By JACK DOUGLAS JR.STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
Sherry Janes knows a methamphetamine addict when she sees one. She recognizes the despair in their eyes and understands the quiver in their voice, reminding her of the days -- the years -- when she was hooked.
A recovering drug addict who now works with substance-abuse patients at a Wichita Falls clinic, Janes said she is astonished by the type of meth now on the streets, a much purer and more dangerous form than was available when she was shooting up.
"There is no way I could have been a methamphetamine addict for 13 years with the dope they're using now," said Janes, 48, who recently celebrated her 18th year of sobriety.
She said she is certain that she would be dead.
Local, state and federal authorities say the methamphetamine problem in Texas, both trafficking and consumption, has reached epidemic proportions, even as a new state law is making it more difficult to buy common cold medicines used by meth "cookers" to make the drug.
"We've classified it as our most significant drug trade right now," said Pat O'Burke, deputy narcotics commander for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Along with the addiction, O'Burke said, there is plenty of "collateral damage."
Some of that damage:
Investigators cite one case after another in which young children have been rescued from homes where meth kitchens spew toxic fumes, pose the threat of an explosion and attract unsavory characters.
On Thursday, four Dallas police officers were wounded in a shooting after they tried to serve search warrants on a suspected meth-trafficking ring.
In early December, Stephen Heard, in a jailhouse interview with several media outlets, including the Star-Telegram, said he had taken methamphetamine the day he fatally shot Fort Worth police officer Henry "Hank" Nava in a confrontation.
Rise in deaths
Authorities say they do not know for sure how many people in the state die each year from a drug that produces a dazzling high, followed by a spiraling drop into depression and dependency.
Experts are nearly certain, however, that the mortality rate is rising.
Jane Carlisle Maxwell, a research professor at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Social Work, said in an article written for the university that confirmed meth-related deaths have steadily risen in the state during the past several years.
Maxwell wrote that in 1997, 17 deaths were directly attributed to the use of either methamphetamine or, to a much smaller degree, amphetamines. In 2004, the death toll had reached 99.
The new state law has sharply cut the number of meth labs in the state, officials say.
But it has done nothing to curb Texans' appetite for the drug.
Many of them are turning to a more potent form, known as "Mexican ice," that is being transported over the Texas-Mexico border in record amounts, narcotics investigators and drug counselors say.
"We have a meth epidemic right now," said Marcy Thomas, an administrator of substance-abuse counseling at the Helen Farabee Regional Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center in Wichita Falls.
The Texas Department of State Health Services allocated $84 million in 2004 and nearly $91 million in 2005 and has budgeted $94 million for this fiscal year to help pay for the treatment and counseling of indigent people who have fallen victim to substance abuse.
As many as 75 percent of those cases involve meth, experts say.
But at a time when state and federal officials are acknowledging a real problem in Texas, police are expressing dismay that the state is planning next month to cut off federal grants for drug task forces.
State officials concede that there is not enough money to go around because federal funding for law enforcement has dropped more than 57 percent the past three years.
Much of what is now available, they add, needs to be sent to the Mexican border to beef up efforts to stem the flow of drugs and to watch for illegal immigrants and potential terrorists.
Sgt. Kim Graham, commander of the Deep East Texas Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, said the unit will shut down at the end of March after being told by Gov. Rick Perry's office that methamphetamine kitchens are no longer a top priority in her area.
"We do have local meth labs in East Texas and for some reason the governor of Texas thinks we don't. I don't know what people here are going to do," Graham said.
The meth market is also booming in North Texas, in counties along the Red River border with Oklahoma. Since summer 2003, the North Texas Regional Drug Enforcement Task Force has made 425 arrests, seized nearly $40 million in drugs -- including $21.8 million in methamphetamine -- and busted 116 drug labs, its records show.
Forty percent of the meth kitchens in the region have dried up since authorities began monitoring the sale of cold medicines, but Mexican ice is "definitely on the increase," said Jim Whitehead, commander of the Wichita Falls-based task force.
Despite the task force's impressive caseload and the continuing threat of an even more dangerous form of meth, the unit will be forced to shut down unless local government entities pick up the costs, Whitehead said.
The funding problems stem from a severe reduction in what the state gets in federal law enforcement grants, from $33 million in 2004 to $14 million this year, according to Rachael Novier, a spokeswoman for Perry.
It only makes sense, Novier added, to devote much of the federal funds to the Mexican border, considering the problems there.
"If we can reduce the amount of drugs that come across our border, reduce the ability of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations to operate in Texas and bring their poison into Texas, then we are having an impact all across Texas by focusing resources along the border," she said.
In August, a new Texas law required stores and pharmacies to begin monitoring and restricting the sale of cold medicines containing ephedrine, pseudoephedrine or norpseudoephedrine.
For years, cookers have used those ingredients to make methamphetamine through the "Nazi method," resulting in a diluted concoction developed by the Germans during World War II to keep their diminishing troops awake -- and wired. The law prohibits large purchases of the cold medicines and requires businesses to keep them behind counters or "in a locked case within 30 feet and in a direct line of sight" of an employee.
Local, state and federal authorities say they have seen a significant drop in "mom-and-pop" meth labs in the state since the law was enacted. One DPS report says state police raided 264 methamphetamine kitchens last year -- a 63 percent drop from the 717 labs found in 2004.
But while local meth labs were closing down, the trafficking of the stronger and more addictive Mexican ice was crossing the border at an ever-increasing pace, authorities concede.
Between Oct. 1, 2004, and Sept. 30, federal agents protecting the border seized 1,215 pounds of meth, most of it "ice," a 42 percent increase from the 858 pounds confiscated the year before, according to records with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
An additional 507 pounds of the drug was confiscated between October and the end of January, more than double the amount seized during the same period a year earlier, agents say.
"The law did away with the mom-and-pop labs but caused an increase in the more pure stuff coming over the border," said Trino Diaz, a 16-year agent and chief officer of the customs agency's port of entry near the South Texas border town of Hidalgo.
Montague County Sheriff Bill Keating, who is angry that the drug task force in his area may be closing down, said police and deputies still see caravans of "meth heads" looking for a place to score.
While Keating wants even tougher laws, he believes the one that makes it harder to turn a simple cold pill into meth is a good start.
"It's good to have this law," he said. "It's good that people are beginning to recognize [meth] is the scourge of Middle America right now."
IN THE KNOW
Meth in Texas
Seizures of home drug labs have dropped from a high of 803 in 2003 to 264 in 2005. The decline has been attributed to a new law that makes it harder to obtain common cold medicines often used to make methamphetamine.
The Texas Highway Patrol is making its largest number of meth seizures along the Interstate 40 corridor, where the drug is coming in from other Western states, primarily Arizona, that share a border with Mexico.
Much of the meth traffic is directed toward the Dallas-Fort Worth area, then continues toward Oklahoma City and Missouri.
Federal law enforcement agencies report that 80 percent of the meth used in the United States is made in Mexico.
Mexican manufacturers are buying "massive quantities" of pseudoephedrine tablets, primarily from China, Panama and India, to make meth in "very controlled, high-quality labs."
SOURCE: Texas Department of Public Safety