drug dealer. The idea of taking a man's life didn't bother Erec. The dealer had it coming; he had stolen some money that he thought Erec owed him following a pot deal - a hundred dollars and some loose change.

"Anybody else that he ripped off - one of his customers - they would have killed him and left him," says Erec. "That's what I thought I had to do. I thought that was the game."

But more than revenge was on Erec's mind. He needed some methamphetamine to pump into his veins.

At that time, Erec was slamming the white, crystal powder known as "poor man's cocaine" seven or eight times a day - about $25 to $30 per injection, if you're keeping score. But because he was dealing, most of his meth came free, like a bonus you might receive at work.

He loved the initial rush, the way the central nervous system stimulant makes you feel powerful and positive, as if you could and should lift a train off its tracks. As if you could rise above these confining nowhere towns and discover a place so pure that no one knew about it, a place without parents and rules.

But here on earth, in this small Western town, Erec was about to spin out.

Erec was not the only small-town Western boy (or girl) tangled in the nasty world of methamphetamines. From the tip of northern Idaho to the border country of Arizona, and everywhere in between, methamphetamine use, manufacture and distribution has become a huge illegal industry, and the number of people it ensnares grows daily.

Though the rise of methamphetamines is a nationwide phenomenon, the West, with its remote, wide-open spaces, has become the nation's hotspot. A recent Department of Justice report revealed that the majority of adult arrestees who test positive for methamphetamine use are in the Western U.S.

"The most active regions appear to be California and areas to the north (Washington, Oregon) and west (Arizona, Nevada, Utah), where methamphetamine-positive rates have continued to steadily increase since 1990," the study said. "In contrast, arrestee meth use in Eastern and Southern ... sites is virtually nonexistent."

An explosion in the number of meth labs - usually makeshift garages or outbuildings - mirrors the user data. Meth-lab seizures in Idaho leaped from 36 in 1996 to 171 in 1999. Seizures in Montana went from one lab to 50 over the same time period. Other states report similar escalations.

The methamphetamine wave now cresting over the West has caught many communities unprepared. It has stretched their undermanned law enforcement and social agencies to the breaking point, polluted their forests and streams with toxic meth-lab waste, and torn apart their tightly woven social fabric.

Remote and vulnerable

If Erec Hopkins looks like the all-American farm boy, then his hometown of Colfax looks like the all-American farm town. With 2,700 people, the Whitman County seat has no malls, no strips of faceless neon storefronts, no mammoth box stores. It is home to 11 churches, along with Boy Scouts Of America Colfax Troop 595, Ducks Unlimited and the Anthenium Club. Main Street has a handful of cafés, antique shops and hardware stores, a library, post office and the county jail, where Erec resides when he's not on work release four days a week at the county shop.

But the very qualities that make Colfax seem like a year 2000 version of Mayberry, USA, make it fertile ground for the meth culture. For one, the landscape surrounding the town is vast and isolated. Whitman County, which borders Idaho's Latah County, encompasses 2,159 square miles, an area twice the size of Rhode Island, with a population of just 41,900. Meth manufacturers prefer setting up their drug labs in rural areas, because there are fewer regular police and fire patrols.

"Most of the labs are in unincorporated areas," says Spokane County Lieut. Chan Bailey. "When you are in a sparsely populated area, you don't have neighbors to turn you in. It's easier to hide and not be found."

Debbie Podkowa, special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Portland, Ore., says that a nationwide increase in meth use is putting more pressure on isolated, rural areas. She points to local feed and tack stores as typical venues for meth cooks to obtain chemicals; anhydrous ammonia, a farm fertilizer, is used in making meth.

"Small communities that seem to be less suspecting are going to be where people obtain these chemicals. And, if they are getting their chemicals there, they are probably manufacturing there, too," she says.

Many meth operations have moved into the inland Northwest because criminals mistakenly think the isolation makes them safer from federal drug agents and the federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, Podkowa says. That's the reason so many meth operations pulled out of Oregon's urban areas in the last several years to set up shop in northern Idaho, she says.

