Meth Labs Continue Moving South.

Watauga County is No. 1 no more.

The title of methamphetamine manufacturing capital of North Carolina is now owned by its neighbor to the south, McDowell County.

It's a distinction McDowell Sheriff Jackie Turner would gladly relinquish, and a blight he would wish on no one else.

But Turner says his county is merely the latest high spot in the flood of meth addiction that had its genesis on the West Coast 20 years ago, and has only now made its way across the continent to the mountains of North Carolina.

" It's easily accessible," Turner said, in explanation of methamphetamine's seemingly inexplicable popularity. " ;The method for cooking it up in a lab is so easy, even simple-minded people can do this."

And users, not dealers, are the driving force behind the proliferation of small-scale labs, said Chief Deputy Philip Byers, of the Rutherford County Sheriff's Department. It's a distinction that separates the meth explosion from drug trends of the past.

" The majority of what we're seeing," he said, " they're not selling. It's user-driven."

Byers said he believes the manufacturers are bypassing the expense of purchasing the drug by making their own.

It's a relatively cheap process where a few hundred dollars' investment can result in several thousands of dollars in product.

And, as North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper points out, a sort of grass-roots course in meth production has been spreading across the region as experienced meth cooks instruct newcomers on the various recipes for success.

This word-of-mouth instruction, Cooper said, appears to be playing a significant role in the spread of the drug.

" There are cooks going around and teaching others about making meth; I can see where there could be migration," Cooper said.

That migration appears to be headed south along the Appalachian region. And while several counties to the east have seen a modest increase in lab discoveries, the vast majority of production can still be found in the mountain counties to the west.

Of 322 meth labs discovered in 2004, 246 were located in the Appalachian region of 24 counties bordered roughly by Surry and Yadkin to the northeast and Cherokee to the southwest.

Just five of those 24 - Burke, McDowell, Buncombe, Rutherford, Watauga and Ashe -accounted for 157 clandestine labs, half the total for the state.

Despite the spike in the number of labs discovered statewide, from 177 in 2003 to last year's 322, Watauga held steady at 34, Wilkes increased from three to five, and Avery went from four to five.

The most startling jump was seen in McDowell and Rutherford counties. McDowell had peaked at seven labs each year between 2001 and 2003 before witnessing a five-fold increase last year to 43.

Like McDowell, Rutherford reported only one lab as late as 2001. The number climbed to 14 in 2002 and held steady until last year when 43 busts tied them with their neighbor to the north as the state's leading site for clandestine meth lab busts.

Meanwhile, Buncombe nearly doubled from 12 to 23 between 2003-04, and Haywood, which reported no labs from 2001-2003, uncovered nine just last year.

Burke, which shares borders with Avery and Caldwell counties to the north, and McDowell and Rutherford to the south, saw an even more pronounced leap in meth activity. From 2001 to 2003, Burke had averaged one lab discovery per year. In 2004 law enforcement officials seized 16 labs.

Watauga held steady at 34, the same as for 2003.

So far this year, McDowell is the undisputed champion, their total as of May 21 nearly exceeding their take for all of 2004. According to figures released by the State Bureau of Investigation. McDowell and state authorities have uncovered evidence of 37 meth labs already. And Sheriff Turner said with more users learning to cook their own, he could find little reason to believe the number would not continue to climb.

" The meth labs we used to deal with were humongous," he said, referring to the super labs employed by major producers - gangs mostly - which turn out 10 or more pounds of meth in a day's time.

Super labs still produce 80 percent of the meth consumed nationwide, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency. The proliferation of smaller labs works to undercut the market for the criminal gangs, which produce much of the drug in Mexico for import to the states.

But the " mom and pop" labs, as they've come to be known, have become neighborhood nemeses, littering the landscape with toxic waste, contaminating rental properties, spoiling water supplies, polluting the air, and jamming foster homes with children plucked from the dysfunctional homes of meth-producing parents.

It's a trend that has by no means confined itself to McDowell County. SBI statistics indicate the number of lab busts has roughly doubled each year since the first small-scale meth kitchens first began to appear in 1999. It's too early to say for certain if that trend will hold true yet another year, but if early reports are any indication, the number will double yet again.

