Meth Mountain - Day One: "We're the Epicenter Right Here"
First in a four-part series By MATTHEW LANE of the Kingsport TimesNews
KINGSPORT — Every six days someone in Sullivan County dies from a drug overdose. Every. Six. Days. And the people dying? It’s not who you think. It’s not just the homeless person living under a bridge or a lifelong addict who unknowingly took a hit of fentanyl. It’s college-aged kids, middle-aged moms, working class men and even senior citizens. The bane of drug addiction knows no age or gender, no race or socioeconomic class. It’s something that can affect us all. And while opioids continue to be the driving cause of drug overdose deaths nationwide, one well-known, illegal drug has made a comeback in our region in recent years: methamphetamine. “In Northeast Tennessee, every day there are multiple individuals either driving to Atlanta or other source cities, bringing back pounds of drugs, or the Mexican cartels have entrenched themselves and are actually bringing it to individuals,” said Gene Perrin, assistant district attorney for Sullivan County. “We’re the epicenter right here.” “ ‘Meth Mountain’ ... that’s what they call us,” said Sullivan County Attorney General Barry Staubus. “We’re like the land of milk and honey to them,” Perrin added. INVESTIGATING THE PROBLEM For the past six months, the Times News has been investigating the meth crisis in our region, talking with more than two dozen local and state officials, law enforcement, prosecutors and judges, health care professionals, pastors, nonprofit organizations and recovering addicts, trying to get to the root of the problem, how addiction is tackled and what’s the best path forward for our region. Our reporters also took a look at local, state and federal statistics on the use of meth, the number of crimes associated with drug abuse and the alarming rise in overdose deaths not only in our region, but across the state and nation. Some of the key findings of the investigation are: • Overdose deaths have continued to rise. • Methamphetamine has become the illegal drug of choice. • Law enforcement and the courts are overwhelmed. • A regional treatment facility could help the problem. OVERDOSE DEATHS ON THE RISE During the 12-month period that ended April 21, for the first time in our nation’s history, more than 100,000 people died of drug overdoses. That’s 22,250 more (28.5%) than in the previous year, according to data recently published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than 270 people a day. Eleven people every single hour. “This is a staggering loss of human life,” said Brandon Marshall, a Brown University public health researcher who tracks overdose trends. For historical context, there were fewer than 7,200 total U.S. overdose deaths reported in 1970, when a heroin epidemic was raging in the nation’s cities. In 1988, the CDC reports there were about 9,000 overdose deaths during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. Drug overdoses increased in all but two states last year: New Hampshire and South Dakota. Synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) caused nearly two-thirds (64%) of all drug overdose deaths in 2020. At the state level, more than 3,000 Tennesseans died from a drug overdose in 2020 — a 44% increase over the prior year, the Tennessee Department of Health recently reported. More than 2,000 of those deaths involved a synthetic opioid like fentanyl. All but three of Tennessee’s 95 counties had at least one overdose death, and cases more than doubled in 21 counties. Sullivan County had 60 overdose deaths in 2020 and for the first nine months of 2021, the number of overdose deaths stood at 62. “Talk about pretty staggering statistics. If that doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what will,” said Kristie Hammonds, president and CEO of Frontier Health. Founded in 1957, Frontier Health provides a variety of health care services to Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, including treatment for mental health, substance abuse, recovery and vocational rehabilitation and intellectual disabilities services. In 2015, Frontier Health was seeing approximately 52,000 individuals. Last year, the number rose to just over 60,000. “As things started to change with the opioid epidemic, as legislation and best practices changed, that pulled pills off the streets, but it didn’t necessarily address the problem. People just went to the next available thing,” said Chad Duncan, the division director for adult outpatient addiction services at Frontier Health. “We knew that was going to happen, but we were told it was going to be heroin. What happened here is meth was already here and the networks were already here, so it became much more accessible than heroin. “Meth was happy to take the place of prescription medication.” METH IS THE DRUG OF CHOICE Methamphetamine is a synthetic drug originally made with ephedrine (a natural substance commonly found in decongestants) and any number of chemicals found at your