When Leslie Roettgen graduated from residential drug rehab in September — her seventh try at treatment — she had a plan. She would move to Columbia, putting distance between herself and her hometown of Marshall, an hour to the west, and between the meth cooks and users she hung with there.
She would buy a car, find a nice little house to rent and have one of her daughters move up to be with her. Never mind that she didn’t have any money. She would open a savings account as soon as she got a paycheck or two from Steak ’n’ Shake — her first job in years.
She landed the job just in time. Roettgen lives at Oxford House, just off the Broadway bus line near the Columbia Mall. It’s a halfway house for women recovering from addictions. Residents are given 30 days to find work after they move in. If they don’t find a job, they are asked to leave. Roettgen made the deadline by waitressing at Steak ‘n’ Shake. She was already three weeks behind on her rent.
During her rehabilitation process, she says, a lot of that time she felt like she was in the middle of a vast lake, dog paddling desperately but never getting any closer to the shore.
As badly as she wanted to stay above water, sometimes it seemed it would be far easier to give up, to simply stop swimming. When she couldn’t find a job, she got frustrated and slept many of her days away.
But she pulled herself together and kept looking. Then she agreed to a meeting with her ex-boyfriend, a meth addict who used to give her drugs. She stayed strong and refused to use with him. At a baby shower, everyone was smoking pot. She chose not to.
Roettgen, 39, says she’s been addicted to drugs for 25 years. It started with alcohol and pot when she was 12. Then she got into painkillers and tranquilizers. For the past nine years, her drug of choice has been methamphetamine — a cheap, plentiful high, as destructive as it is seductive. She’s been caught, high and in possession of the drug, by police and sent to treatment again and again. Within three weeks of leaving treatment, she would be using again.
Now she’s on probation for possession. And she spent four months in prison for violating an earlier probation.
She’s trying a little harder to stay clean. She checked herself into McCambridge Center in August for a 30-day treatment program. When she got out, she made it to week four and then week five, looking green and irritated. By early November, she had held on for three months. Temptation was still strong, but so was hope. She sat curled in a chair at McCambridge Center, wearing jeans and a pastel sweatshirt, and she spoke of meth as a personal demon.
“It’s the devil in my head. It tells me I can get off probation in (January) and then I can go get high,” Roettgen says. “Meth is the hardest drug I’ve ever had to get off of.”
The ingredients of addiction
Roettgen’s history with meth echoes across Missouri. Ten years ago, the homemade drug was a small part of the state’s drug scene. Now, there are so many meth labs dotting rural Missouri that everyone from legislators to drug enforcement officials call it the meth capital of the United States.
In 2002, law enforcement agents found 2,743 labs in Missouri; in 1992, the number of labs busted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency was two. The Missouri Highway Patrol puts its unofficial count for 1992 slightly higher: 12. As of September of 2003, 2,206 labs were collected, according to the Highway Patrol.
The amount of meth made per lab is relatively small, indicating that it remains mostly a mom-and-pop industry in the state, where “cooks” make the drug for themselves and neighbors or friends. For all the labs found in Missouri in 2002, officials collected 11.2 kilograms of meth. That’s compared with 311.2 kilograms of meth found in California from 1,718 labs, according to the DEA.
Backwoods meth labs are the 21st century version of the backwoods stills that pockmarked rural America during Prohibition. Mark Shields, a program specialist with the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, says that in Missouri people find meth more acceptable because it doesn’t involve any of the big city implications: It doesn’t require money, strangers or attention.
“It is more acceptable for individuals in those rural communities because meth is more like the moonshine of the new millennium,” he says. “It is something that an individual creates himself with a little bit of knowledge.”
But although experts say meth likely won’t lead to the kind of vast drug trafficking that often goes with heroin or crack, it is becoming an opiate to the problems of small-town, rural Missouri. Social workers and mental health officials say that where jobs, schools and parents fail, meth use picks up.
It’s cheap and easy to make and gives a long-lasting high. There’s nothing to grow, and the ingredients are common — found in convenience, hardware or garden stores, and farm cooperatives — making it difficult for police to track. Research from the Missouri Department of Mental Health indicates that the majority of users are white; their ages range from 16 to 50, although older and younger people have been known to use.
