Mon, Aug 15, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Crystal meth devastating rural communities in US


The House of Hope stands on land cleared by a tornado that roared through the woods a few years ago near this little town. But the vulnerable children inside are more concerned with man-made dangers.

In this corner of rural America something out there is much worse than a twister: it is called crystal meth.

Known as crank or ice, meth is the latest drug epidemic to hit the US. Following hard on such scourges as heroin and crack, meth has taken a stranglehold on large swathes of the US. Unlike its predecessors, it is not found in inner-city ghettos but in the mostly white rural heartland of states such as Iowa, Missouri and Tennessee, devastating such places as Cumberland County, a picturesque place of rolling forests overshadowed by the Smoky Mountains.

The House of Hope, near Crossville, looks after some of the innocent victims. Dubbed `meth orphans,' they are children taken into care when their parents are arrested and jailed. They have usually grown up in `meth labs,' home factories for making the drug, and have suffered terrible mental and physical abuse. The House provides temporary refuge until foster parents can be found.

The need is great. In the last six months more than 60 meth orphans have come through the doors. All are from Cumberland County, whose population is just 50,000.

"We are at the epidemic stage in Tennessee. It is terrible," said Mike Steinmann, head of the orphanage, standing in a room full of toys donated by local people.

Across rural America, meth is reaping a terrible toll. In the past five years Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina have seen the number of meth labs grow tenfold, and 58 per cent of US sheriffs' departments now say meth is their biggest drug problem, compared to 19 per cent who name cocaine and 3 per cent who say heroin. More than 80 per cent of prison inmates in one county of Indiana are there for meth-related crime.

The drug has changed the nature of some states' jail populations. Arkansas, which used to have a black majority, now finds most inmates are white. There are also signs that meth is spreading from rural areas, entering the suburbs and continuing its onslaught as the US' number one drug crisis.

Cumberland is a typical county at the center of the storm. Its burly sheriff, Eucle "Butch" Burgess, reeled off huge increases in crime since meth appeared in 1999. Violent offenses have jumped by 500 per cent, petty crime by 600 per cent and domestic violence by 500 per cent. The county jail is full to bursting and a new wing is being planned. Female prisoners, once a rarity, are now common.

"One man was so addicted he begged me not to let him out of jail because he knew he would go straight back to it," Burgess said.

This has stretched the county's finances to breaking point, and the sheriff believes the effects of the epidemic will last for a generation or more.

Meth is powerfully addictive, instantly hooking users who smoke or inject it and turning them into paranoid delusional wrecks with scabs from constant scratching and dramatic weight loss.

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