neighborhood big box retailer. It can be made in a makeshift lab in your basement or an empty two-liter soda bottle in your van. Today, the preferred chemical for making meth is a clear liquid called phenyl-2-propanone (P2P), which can be made using a variety of cheap, accessible ingredients such as fertilizer, acetone, red phosphorus and lithium. Once cooked, meth looks like plain, white rock candy that’s been smashed up. “I’ve never seen a drug that has such a hold on a human being that they would cut off a finger to get what they need. It’s horrible,” said Michael Gillis, the executive director of Hunger First in downtown Kingsport. “Back in the day you’d hear about people being on PCP. ... The anger that comes from (meth) ... I’m not scared of much of anything, but sometimes you wonder if you’ll be able to reel them in and talk them into staying clean.” In the old days, people were making meth in labs. Now, the drug is made openly in labs in Mexico and brought by the ton across the border, going to larger cities like Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta. Of the top five districts in the United States for meth trafficking offenders, the Eastern District of Tennessee (our region) is No. 4 on the list (286 cases in 2020), according to the U.S. Department of Justice. A district in California tops the list and the remaining three are in Texas. While being centrally located on the East Coast is an advantage for the Tri-Cities, unfortunately that also applies to illegal drugs. “You’ve got people coming across (the southern border) from every part of the world, every country in the world. If these people can walk in unimpeded, what do you think the cartels are doing?” said U.S. Rep. Diana Harshbarger. “You have to build the wall, hold the people who are bringing this stuff over accountable and then help the people that are addicted with a mental health facility.” The CDC says that in 2020, approximately 2.5 million Americans ages 12 and older reported using meth in the previous year. Unbeknownst to many of those people, the meth is likely being laced with other chemicals and drugs in an attempt to make it more potent, which also makes it more deadly. Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid developed to treat intense pain, has become that drug of choice. The CDC reports overdoses involving fentanyl have increased from 2,666 in 2011 to 31,335 in 2018. “When people who’ve been misusing (drugs) for years build up a resistance and think they know what they need to get the high ... if there are other drugs mixed in with this cocktail unknowingly ... that could lead to accidental overdoses,” said Jane Henry, chair of AveNew, a drug education and prevention initiative of the United Way of Greater Kingsport. AveNew was established near the end of 2019 to serve as a coalition of healthcare professionals, nonprofit organizations, law enforcement, schools and other community leaders. The mission of AveNew is to educate the community about substance abuse, connect people to community resources and prevent people of all ages from misusing substances. “We are a place for groups that work in this area to come together to educate them, to educate each other and provide an opportunity to connect ... to look at where the gaps in services are and what are our needs,” Henry said. Part of the problem is the cost and availability of meth throughout our region. It’s cheap and easy to find, law enforcement officials say. Years ago, home-cooked meth was selling for $80 to $100 per gram, with an ounce costing $1,000 to $1,500. And it was dangerous to produce. Deadly fumes could sicken or kill the makers, and there was always a chance of an explosive mishap. Today, meth is coming across the border by the ton at $20 to $50 a gram, with an ounce perhaps costing $400. Plus, there’s no chance of being blown up. “They’ll take $5,000 to $6,000 down to Georgia, buy up a kilo and then come back and gram it out, making 10 times their money,” said Lt. Shannon Russell with the 2nd District Drug Task Force. “And they don’t have to worry about making it and catching yourself on fire.” OVERWHELMING LAW ENFORCEMENT Law enforcement officials in Kingsport, Sullivan County and Hawkins County all told the Times News that not only are drug crimes on the rise in our region, but a majority of the crimes committed in general are also connected to drugs. People are either dealing or stealing drugs, committing burglaries or robberies to get money to buy drugs, or assaulting someone while on or because of drugs. Sixty percent of the federal cases taking place in the Eastern District of Tennessee are drug-related, according to a 2020 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. And of those cases, meth was the primary drug of choice (in 78.8% of cases). Over the past five years, the number of meth trafficking offenders has increased by nearly 14%, the commission reports, and in the past 16 months alone, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency seized nearly 