Imbibing crystal meth. Image credit: KPBS.org
by James A. Bacon
My son, now in college, has a running joke when his mom and I call to see what he’s been up to. Not much, he deadpans, except for cooking up some crystal meth. An amusing gag for an affluent suburban family where no one imbibes anything stronger than a cabernet sauvignon. But not so funny in Southwest Virginia, ground zero for Virginia’s methamphetamine epidemic.
I’ve just finished reading August Wallmeyer’s book, “The Extremes of Virginia,” which describes the social and economic challenges of Virginia’s poorest rural regions. Much of the material is familiar to regular readers of Bacon’s Rebellion, but I found his discourse on Virginia’s meth epidemic to be particularly helpful in understanding a region where I spent several years as a young journalist but have not often visited since then.
Fatal drug overdoses occur everywhere in Virginia but have spiked in the rapidly decaying coal-mining region of Southwest Virginia, the Eastern Shore and a slew of counties on Northern Virginia’s exurban fringe. In the far Southwest, meth production has risen much like illegal distilleries did during Prohibition, as a cottage industry. In 2009, writes Wallmeyer, “meth production went mainstream and big time, when the ‘shake and bake’ method was brought to Virginia, courtesy of a waitress who had moved from Indiana.”
Knowledge of how to cook meth passes from word to mouth. “A guy in Tennessee teaches someone in Bristol, who teaches someone in Abingdon, who teaches someone in Marion, and so forth,” he says. Because the drug can be concocted from legally obtained materials found in cold medications, batteries and household products, anyone can make it. The number of known meth labs in Virginia has increased from 28 in 2009 to more than 400 in 2014.
The drug produces a euphoric “high” but destroys dopamine receptors in the brain, diminishing all sensations of pleasure. Seeking to retain the high, meth addicts increase consumption, which is not hard to do because meth is a relatively inexpensive drug. Recovery and rehabilitation is extremely difficult because it takes as long as 18 months for the body to repair its dopamine receptors — far longer than an addict’s typical stint in jail or time spent in a 6- to 12-week rehab program. The meth culture is so deeply ingrained now that someone coming out of jail or rehab returns home only to find himself surrounded by other meth users and producers — mirroring the drug problem that has long plagued inner cities.
Widespread drug use creates social problems that magnify the social and economic problems of Southwest Virginia, where the coal economy has collapsed and there is no other industry (other than meth production) moving in to replace it. With increasing regularity, notes Wallmeyer, job seekers are failing drug tests. “There are reports of 50 percent failure rates for people taking job-related drug tests in Southwest Virginia.” That’s devastating to anyone trying to recruit industry to the area. When a region can’t sell the education and skills of its workforce, which are severely lagging in Southwest Virginia, all it has to sell is its work ethic. But if half the workers are drug addicts, economic developers can’t even sell that. In a vicious cycle, the lack of job opportunities creates a pessimism and despair that makes it easier to fall prey to drug abuse.
What can be done? Wallmeyer’s account doesn’t offer much grounds for optimism. But he does present one concrete idea from Jason Robinson, a 20-year state police veteran working in the Southwest Virginia drug task force, and that is to go after the smurfs. In meth parlance, smurfs are the buyers who round up the ingredients that go into meth, the most critical of which is pseudoephedrine, which appears in cold medicines such as Tylenol, Sudafed, Claritin and Allegra. Robinson advocates creating a meth offender registry of anyone convicted of meth-related crimes to prevent smurfs from purchasing meth ingredients.
“We have a prescription monitoring database, but physicians aren’t required to use it,” he tells Wallmeyer. “Lots do, but not all. We have all this technology, but don’t take advantage of it.”
The state also needs to address the mismatch between drug rehabilitation programs, geared for 6- to 12-week treatments, and the long-term nature of meth addiction. Writes Wallmeyer: “Virginia needs to decide either to provide longer-term drug rehabilitation facilities, or to accept the 93 percent recidivism rate, with its attendant consequences and public costs.”
Bacon’s bottom line: One aspect of the meth addiction that I wished Wallmeyer had explored was the impact of substance abuse on the family and child rearing. I would imagine that meth addicts do not make good spouses and good parents, and I would hypothesize that the meth epidemic is ravaging already-fragile households, creating abysmal environments for children who, in addition to coping with material poverty, must survive absentee parents, domestic violence, child neglect and a panoply of problems that lead to poor academic achievement, a propensity for dropping out of school and general failure as an adult. Drugs, joblessness and social dysfunction make a destructive combination.