Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Appalachia's New Cottage Industry: Meth ; Locals Are Becoming Addicted to Both the Drug and the Production in an Area Known for Illicit Stills

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Appalachia's New Cottage Industry: Meth ; Locals Are Becoming Addicted to Both the Drug and the Production in an Area Known for Illicit Stills

Article excerpt

Known as a hard-working, Bible-thumping corner of North Carolina, Johnston County is also a patch of Appalachia: full of tool shops, tobacco plots, sawmills - and clandestine spirits.

Still one of the biggest bottlers of illicit "moonshine" whiskey in America, Johnston County now faces another sobering distinction: Over $300,000 worth of a methamphetamine known as "crystal meth" was seized here last year - the second-largest find in North Carolina.

But the stuff didn't come from big labs in California and Mexico. Using readily available ingredients like Red Devil lye, ephedrine, and phosphorous from match strikers, locals are now running thousands of so-called "Beavis and Butthead" operations - small labs set up in trailers, abandoned houses, even cars.

The thriving Appalachian trade feeds on a blustery independence that harks back to the days when Scotsmen first refused to pay the taxes on their stills. As it's raced from Ft. Payne, Ala., to Benson, N.C., locals are getting addicted not only to the all-five- senses rush of the drug, but also to the process of making it - or, as they call it, "hooked on the cook."

"[Meth is] the moonshine of the 21st century, but 50 times worse," says US Rep. Zach Wamp (R), who represents eastern Tennessee.

Meth itself is hardly new. Known as "crank" and "tweak," it became popular more than 30 years ago among California biker gangs, and has spread steadily east. There's more of it in Oklahoma City than New York. In Fort Payne, Ala., where the jail population has tripled in the past two years and 60 percent of children in custody come from homes that made meth, the drug's grip has only tightened.

When a couple of West Coast chemists began a clandestine "how to" tour in the mountains six years ago, few realized how quickly it would find a home here along America's rough edge - a largely poor, white area, where illicit manufacturing has been part of life for hundreds of years.

As methmaking methods have simplified, the process today resembles a high school chemistry lab: a bunsen burner, some beakers, a Mason jar, and a handful of household chemicals. In short, a 21st century still.

"There's definitely a correlation [to moonshining]," says Van Shaw, a special agent with the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) in Charlotte, N.C. "It's primarily being manufactured by folks from lower income brackets, who are using it as a means to make some money and provide for their habit."

Instead of finding a few people with a lot of meth, police are finding a lot with a little. To many, "tweaking" on meth is a balm for boredom. The main consumers, police say, are third-shift factory workers looking for a pick-me-up. And as with moonshine, the potential for making money in one of the nation's poorest regions has also fueled the drug's spread.

"They enjoy making it and producing it as much as they do taking the drug," says Chuck Phillips, a drug agent with the Jackson County Sheriff's Department in Scottsboro, Ala. …

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