When meth operators arrive in small, economically struggling communities such as Colfax, they find a vulnerable population. Farmers in the Colfax area grow soft winter wheat for the Asian noodle market, along with barley, dry peas, lentils and some bluegrass. But with winter wheat prices under $3 a bushel, and stiff competition from Canadian grain growers, the future of agriculture in eastern Washington is bleak. Few children follow their parents into agriculture. Most high school graduates head off to the cities. In the interim, they try to find something to occupy their time, and that often involves alcohol and drugs, especially methamphetamines.

"Just from what I hear on the street, the drug of choice among (Colfax) high school-aged children is meth," says Whitman County Sheriff's Capt. Bob Ingalls. "It is much more widely used than people realize."

Erec Hopkins seconds that thought. "There's a lot of younger people that I know - like 14, 15, 16 - that are doing it and going to school. It's pretty bad around here for a small community."

A study released in January by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that eighth-graders in rural America are 104 percent more likely than those in urban centers to use amphetamines, including methamphetamines, and 50 percent more likely to use cocaine. Rural areas are defined for this study as less than 10,000 in population.

Waves of crime

About the time Erec Hopkins began serving time in Whitman County Jail last year, Paul Warner, U.S. Attorney for Utah, was testifying in front of the Senate Judicial Committee.

"I can tell you without exaggeration that the meth problem in Utah today is the most serious criminal threat to public safety we face," Warner said.

Warner laid out some recent statistics. The DEA/Metro Narcotics Task Force in Salt Lake City made 308 arrests on meth-related charges in the first 10 months of 1999, a 14 percent increase over the 270 Task Force arrests for meth in all of 1998, and a 34 percent increase over the 229 arrests in 1997.

Warner said meth abuse is driving much of the other crime in Utah, such as burglaries and theft.

"Our postal theft and fraud cases in Utah have increased almost exponentially," he said. "The commission of these crimes can almost invariably be traced to the support of a meth habit."

Hardly a day goes by when the local newspapers in the West fail to mention a crime related to meth. This spring a story popped up in Idaho about a meth lab discovered in the minuscule hamlet of Fenn, and about two Idahoans awaiting trial in the town of Moscow for stealing anhydrous ammonia. The two men are believed responsible for a dozen thefts of the gas from a Wilbur Ellis Company fertilizer tank in Potlatch, Idaho.

Jim Lemon, who works for McGregor Company, a fertilizer distributor in Whitman County, says he receives reports of stolen fertilizer two or three times a week. The fertilizer is an ingredient in the "Nazi method," a methamphetamine recipe allegedly used by Hitler to keep his troops fighting for long stretches of time. Lemon predicts that companies will soon have to fence off their storage tanks.

"If they want it, they'll come and get it," says Lemon. "They're brain-dead. They have no fear whatsoever."

The remarkable rise in meth use and production in the Interior West is due to a number of factors, but near the top of the list is the ease with which it can be made. Also known by the street names "crank," "speed," "ice," "crystal," "chalk" and "glass," meth can be made in a couple of hours using easily obtained and inexpensive household chemicals, and it gives a high that can last up to 12 hours.

Then there is the matter of distribution, which turns out to be surprisingly easy despite the region's vast distances and few urban centers. The meth market was once controlled exclusively by outlaw biker gangs. But in the 1990s, our drug cartel friends in Mexico, who supply this country's insatiable marijuana and cocaine habits, realized they had a ready-made market for meth. They could manufacture, or cook, huge amounts of meth in Mexico and not have to split the profits with cocaine suppliers in South America. Taking the same well-greased transportation routes used for cocaine, the cartels smuggle meth into places like central Washington state and employ migrant timber and farm workers to handle the sales and distribution.

Whitman County is on Highway 195, a route commonly used to move drugs from California to Spokane. Because Sheriff Steve Tomson is so aware of the trafficking of narcotics out of Mexico, he followed events revolving around the February murder of Tijuana police chief Alfredo de la Torre Marquez. Most blame Mexican organized crime - probably one of the powerful drug cartels - for the killing.