Although wide-scale meth use in Missouri can only be tracked back 10 years, it already is creating generations of addicts, leaving parents unable to care for their children and babies physically and emotionally disabled (see sidebar). Use often becomes a family affair, passed down from parents to teenage children, from sibling to sibling.
City marshals used to patrol the roads of one-street towns looking for vandals or drunks; now drug enforcement units search for labs in soybean fields. The state has created drug task forces, cobbling together local and federal funds and passing stringent laws for possession and the intent to cook methamphetamine.
But drug officials say meth use has not yet peaked in Missouri. So far, the drug has proved more powerful than efforts to combat it.
Life as a user
Roettgen fell in love with meth just as it was gaining popularity in the state. She grew up in Marshall, population 12,300, a farm town trying to go digital. It has become home to the type of mom-and-pop lab community that epitomizes meth in Missouri. She has spent most of her life as an addict — alcohol, dope, Demerol, Dilaudids, Valium. But she always kept a tenuous hold on her life — until meth.
After her first year using meth, she became such an absent parent that the Department of Family Services took her children away. That same year, she was evicted. She has since bounced between friends’ homes and treatment centers. In 2002, she was diagnosed with hepatitis C.
Yet for all meth has cost her, Roettgen says it has treated her better than most addicts. She still has her looks. She’s a small woman who has kept her figure. Her skin is a bit sallow and pockmarked, but when she lets her chestnut hair loose from its usual ponytail, it shines and frames her face.
But her nervousness betrays her. She always has to go do something, talk to someone else, be somewhere. There’s a hurriedness to her that doesn’t blow over. She looks people in the eye but gives the impression she isn’t saying everything she’s thinking.
Roettgen tells her story carefully, as carefully as she cleans her white Keds or plucks her pencil-thin eyebrows. Growing up with a mother and stepfather she says were alcoholic and abusive. Siblings who are heavy drug users. Robbing a convenience store and becoming an unwed mother at 16. Getting pregnant again and having twins at 20. A fourth child when she was 22. Scraping by on welfare. She says she tried to stay sober when she was with her kids. She’d hire babysitters or ask friends to watch them while she got high. But by the time her youngest child was 8, the meth had taken over.
It started when a guy asked if he could sell meth out of her house in exchange for money and some of the drugs. He cut the meth, or dope as Roettgen calls it, in her bathroom; she handled the customers.
“I made a lot of money for drug dealers, but then my habit took over,” she says.
A gram of meth is the size of a sugar packet and sells for $100 to $120. But in the mom-and-pop meth world, the barter system is also at work. People trade it for clothing, cars and worse.
Although the price of meth is not much different than the price of cocaine, the impact is. A cocaine high often peaks in 30 minutes; a meth high can last eight to 24 hours. Meth can be injected, swallowed as a pill, snorted, smoked like crack or ground up and smoked with marijuana. Shooting up creates an amazing rush — some users describe it as an instant orgasm. Snorting or ingesting doesn’t produce the same immediate rush but creates a longer euphoria. At first, meth amplifies the sex drive; over time, it kills the libido.
Roettgen says the drug made her feel brilliant and powerful. It gave her so much energy she would bounce off the walls. Friends would tell her to stay inside when she got high because she was so loud and jumpy.
History of the habit
Methamphetamine is a psychomotor stimulant, meaning it speeds up thought process, reaction time and muscle movement, and heightens emotions and sex drive. It tells the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter that creates the feeling of happiness. After consistent use, the brain stops voluntarily producing the chemical.
In the 1920s, meth was sold as a bronchial dilator for common colds. In the 1930s, it was used to treat narcolepsy and depression. In World War II, the Germans and Japanese gave it to their soldiers to keep them awake and aggressive; the Americans used meth’s cousin, amphetamine. In the 1950s, meth sold in the United States as an over-the-counter stimulant and weight loss product known as Methadrine. Burroughs-Wellcome Pharmaceuticals in Britain made the drug until the 1960s, when the company voluntarily pulled if off the market because of rumors of abuse. It gets one of its nicknames, “crank,” from the Hell’s Angels, members of a motorcycle club, who would store the drug in the crankshafts of their motorcycles.