The SBI has already reported 161 clandestine lab responses for the first quarter of 2005. That projects to roughly 644 labs for the year - exactly double the number of 322 reported in 2004.

It isn't that law enforcement agencies aren't trying. They may even be making progress. Many of those assigned the grim task of battling the spread of meth say they believe experience and education are leading to the exposure of more labs and contributing to the higher numbers.

Watauga, Wilkes and Avery may owe some of their relative success to the formation last year of the Northwest North Carolina Methamphetamine task force. The task force has become a model for other jurisdictions as meth production works its way southward along the Tennessee border toward the South Carolina line.

In Rutherford County, Byers said a beefed up narcotics division has helped root out many labs they might otherwise never have found.

" Three years ago we had a total of two narcotics officers for the whole county," Byers said, " and we were able to maintain things pretty well with that. Today, we've got five officers working full-time just on meth."

Before meth, Byers said, a favorable climate and ample open space -Rutherford has just 63,000 inhabitants sharing 566 square miles - made marijuana cultivation his county's biggest drug problem. By comparison, the arrival of methamphetamines has made the marijuana era seem like the good old days.

Law enforcement officials are unanimous in their opinion that no other drug has had so far-reaching an impact on their communities. Its highly addictive qualities make beating the habit more difficult than kicking crack cocaine.

The debilitating, long-lasting high keeps users up for hours and depressed for days, leaving children neglected, jobs untenable, and social interaction out of the question.

Meth takes a devastating toll on the body; and the toxic byproducts from its manufacture pollute the landscape. All combine to make it one of the most damaging and costly drugs ever conceived.

" There isn't a single (government) agency that will not be affected by this problem," Byers said. And the impact, he added, is wide-sweeping, affecting everything from the children of meth abusers to the economic resources of county agencies charged with mopping up in its wake.

Costs begin accumulating before law enforcement ever gets involved. Stories abound of children found in homes where the implements and residues of meth production clutter kitchen counters, bedrooms - even the vehicles used to carry them to and from school. Noxious fumes seep into furniture, walls, carpets, clothes, even kids.

Byers said Rutherford County removed 24 children last year from homes with meth labs on the premises.

" We have to decontaminate them before we can ever remove them for transport to a medical facility," he said.

And there's no telling what still-hidden, long-term health effects may show themselves in the future, he said.

" It's going to cripple us on our healthcare," Byers warned. " (Meth abusers') health is pitiful."

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) provides a list of long-term side effects common among chronic meth users. They include lung and nerve damage, heart disease, kidney failure, extreme weight loss, stroke, and seizures.

Another ailment quickly gaining notice and bloating law-enforcement budgets is " meth mouth," a condition that rots the teeth of meth users for reasons that are still not quite clear to dental health experts.

One theory suggests the cotton-mouth that affects most users deprives their mouths of saliva that might otherwise cleanse the mouth of enamel-eroding bacteria.

Often, polluted homes must be de-contaminated as well, Byers said. And since most meth cooks are renters, the contamination they leave behind becomes a problem for landlords. That is having its own effect on local economies. " When we find a lab we're required to notify the health department within 24 hours," Byers said. " And the land owners aren't allowed to rent again until the health department clears it."

Cooper said the risk to landlords has come to his attention.

" We've already had many cases where land owners rent out property and lose the entire value of the land because of contamination from these labs," Cooper said.

Added to the increased costs in health care, displaced children, law enforcement personnel, toxic cleanup, crime lab resources, land values, and property crime losses, is another less obvious expense: an extreme drop in the property forfeiture revenue many narcotics agencies have grown to depend on to fund their operations.

" When cocaine was the career of choice for drug dealers," Byers said, " it was not unusual to seize thousands of dollars at a time; homes, cars, trucks - you name it. When we go to make meth arrests we're going after people who live at the end of dusty old dirt roads in run-down trailers."

McDowell's Sheriff Turner lamented much the same.

" These people don't have anything in terms of money, or anything of value," he said. " Plus, the scene is contaminated. It's a terrible, terrible drain on our manpower."