February 16, 2004 12:00 PM

Not long ago, Sheriff Jim Bishop’s jail often looked and sounded like something out of the old Andy Griffith Show. The total population might be a few small-time crooks and some local drunks snoring it off. Not anymore. Now, the screams coming from the 28-cell lockup can sound like a bad day at a medieval madhouse. “They’ll see snakes and spiders crawling on them,” he says of the methamphetamine users who make up most of the jail’s mushrooming population. “Then they’ll have excruciating toothaches because the drug has rotted their teeth.” As the meth has ripped through Jackson County, Ark.—where, a state drug-task-force official estimates, a remarkable 30 percent of adults are users–the sheriff believes he has seen a preview of what could happen across the country. “This drug,” he says, “is a plague.”

Indeed, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, what’s happening in Jackson County is happening in hundreds of rural communities from Florida to the Rockies. And what’s happening in Jackson—a 630-square-mile area with a population of 18,000—is eye-popping: Bishop has had to arrest friends and has seen one of his own family members busted. On one recent day, of the 44 prisoners housed in his jail, 30 were there on meth-related charges. Staffers at a center for drug-addicted mothers in central Arkansas report that before 2000, less than 4 percent of their patients were on meth; now more than half of them are. At a time when crime is falling in many places around the country, over the past 10 years felonies are up 33 percent in the area encompassing Jackson County. Even more alarming is that meth use seems to be spreading throughout the nation. Although it has been around for decades, and was long considered the drug of choice for poor rural whites, it has now “invaded all classes of society,” says Arkansas Republican Rep. John Boozman. “Doctors, lawyers and professionals are just as affected. It’s as addictive a drug as anything out there.”

The shadow of meth—also known as crystal, crank, speed—started creeping across Jackson County about seven years ago. One of the most insidious parts of the meth trade is how easy it is to set up shop. All that is required is a recipe, readily found on the Internet, and such common items as pseudoephedrine (found in over-the-counter cold remedies), Drano and batteries (which are opened up and milked of their lithium). Those and a few other chemicals become part of a witch’s brew that is cooked up, often in a remote location to hide the powerful telltale odor.

The operations are such no-brainers that cops refer to them as Beavis and Butt-head labs. However there is nothing low-rent about the profits to be reaped. With as small an investment as $150, a meth cook can produce $10,000 worth of the drug. “These guys can take everything they need, put it in a couple of boxes, park in the woods and in a couple of hours make a bunch of dope,” says state drug agent Michael Steele, whose territory includes Jackson County. Ten years ago there were only six meth labs seized in all of Arkansas; the final tally for 2003 is likely to be more than 1,000. And those arrests have not stemmed the tide. “For every one meth lab we shut down, there are four others,” says Danny Joe Ramsey, a fellow drug agent. “I don’t feel like we’re making a dent.”

For Bishop, the meth epidemic has hit home. In recent years, he has helped arrest a friend, ex-policeman Perry Johnson, as well as the son of one of his own deputies. He has busted more of his kids’ childhood friends than he cares to think about. “Some of these kids used to sleep over at my house,” he laments. “[Now I’ve gone] to their homes and kicked their doors in. It just breaks my heart.” Even Bishop’s own niece, Connie Meador, was busted three years ago, though she managed to avoid being sent to prison and is now clean. “He couldn’t believe it was really me,” says Meador, 44, describing Bishop’s reaction when he saw how sick and emaciated she was when she was arrested. “It was like he was looking at a dead person.”

Not infrequently, those in the grip of the drug wish they were dead. Will and Brandi Shilts started using in the late ’90s. Will’s welding job would take the couple on the road, and they would stay in cheap motels doing meth for days on end. Eventually the drug took over their lives. Even simple tasks such as going out for the mail would require a hit of meth. “I was suicidal,” says Brandi, 26, who once tried to slash her wrists with scissors. “I hated the life I was leading, but I couldn’t get out of it.” Finally, four years ago Will, 28, was busted. To avoid prison time, he agreed to get off the drug—Brandi followed suit—and submit to regular tests.

