BOONE - Mark Shook says he is fighting a war in this mountain town -- complete with explosions, abandoned children and an enemy that will not give up. Shook is Watauga County's sheriff, and for the past year, he and others have tried to beat back the spread of methamphetamine through the hills of Western North Carolina.
"Meth is choking this town," Shook said recently. "I've never seen anything like it."
Meth is a highly addictive and potent powder "cooked" from common ingredients such as ammonia, lithium from car batteries and pseudoephedrine from cold tablets. After snorting, eating or injecting the drug, users experience rushes of energy and euphoria.
"You feel like Superman," said David Mclemore, a former addict who now counsels substance abusers. "You can get addicted the first time. And then it takes more and more and more to get high."
Popularized by bikers and truckers in the late 1980s, meth and its makers have migrated east from California and other Western states.
They have increasingly taken root in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. The latter state led the South with more than 1,150 of the nation's roughly 8,000 meth lab seizures last year.
Boone, a town of 13,500 that is home to Appalachian State University, is surrounded by rugged terrain that offers meth makers the kind of protection it once provided to moonshiners. The open, isolated spaces diffuse the nauseating odors that are the meth labs' giveaway.
"You can't cook when you're living on top of each other in a city," Shook said.
Last year, 34 meth labs were seized in the area, and social workers removed 17 children from homes where the chemicals saturated the walls, furniture and carpet.
Because these so-called "meth orphans" were often covered in dangerous toxins, emergency room doctors had to decontaminate them. Their toys, books and clothes had to be burned.
"The kids didn't always understand why they couldn't take their Barbie with them," social worker Chad Slagle said.
Children sometimes unwittingly caused their parents' arrest. A first-grader told her teacher how to cook meth. An older student included meth cooking in a "How I Spent My Summer" essay.
"We call Watauga County ground zero," said State Bureau of Investigation Director Robin Pendergraft, who is urging North Carolina lawmakers to increase penalties for operating meth labs.
The list of problems presented by the meth boom is long.
Meth-making, with its combustible ingredients and "cooks" who are often strung out, comes with the ever-present possibility of explosions.
Meth makers dump poisonous byproducts into sewage systems, streams and fields. And their labs render houses uninhabitable and depress property values in surrounding neighborhoods.
With every meth lab bust, taxpayers must spend $2,000 to $4,000 to have hazardous materials teams and other specially trained workers clean up the toxic mess, which includes phosphine gas, a chemical weapons component.
The human cost is also high. About 3,300 "meth orphans" were removed from homes nationwide last year, authorities said.
Many have ingested meth, said industrial hygiene expert John Martyny. "Kids crawl on the carpet, put their fingers in their mouths. They might as well have been taking it directly."
Many of the ingredients of methamphetimine are linked to cancer, kidney and liver damage and respiratory failure.
Dr. Andrew Mason, a Boone forensic toxicologist, said female users are a rarity. Efforts to get meth users off the drug fail at a rate of 94 percent, he said.
"This thing is worse than heroin. It's worse than crack. And it's going up and down highways," said Shook, predicting its spread, like moonshine's, to bigger cities. "That's why we're attacking it here, now."
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