"As remote as that (murder) may seem from here, it is tied to the availability and abundance of methamphetamine in the Pacific Northwest and in our area," says Tomson.

In Whitman County, meth began to take hold within the last three or four years, says Tomson. Most comes from Mexico through California, but Tomson readily admits methamphetamine is being made locally by Anglos in Lewiston to the south, and in Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, to the north. "(We've seen) a huge rise in meth labs," he says.

A larger toll

Methamphetamine's damage is not limited to the brain cells of its consumers. Washington drug enforcement officials say that each pound of meth produces between five and six pounds of toxic waste that ends up in county landfills, farm lands, national forests, and local water systems.

In Washington, a special team of workers with the Department of Ecology don protective body suits and respirators to clean up meth crime scenes. Last year, the team cleaned up 769 labs statewide, more than double the 349 the year before. In the first two months of 2000, 218 labs were discovered, a pace that could result in a year's total over 1,000.

"A lot of these cooks, once they're done with a bunch of acetone, a solvent or an acid, they'll just dump it. So you get some contamination in soil and septic systems," says Mark Stephens, supervisor of DOE's Response Unit. The damage can be even greater, he adds, when the chemicals are dumped into pristine streams on public lands.

The Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review reported in January that 17 landfill fires in northern Idaho were caused by meth lab garbage in 1999.

"These (meth cooks) aren't rocket scientists, and we have to deal with their science," says special agent Podkowa.

The cost of cracking down on meth labs is taking a toll on already financially strapped agencies. Mike LaScoula, Spokane County Health District's chemical and physical hazards adviser, says public agencies such as the Spokane health district are currently suffering "budget woes' due to the exponential increase of lab discoveries.

Law enforcement costs range from $1,500 to $3,000 per lab, according to LaScoula. Add in the costs of cleanup and disposal of waste and the "tax supported costs can be as high as five to six thousand dollars and possibly more if the property owner defaults," he says.

The federal Drug Enforcement Agency reimburses local and state law enforcement agencies for some of the costs. But DEA announced this spring that it had already exhausted its fiscal year 2000 funding for the meth cleanup program, prompting several U.S. senators, including Idaho's Larry Craig, to demand that the Clinton administration find more money. In late April, the administration announced that it would shift $10 million from other projects to help local agencies cope with the meth rush.

But it's still only a drop in the bucket, according to many local agency officials. In eastern Oregon, Umatilla County Sheriff John Trumbo recently advised his officers not to go out of their way to find meth labs because the state has no money to help the county clean up the sites, the Associated Press reported.

Not only law enforcement and environmental agencies in the West are being stressed by meth. Social service agencies are having a tough time keeping up.

In Spokane County, meth's growing impact on families can be seen at the county's Child Protective Services office. When asked how often CPS comes across a case that involves meth, Acting Area Manager Eric Warren says, "Every single day."

Out of 300 to 400 child abuse and neglect cases his office investigates each month, Warren estimates one-third to one-half of those cases have to do with methamphetamine. "Meth has an incremental effect on us across the board," Warren says.

Children living under the care of adults who use and/or manufacture meth are subject to chronic long-term parental neglect, and to often permanent health damage, such as respiratory distress, that comes from breathing meth's toxic fumes. Parents staying up for weeks at a time, intensely involved with mindless, repetitive behavior, leave children on their own to cope with everything from finding food to staying clean (see story next page).

"Meth tends to make people cranky," Warren says. "The maternal instinct gets numb."

To cope with rising caseloads, Spokane is looking for new ways to care for families caught in meth's web. One possible model is the Casey Family Partners: Spokane, a program backed by the Casey Family Partners, a private foundation, and the Deaconess and Sacred Heart Medical Centers. The program brings together professionals from health, child welfare, mental health and chemical dependency treatment to treat families comprehensively.

The focus is on the parent-child relationship, says program supervisor Gary Woods, because the initial antidepressant effect of meth on adults traps them into a false sense of believing they are good at everything.