Not surprisingly, many businesses in the county are vigilant about drug testing and insist on hiring only drug-free employees. But that’s not always feasible. At least one company, Delta Manufacturing in Newport, which makes livestock and equipment trailers, has decided to dial back considerably. Two years ago Delta abandoned pre-employment testing altogether because the rate of failure was so high that jobs couldn’t be filled. Now Delta just conducts random tests of its employees, with the hope that having a steady paycheck will provide some incentive to get free of drugs. “If we tested every person before we hired them, it would be difficult to get enough people to work,” says Delta president Dale Eaves. “You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

Ironically, the rush of energy meth can supposedly provide at work is one of the reasons people start using. Amanda Boren, 34, who is from southern Arkansas, had a job at a Levi’s factory when she heard about it from coworkers. “They said, ‘With this you can work faster,'” she recalls. The first time she tried it, “I stayed up all night cleaning house,” she says. “It gave me three times the normal energy.” But subsequently, to get the same high she had to take more of the drug, which turned into two-and three-day jags that left her hearing voices and hallucinating. Soon she had a full-blown habit, and to ensure access to the drug she was letting dealers cook up batches in her home. She was finally arrested in 1999 for possession and distribution and is serving a 20-year sentence at Ronald McPherson Correctional Facility in Newport.

Wherever meth spreads, violence is never far behind. According to the women’s shelter in Newport, Jackson’s county seat, the number of domestic-abuse cases has risen steadily in recent years. When heavy users are “tweaking,” or coming down from a high, they are especially prone to eruptions of rage. “Tolerance for stress is almost nil,” says Sandra Williford, a counselor for Arkansas CARES, an organization that helps addicted mothers get clean. “A crying child sounds like a fire engine.”

The children often suffer the most, both in the form of physical abuse and profound neglect. As of the end of January, Jackson County child-welfare officials had 21 kids in foster homes plus another 32 families under official scrutiny, largely because of meth-related issues. “It used to be alcohol was our No. 1 problem,” says Michael Hilton, a caseworker in the county for the state’s Division of Children and Family Services, “but that has gone completely by the wayside.” Hilton, himself a former meth user who has been clean for six years, still winces at some of the appalling conditions he has encountered. “Mom or Dad or both are so strung out that they can’t provide proper care for the children,” says Hilton, 40. “In one house there was dog feces all over. There was also a handgun underneath the couch—a 3-year-old child had access to the loaded gun.” Williford recalls one mother, who had been diverted into a treatment program, announcing that she would rather go to jail than go through with the program. “Recovery was too frightening for her,” says Williford. “Some people would rather be in prison than work through the pain of getting off meth. It’s pretty scary stuff.”

Arkansas, which has been one of the hardest-hit states, has made a concerted effort to combat the meth problem. In the past few years penalties for manufacturing the drug have been boosted, and limits have been imposed on the amount of pseudoephedrine that can be purchased at anyone time. But it’s unclear just how effective such measures are. Dealers typically get around the purchasing restrictions by hiring people to go from store to store buying as much of the raw material as they can. Nowadays many prosecutors in Arkansas say that jailing users—as opposed to dealers—makes little sense. “We don’t believe it is possible to save everyone, but there are many people worth saving,” says Henry Boyce, the state’s prosecuting attorney for the district that covers Jackson County. “Most people in law enforcement will agree that treatment alternatives have to be considered, especially for those hooked on meth.”

Almost everyone agrees the soundest policy is to find a way to prevent more people from getting started on meth. Until that day comes, Sheriff Bishop, who admits that he has cried himself to sleep over the problem, won’t be alone in mourning the destruction that meth has wrought. “I will never solve the drug problem in Jackson County,” he says, “and neither will the person who comes after me.”

Bill Hewitt. Anna Macias Aguayo, Michael Haederle and Steve Barnes in Jackson County, Kevin Brass in Oklahoma and Alicia Dennis in Austin, Texas

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