GUY KEEFE COOPER NORMAN
John Russell  /  AP
Dr. Jeffrey Guy, left, director of the Vanderbilt Burn Unit, talks about the high percentage of methamphetamine burn victims they treat as he gives Congressman Jim Cooper D-Tenn., center, Joseph Keefe, second right, deputy director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and Judge Seth Norman, right, a tour of the burn unit in Nashville, Tenn., on March 29.
updated 3/30/2005 11:33:03 AM ET 2005-03-30T16:33:03

At a conference on the scourge of methamphetamine, one item on the agenda was a tour of a seemingly unlikely place: a burn unit.

Legislators, doctors, social workers and law officials — including the federal government’s second highest-ranking drug czar — walked the halls of Vanderbilt University Medical Center regional burn center, where seven of the 20 patients were injured by fires and explosions in clandestine meth labs.

Vanderbilt doctors told Joseph Keefe, deputy director of the Office on National Drug Control Policy, and the other participants that meth cases are increasingly common and are driving up state medical expenditures. The costs of treating critically injured burn victims typically exceed $10,000 a day each — and most meth patients don’t have health insurance.

“As bad as this may sound, as a burn doctor I almost wish another drug, one less volatile that doesn’t regularly explode during the manufacturing process, would come down the pike to overtake the popularity of meth,” said the center’s director, Dr. Jeff Guy.

Standing in the doorway of one patient’s room Tuesday, Guy told Keefe that the man had spent 45 days in a hospital from an October meth blast and “has gone out and blown himself up again.”

The man, Guy said, has been in the burn unit about 30 days from the second injury and his medical costs to date total about $240,000. He said such victims often end up collecting disability.

Meth is also hurting innocents, Guy said.

A child was severely burned inside a trailer where someone cooking meth had lined interior walls with plastic to trap the odorous, toxic fumes, he said.

“We are seeing kids in meth labs,” Guy said.

Keefe described what he saw in the burn unit as “devastating.”

‘A scourge and a cancer’
Methamphetamine is an addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system and is cooked from over-the-counter ingredients. Tennessee leads the nation in meth lab seizures and accounts for three-quarters of such busts in the South.

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Between October 2003 and August 2004, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration broke up about 1,200 clandestine meth labs in Tennessee, a nearly 400 percent increase from 2000. Also, Tennessee removed an estimated 750 children from the custody of meth abusers last year, up from 2003.

Ingredients cooked to make the drug include common cold medicines and workplace chemicals. Even when labs don’t explode, the toxic vapors contaminate property and can cause health problems.

Meth users account for 607,000 of the country’s 19.5 million drug users in 2003, according to the most recent statistics from the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Keefe commended Gov. Phil Bredesen and Tennessee lawmakers for approaching the drug problem with tougher criminal laws, public education and addiction treatment.

Tennessee’s new meth-fighting measures, recommendations from a task force appointed by Bredesen, would move certain cold medicines that contain pseudoephedrine behind pharmacy counters. It sailed through the Legislature on Monday and will be signed into law by Bredesen on Wednesday.

Other states have restricted access to pseudoephedrine, including Oklahoma, Iowa, Arkansas and Kentucky. Tennessee lawmakers began pushing for the change after Oklahoma saw a big decrease in meth after implementing their anti-meth policies.

“I think meth is a scourge and a cancer, particularly in our rural areas right now,” Bredesen said last month. “I see it most acutely in the several hundred children last year that were coming into state custody because they are part of meth households. ... This is terrible stuff.”

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