80 pounds of crystal meth in Northeast Tennessee. “Meth is king. It’s been our thing since it hit the streets,” said Sgt. Chris Farmer, a member of the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office Special Operations Division. He has been working with the unit, which targets illegal narcotics, prostitution, gambling and illegal alcohol distribution, the past three years. “Just about any socioeconomic background is buying meth and using it. It’s highly addictive, increases feelings of euphoria, sexual arousal. It curbs appetite and keeps people up longer,” Farmer said. “It’s highly dangerous and has horrible side effects.” The SCSO had three men assigned to vice/narcotics when Jeff Cassidy was elected sheriff in 2018. After he was sworn in, Cassidy said he doubled that number. “Even with those six, they’re stormed,” he said. Over in the Model City, the Kingsport Police Department has five vice officers who every day assess the tips that come in regarding illegal narcotics. “They’re so overwhelmed with the information coming in from this neighbor or that neighbor that they have to triage it,” said Chief Dale Phipps. “(We’re a saturated place for meth.) We have so many states in this locale and each state can be easily accessed. Plus, we have interstates running through us, so it’s a perfect storm.” Today’s meth is a potent high, a cheap drug when compared to others and easily obtainable throughout our region. It’s touching every socioeconomic background, overwhelming law enforcement and the court system, and there does not seem to be an end to the problem in sight. But steps are being taken to help address the issue. A REGIONAL APPROACH TO THE PROBLEM One option that’s making a difference in the lives of convicted drug addicts is a program called recovery court: a 12- to 18-month program that includes inpatient treatment, job training, support system building and life skills training to get people off drugs and return them as productive members of society. Recovery courts can be found in all three judicial districts in our region, covering nine counties in Northeast Tennessee. The Times News spoke with several judges who oversee recovery courts, and all say the programs are working. “Addiction could care less what gender you are or how much money you make. It’s a physiological reaction of the human body to a foreign substance. It doesn’t matter what school you went to or how great your family is,” said Judge Jim Goodwin. Soon after Goodwin took the bench in 2014, he assembled a team to create a recovery court in Sullivan County. The program launched in the spring of 2015 and currently has 14 people enrolled. Goodwin thinks the community as a whole probably has the same mindset he had when he first came into office. “That being a drug addict was a moral failing. The one thing I’ve learned through this process of getting drug court going and the six years of running it ... it’s literally a physiological reaction to a foreign substance in your body,” Goodwin said. “I’m not going to make a judgment about why a person first uses drugs. We’ve had people in our recovery court who went through surgery, a doctor prescribed it and they got addicted, which led them into the criminal justice system. “Until we as a society understand that it’s both a psychological and a medical issue, we’ll keep chasing our tails.” County and city governments across Northeast Tennessee recently settled the Sullivan Baby Doe lawsuit, which was filed four years ago against three of the largest opioid manufacturers for their role in perpetuating and worsening the opioid crisis in the U.S. The settlement came to $21 million and the participating cities and counties can spend that money any way they see fit. A group of district attorneys, judges and health care professionals has been making private and public sales pitches to the local governments about how they think that money should be spent. Their main idea? Create a regional drug treatment facility that could accommodate more than 150 people, where addicts could stay for up to 18 months for treatment. A possible location officials have been eyeing is the Carter County Annex (formerly known as the Carter County Work Camp) near Roan Mountain. The facility is remote, secure and officials envision it having components to address sobriety, mental health, vocational training, and lessons on how to get and keep a job. It’s an idea that Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus believes could work and would make a significant impact in the lives of people struggling with addiction. “If you take a larger view and think about what (drugs) are doing to the community, we’re losing a generation of people,” Staubus said. “People are losing their fathers, mothers, friends, coworkers. How does the community in the long term sustain itself if the addiction levels and deaths are this high? How do you build a safe, productive future for Sullivan County or Northeast Tennessee?”
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