Published Monday, March 13, 2000
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Police worried how drug will impact crime
By ROBERT F. MOORE
Because it is cheap, easy to make and spreading fast across the
country, methamphetamine could be Charlotte-Mecklenburg's next
crack cocaine, law enforcement officials say.
So far, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have reported only a handful of
arrests for methamphetamine possession or trafficking. But police say
the drug's popularity is increasing and could have a significant impact
on crime, especially thefts and assaults.
Law enforcement officials say signs of the drug's presence in the region
are growing. Seizures are up dramatically, laboratories are springing up
in rural areas and police are stepping up training to fight increased
"Our intelligence is telling us that there is quite a bit of it here,"
Capt. David Grose, who supervises the department's vice and narcotics
Often referred to as meth, crank, ice, crystal or speed,
methamphetamine and a derivative of the drug, called Ecstasy, are
becoming increasingly popular among teen-agers and young adults,
area substance abuse experts say. The most recent drug-abuse survey
conducted by the Charlotte-based Substance Abuse Prevention
Services showed that about 10percent of local high-school seniors
among 347 surveyed had used the drug.
Methamphetamine is most widely used and manufactured in the West
and Midwest, but Drug Enforcement Administration officials say its
popularity is moving eastward. They call methamphetamine the
fastest-growing drug threat in the country.
A Charlotte-based task force, made up of DEA agents and police
investigators from the state and region, seized more than 6kilograms, or
more than 13.2pounds, of methamphetamine in the Charlotte area last
year. The seizures had a street value of more than $8million.
Seizures in Charlotte, Asheville and the N.C. mountains were 10times
higher last year than in 1997, according to the DEA.
Users say methamphetamine produces a cheaper, more intense high
than cocaine, sometimes lasting 12 or more hours from a single use.
Smoked, snorted, injected or taken orally, methamphetamine stimulates
the central nervous system, creating a sense of increased energy and
The drug's use can result in outbursts of violence - or in some cases,
death. Its manufacture can cause explosions. Most often, the drug is
made in sophisticated labs, using legally accessible products, such as
cold tablets, fertilizer and ether. Area police say merchants have
cooperated with authorities by reporting large purchases of ephedrine,
a key ingredient. But they say it's difficult to detect smaller purchases of
the legal precursor ingredients.
A 1995 National Institute of Justice study noted that in 23 participating
cities across the country, about 10percent of men and 11percent of
women arrested for violent offenses tested positive for
methamphetamine. The testing program is expected to begin in
Mecklenburg County next year.
In Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where crack cocaine remains the most
common drug used by those arrested, police have begun preparing for
the influx of methamphetamine. They are distributing CD-ROMs that
instruct officers in recognizing users' behavior patterns. Key supervisors
have received training from federal authorities.
And last month, a nationally recognized methamphetamine expert
conducted a two-day training session in Charlotte. About 50 police,
mostly SWAT or community crimes officers, learned how
methamphetamine is made, symptoms of users, how to safely dismantle
the labs and key indicators that a lab is operating.
Maj. Bill Berry of the Albany (Ga.) Police Department's drug unit, who
taught the two-day "meth school," said the most common response from
officers was, "I didn't know that."
"Methamphetamine use has been spreading from the West, and has a
pretty strong user base in Tennessee. It's been moving toward North
Carolina," Berry said. "In many cities, it has replaced crack cocaine as
the drug of choice. You have to applaud authorities here for trying to
get ahead of this thing."
Most meth labs are in rural areas where police are few and detection
less likely, Berry said. Professional chemists or amateurs with
methamphetamine recipes often produce hundreds of thousands of
dollars worth of the drug in a few days, he said.
According to the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, authorities have
shut down 12 clandestine labs this year, twice the number from all of
last year. Two of those - one in January and the other last month - were
in rural areas of Rowan County.
On Feb.10, Rowan deputies served a search warrant on two men at a
Gold Hill mobile home. Inside they found guns, explosives and materials
for the making of methamphetamine.
Deputies arrested William Douglas Barringer Jr., 29, of Gold Hill and
Michael Alex Hall, 46, of Polkton, charging each with methamphetamine
trafficking and conspiracy to manufacture the drug. They are jailed in
Salisbury, each held on $200,000 bond.
Since meth labs are highly volatile - many have exploded - deputies
cordoned off the area and called the DEA, SBI and area hazardous
material teams. It took about eighthours to safely dismantle the lab.
In smaller quantities, especially for personal use, the drug can be made
in less sophisticated settings, often referred to as "mom and pop" or
"box" labs. Some meth labs are portable and can be disassembled
And when it's not manufactured locally, methamphetamine is smuggled
into the Charlotte area much like other drugs, according to John Boone,
special agent in charge of the Charlotte office of the DEA.
"They'll use U.S. mail or FedEx. It doesn't matter," Boone said. "If it's
wheels or wings, then they'll use it." Boone said smugglers use trucks to
bring the drug from as far away as California. Commercial drivers are
often paid to smuggle the drugs, he said. Mexican groups have the
strongest influence on its distribution, replacing motorcycle gangs of the
late '70s and early '80s.
Methamphetamine is generally sold in select circles and rarely
purchased at the street level, Boone said. It is generally used by people
between the ages of 18 and 25, Boone said. Traffickers, however, are
generally between 40 and 50, he said.
Linda Finkle, of the Substance Abuse Prevention Services, said use of
Ecstasy or MDMA, is increasing among older teen-agers.
"It's all over the 18-and-over clubs," Finkle said. "Some are using it
So far, Charlotte-Mecklenburg treatment centers are reporting few
patients with methamphetamine addictions. But a few hours west of
Charlotte, several areas have seen an increase in methamphetamine
seizures as well as a rise in the number of clients at treatment centers
who are addicted to the drug.
"Fiveyears ago, we might get one case per year," said Paul Martin,
director of the Sisters of Mercy Addiction Recovery Program in
Asheville. "Now 10 to 20percent of our clients have some level of
Martin also supervises a detoxification unit at the Blue Ridge Community
Mental Health Center, one of about a dozen such units in the state.
About 5percent of the 1,000 or so clients admitted for detox there are
methamphetamine abusers, he said.
Craig White, director of the Robert S. Swain Recovery Center in Black
Mountain, has a personal stake in helping methamphetamine addicts.
His own addiction almost 20years ago caused him to lose about
50pounds and flunk out of college.
"The low point for me was not the drug use, it was the empty space
inside of me," said White, 38. "I knew I had hit rock bottom when I got as
high as I could get and I still felt empty inside. The drugs stopped
working as a coping mechanism. I was dying."
White, then 22, checked himself into a drug-treatment center for his
addiction to alcohol and methamphetamine. "That experience led me to
this job," he said.
Reach Robert F. Moore at (704)358-5934 or