Tennessee battles meth, pot in war on drugs

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   As Tennessee prepares to start the new year, some old acquaintances will not be forgotten.
   Despite tougher laws and increased enforcement efforts, the drug problem in Tennessee continues to be strong with both domestically produced drugs as wells as trafficking operations throughout the state.
   "The drug problems we find here in Tennessee, throughout the state, cocaine remains a problem, methamphetamine is a huge problem and here in East Tennessee, marijuana is a problem because it is a natural grow area for marijuana," said Harry Sommers, special agent in charge for Drug Enforcement Administration operations in Tennessee.
   The two biggest problems currently facing DEA and other law enforcement agents working to fight the war on drugs in Tennessee are methamphetamine, commonly called meth, and marijuana, according to Sommers. "We had more meth labs in Tennessee last year than we did in the rest of the entire southeast region," he said. "We had the second largest domestically grown marijuana eradication in the nation as well."
   According to Sommers, approximately 200 meth producing laboratories were seized in the state in 2000 and that number had grown to 1,150 meth labs which were seized in the state by the beginning of December. "Obviously that is a huge growth," he said.
   In addition to meth which is manufactured in what are called "home cooks" which are usually small and unsophisticated laboratories according to information from the DEA, agents also have to combat against methamphetamine which is being imported to the area. "It's a hard drug to fight because you have to fight it on a local, regional and international level," Sommers said. "Up until a year ago, almost all of the meth found in Tennessee was domestically made. I think as time goes by we are seeing more of it being brought in from places like Texas and California."
   Much of the methamphetamine being imported into the area is part of what Sommers called "organized drug cells" from Mexico, which he adds shows that the demand for the drug is high in the state. "The Mexicans aren't going to bring it in until the user base is big enough to support it," he said.
   Until recent years, cocaine -- in both the powder and crystal, or "crack cocaine" form -- was the drug of choice, so to speak, for Tennessee, according to information from the DEA. In the last few years, that drug has lost some of its popularity while use of methamphetamine, which is called "the poor man's crack," has been on the rise, according to DEA information.
   Production of meth in clandestine laboratories is becoming such a problem in the state that, according to the DEA, Tennessee accounts for 75 percent of the lab seizures in the southeast region of the United States. Joey Reece, who is the resident agent in charge for the Knoxville office of the DEA, states that those figures may be misleading about the actual drug problem in Tennessee.
   "Part of the reason, I think, that our stats are so much higher than neighboring states is that we are really aggressive in going after them (labs)," he said.
   Both Reece and Sommers stated that methamphetamine producing laboratories are worrisome for law enforcement agents due to the endless number of problems associated with the labs and their operators. The chemicals which are used to produce the drug not only produce toxic fumes and toxic waste, but are very combustible and prone to explosions.
   In the state of Tennessee, more than 550 children have been removed from their homes and taken into state custody because their parents or guardians were producing and/or using methamphetamine.
   According to the DEA, in the year 2000, an estimated 4 percent of the U.S. population reported to having tried methamphetamine at least once during their life. While the drug affects levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain and creates a euphoric high, according to health officials, it is that same property which makes the drug so addictive.
   In addition to the high which a methamphetamine user gets from the drug, several other, more dangerous, side effects occur from use. According to the DEA, those effects include addiction, psychotic behavior and brain damage.
   Chronic use of the drug can lead to violent behavior, anxiety, hallucinations, mood disturbances, delusions and paranoia. Brain damage associated with the drug are compared to Alzheimer's disease, stroke and epilepsy, according to the DEA.