By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 3/10/2004 8:09:38 PM ET 2004-03-11T01:09:38

Along a country road on the Cumberland Plateau sit the rusting and charred remains of an illegal methamphetamine lab — an increasingly common sight in rural America.

Authorities say the homemade lab, with its volatile chemicals, caught fire twice. The owner was arrested.

"The first time he was cooking meth the place exploded. He was rebuilding the trailer. The trailer exploded again, in the meth lab," said Sgt. John Dishman of the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department.

Remnants from illicit drug production still litter the ground.

Nationwide spread
Law enforcement officials say in the last decade methamphetamine has spread steadily eastward across the United States. Most of it comes from large-scale production facilities run by Mexican trafficking groups.

But, increasingly, smaller homemade labs are popping up around the country, leading to a rise in methamphetamine abuse.

"It has hit rural areas in the United States particularly hard, areas where resources to combat this drug are often the least available," said Rogelio Guevara, chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration during congressional testimony.

Among the recently hard-hit areas is Cumberland County, in central Tennessee, where the effects have been deadly.

"I can name 13 people that died this year, and some of them were real good friends of mine," said Sheriff Butch Burgess.

Five years ago, Cumberland County, a mostly rural area with only 50,000 residents, had little methamphetamine. Now, officials say, it is flooded with the synthetic stimulant known as speed, crank, crystal or meth.

Methamphetamine abusers go days without sleep or food, becoming violent and suicidal. They often deteriorate physically. Some have sores, and suffer from rotted teeth.

"People can tell you it's killing you. So what? You're having fun, it's something to do," said a local meth abuser.

Most of the methamphetamine in this largely rural county is made in "mom and pop" facilities by amateur "cooks," primarily for home consumption, but also for sale locally.

Sheriff's deputies have found labs in homes, apartments, trailers, motel rooms, vehicles — even a chicken coop. The drug can be made cheaply with common household products, hastening its spread, and making it affordable to a wide range of users.

"It's easy to obtain, so easy to make, and you can pull the recipes up on the Internet," said Dianna Daugherty, a legal death investigator for Cumberland County.

When asked how long it would take to obtain the drug in Cumberland County, a local meth user said, "As long as it takes me to call somebody." She added, "It's so available ... it's like even if you want to stop, you can't, because it's always there."

Hometown addiction
The results of methamphetamine production and abuse can be seen throughout Cumberland County.

Cumberland County, Tennessee

The local jail is grossly overcrowded and may require a costly expansion at a time the county needs money to build a new high school.

Even the jail gymnasium and library are used to provide bed space for inmates, most of whom, officials said, are being held on charges related to methamphetamine.

Sheriff Burgess said Cumberland County spends $300,000 a year on medical costs at the jail, largely because of meth abuse.

Area hospitals have seen a rise in emergency room admissions and have had to train doctors and staff members on how to handle sometimes violent meth abusers.

Ambulance drivers and firefighters responding to scenes where methamphetamine is produced now face the dangers of toxic and volatile chemicals.

Meth orphans
The biggest concern, however, among officials here is for the children of methamphetamine abusers and "cooks."

Throughout Tennessee, hundreds of these children have been taken from their parents, and placed in foster care. They are known as "meth orphans."

Deputies say many have been found neglected, and living in squalor — the parents too consumed by their own addictions to care properly for their children. Many of these children face physical, developmental and emotional problems.

Sheriff Burgess has made rescuing "meth orphans" a personal crusade. He and his wife have cared for 31 foster children, several of whom came from the homes of methamphetamine abusers.

"We're going to defend the kids. I don't want to let any child fall through the cracks. We're putting all our eggs in their basket," he said.

Cumberland County has established a task force to protect "drug endangered children." It also plans to renovate a church in downtown Crossville and turn it into the House of Hope, a center for children taken from their parents.

Burgess said he believes if these children can be placed in normal loving environments, many will recover from their traumatic experiences and will be less likely to become addicts, themselves.

Simply arresting adults, he added, does little to end the addiction cycle. "It's just like trying to shovel quicksand out of a hole. The more you shovel out, the faster it's coming in."

Underscoring the problem, county school officials are bracing for a wave of meth-affected children to soon enter kindergarten.

"The symptoms that we've been told about so far are hyperactivity, and impulsivity and possible learning problems," said Dr. Pattie Ragsdale, director of schools.

A local meth abuser, however, said older public school students are already using the illegal drug. "It's in the schools. How can it not be?" she said. "I've known people who started doing it in the seventh and eighth grade."

The best hope
On a videotape shot by officials at the Cumberland County jail, a meth abuser can be seen "tweaking," the slang term used to describe someone high on the drug.

Pressed against a glass strip on the door to his cell, the young man repeatedly contorted his face, then paced back and forth in the cell, his arms and hands twisting.

As with many rural areas, Cumberland County has no full-time treatment facilities, and few addicts there can afford expensive out of town care.

In addition, officials said they have serious doubts about the effectiveness of rehabilitative treatment for methamphetamine addicts. Only a relatively few, they claimed, are ever freed from the drug, even after lengthy therapy.

For many, the only way time they avoid the drug is when they are arrested and jailed.

In this rural hometown fight against a national scourge, where many adults are considered lost to the ravage of methamphetamine, protecting children is seen as the best hope, the one chance for success.

To alert the public to the methamphetamine threat, Burgess and his deputies give periodic seminars to community groups.

At a recent evening session in a local church, deputies asked the audience for help in finding meth abusers who might be neglecting their children.

Said one official to the crowd, "You know somebody's doing this? Call somebody. It's not only something that's a good idea. It's morally what we need to do."

Mark Potter is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Tennessee.

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