"They typically think they are doing fine, but in reality they are detached, completely cut off from feelings, except from the rage which can be triggered when something frustrates or annoys them," says Woods. "Their version of their own parenting is all wrong."

Even when Child Protective Services is forced to remove children from the parents, meth use usually continues, and it may take months before the parents are willing to take any steps to reconcile with their children.

"These kinds of families need long-term, ongoing ways to encourage, enhance and enrich the parenting," Warren says.

Nobody wants to know

While cities like Spokane have some of the resources needed to help meth families, many Western communities, especially smaller, more isolated towns like Colfax, don't.

"(In the rural West) the kids don't get the backing or support they need. And there are less resources to get help," says Whitcom County health nurse Judy Stone.

Stone says many teenagers don't even take advantage of the resources that are available. Far too few of them visit the health district office to seek help with meth addiction or even other, less dramatic issues such as condoms and basic health information, she says.

If his confusion about AIDS is any indication, Erec Hopkins could benefit from a visit to Stone. Despite frequently sharing dirty needles, he's never been tested for AIDS.

"Actually, I don't think I have it. I'm not for sure, but my girlfriend, since she's pregnant, she got tested for everything and she doesn't have anything. Which, that doesn't mean I can't have AIDS, and that doesn't mean she can't. Because doesn't it take up to four years or six months or something?"

This spring, Whitman County, in part as a response to a growing meth and brown tar heroin problem and the intravenous users who are part of this drug culture, launched a needle-exchange program. (The rise in meth use appears to parallel a rise in heroin use, according to law enforcement officials. The drug is occasionally used by addicts to come down from an extended meth binge.)

Stone, with the support of law enforcement, pushed the needle-exchange program through the county's conservative board of health. Aside from slowing the spread of HIV infections through the sharing of needles, Stone was acknowledging what many parents will not. "I have to believe the parents are in denial and not speaking to their kids about drugs," she says.

Erec Hopkins says people in Colfax are "extremely in denial. People really don't want to say it or really see what's going on because meth is just going crazy around here. ... So many people are bringing it around and introducing it to younger people."

Sheriff's Capt. Ingalls says Colfax parents often blame police for their kids' troubles.

"They (parents) want to have their comfortable beliefs - a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude. Nobody wants to know that their kids are doing drugs."

A new plan

For about a year, Erec Hopkins' life on meth was all good. He'd gather a few hundred bucks in Colfax, hitchhike up to Spokane, buy meth and hitchhike back home to pass out the goods. He was very popular with the wrong crowd.

He was injecting meth every chance he could, even in the bathroom at Spokane Seed where he worked. He used dirty needles, needles with so much dried blood on the tip that it was hard for the meth to come out. And his 18-year-old girlfriend "the one carrying his baby now - she, too, shared needles and slammed meth.

But on the day that Erec was about to commit murder, something happened that may have saved him from a homicide charge. The dealer heard Erec's jacket brush against the bushes.

"He turned around and made eye contact with me and I couldn't do it. So we pushed him downstairs and got him into his apartment and tied him up and took all his shit. I feel so bad. We put the fear of God in his eyes."

Now in jail until fall, Erec feels remorse about the robbery and violence, but at the time all he felt was the thrill of an addict who scores another two or three grams of meth.

On a warm spring day in early April, Erec outlined his latest plan: a new life with his girlfriend and their baby in Post Falls, Idaho, where they will live with his girlfriend's grandmother. He wants to make new friends, ones that don't do drugs, and he'd like to study to be a glassblower.

"It's a good moneymaker and it will keep me out of trouble," Erec says. "The guy I dealt with up in Spokane, he blew glass; he made crack pipes. That's where I got the interest. I'm not interested in necessarily making that kind of stuff, but the whole thing. That's what got me started on it. Then I started looking at the positive end of it. Plant holders. Candleholders.

"My whole thought right now is that this is my last chance."

Stephen Lyons is a former resident of Pullman, Wash., who now lives in Monticello, Ill.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- 'There's not much to do out there'

- The makings of a meth lab

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Stephen Lyons

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