Crank creeps across the North Country
by Annie Stoltie
“Acidic—like a battery gone bad” is how Jerry Soper describes the smell. He’d been doing a routine fire-alarm check at his mother’s Villa Motel in Keeseville when he came upon the strange odor outside one of the units. After entering, Soper says he saw tinfoil, cold pills, fuel cans, a dismantled battery and other suspicious materials. He confronted the occupant, who then hit Soper with a 32-ounce plastic bottle. Soper, a retired correctional supervisor, pinned the man until the police arrived. He was lucky the bottle’s contents—an unstable swill of pseudoephedrine, ammonium nitrate, sodium hydroxide, Coleman fuel and lithium battery strips, used to make methamphetamine—hadn’t exploded on impact or burned his skin. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Soper, recalling the July incident. “They could have blown up the building. We had several baseball teams here and families with kids on vacation. But they don’t care, they just want to get high.”
That same month the Adirondack Drug Task Force busted a makeshift meth lab in a Plattsburgh apartment building. In August another Plattsburgh operation was seized, followed by another in Mooers and, in September, one in Redford. According to police blotters, those apprehended come from Plattsburgh, Saranac, Chazy, Churubusco, Redford—all North Country towns. Most were manufacturing the drugs for personal use, says Clinton County Sheriff David Favro, using the one-pot, or shake-and-bake, method.
Meth’s been around here more than a decade, some trickling in from warehouse-size producers in Mexico, explains Favro. But now, with the one-pot technique, most of it is concocted in kitchens, in sheds or cars. Meth’s easy to make—you can learn from an online tutorial.
During an August press conference the Adirondack Drug Task Force—a team that includes Favro, the Clinton County D. A. and state police, among others, and covers Massena and much of the Adirondacks across to Plattsburgh—revealed that in 2012 there had already been 89 methamphetamine-lab seizures in New York State, a record since 2003. Many of these were in the Southern Tier and the western part of the state, but Clinton County has been a hotbed, the result of a trend that mimics a national one.
“Unfortunately, we’re going to come into this with full-blown intensity,” says Mike Nerney, former director of training for Narcotics and Drug Research Incorporated. Now, as a chemical-dependency consultant based in Long Lake, he travels across the country to educate groups like social workers, students and teachers. Nerney’s seen meth ravage communities in Iowa, Montana, Colorado; he describes a drug that can hook anyone, but that’s gripped “the rural poor”—folks “working two or three jobs and not getting enough sleep.”
Meth, which can be snorted, smoked or injected, triggers a surge of the brain chemical dopamine and blocks its uptake, leaving the user feeling euphoric and wired for hours. That’s why it was used by Japanese Kamikaze pilots in World War II and why it was embraced by truckers. Nerney adds, “The rural poor have higher needs. Maybe they’re never happy until they try this drug, or see potential proﬁt in it.”
Meth addicts’ mug shots often show gaunt faces, skin lesions, toothless mouths. What you can’t see is the destruction of tissue in their limbic systems, the brain’s center for emotion. “The more people are addicted,” says Nerney, “the greater their incapacity to love.” Which explains the risks addicts take, cooking meth in motel rooms or while their toddlers play nearby. This “isn’t about how trashy poor white people are,” adds Nerney.
“These people don’t get into it to become a monster. But you cannot avoid the degradation.”
Some folks think of the Adirondacks as vacationland—resorts, recreation, relaxation. But our region’s like anyplace else. There’s crime. There’s poverty. And there’s meth. That means a burden on taxpayers, who subsidize dismantling the toxic labs; catching, prosecuting and treating addicts; and fostering their kids. That also means protecting and educating our loved ones.
Upon mention of the drug, a friend of mine who long ago conquered his own addiction says, “If you know meth you know heartache.”