Side effects can be severe. For example, “pick” is the sensation of bugs crawling under the skin. Users with this symptom will dig at their skin until they create massive sores. Roettgen says an ex-boyfriend would scrape his arms trying to get rid of the sensation. He would become obsessed with imaginary blackheads on her face and squeeze her skin so hard he’d leave little holes.
Tooth loss is common. The drug strips the body of calcium, while at the same time making users so agitated that they grind their teeth.
Users become jaundiced and emaciated. The drug overrides normal appetite, making users feel they don’t need food or water. Roettgen has been hospitalized for kidney infections due to severe dehydration. She would get high for weeks at a time, sleeping very little, rarely stopping to eat or drink. Mostly she says she would clean obsessively and have sex.
Insomnia, violence, hallucinations and paranoia are frequent by-products. One drug officer says he knew an addict who thought the animals in the woods near his meth lab were mechanical surveillance units.
Meth can cause heart failure, high blood pressure, stroke and convulsions. Shooting up with shared, dirty needles has led to a spike in the transmission of HIV and hepatitis B and C. A study at the University of Ohio showed that meth use sped up the replication of the HIV virus in cats. A 2001 study by Nora Volkow, of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, linked the use of meth for more than two years to seriously impaired motor and memory skills and a high likelihood of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.
Meth is as simple to make as it is destructive to use. Most of the ingredients can be found in a grocery store: coffee filters or bed sheets; electric tape; Coleman fuel; rubber hoses; glass jars, like pickle jars; large plastic soda bottles; cold tablets; lithium batteries; anhydrous ammonia or red phosphorous; ether; hydrochloric acid and acetone.
A lab and its ingredients can be had for about $300.
Most of the ingredients are as easy to purchase — or steal — as film for a camera. They are so commonplace and have so many uses that legislators can’t outlaw them. Missouri regulates the amount of pseudoephedrine, or cold pills, that can be purchased at any one time. But most labs are small, making only a few grams at a time — enough for the cook and a few friends. So “runners,” or “spiders,” go from store to store and can gather enough raw materials in one evening. They often will collect cold pills or anhydrous and then trade them for cooked meth.
While it can be easy to gather ingredients, the recipe for cooking meth can be intricate. Mistakes can literally blow up in the cook’s face — taking a lab and the surrounding building with him.
Boone County detective Ken Kreigh of the Drug Enforcement Unit says it’s just like making a cake.
“I probably wouldn’t do real good cooking a cake the first time,” Kreigh says. “But (if) you get the recipe and you work at, you’re going to be able to make it.”
Roettgen became a runner for her meth cooks as a way to ensure her supply of the drug.
“(I’d) go ask for some (meth). That leads into buying pills, being the watchdog, cleaning up the mess,” she says.
She says she often stole ingredients such as pills and batteries to avoid making large-quantity purchases that might tip off the cops.
Capt. Terry Everett of the Mid-Missouri Drug Task Force blames meth for an increase in burglaries and shoplifting in Morgan, Moniteau, Miller, Cooper, Howard and Osage counties.
Roettgen says she also worked with “associates” to steal anhydrous ammonia from fertilizer co-ops. They would break the release valves off the white anhydrous tanks, fill a propane tank with the pressurized fertilizer, wipe off their prints and get out before the police showed up.
Stealing the ingredients to make meth can be prosecuted as the intent to manufacture, which carries a 7- to 10-year sentence. Add a charge of possession, and Roettgen could have spent more than a decade in prison.
Roettgen says she also traded drugs for sex or for information about safe spots to set up a lab. She’d take a cook to a friend’s cabin in the woods, knowing no one would look for them there.
But for all her using and running, Roettgen never learned to cook. She was afraid of the punishment for manufacturing meth — 20 years to life in prison. And she was afraid that if she got good at cooking her own meth, she’d never want to stop. As a runner, the risk was less and her drugs were free. She knew the cooks, so she could count on a quality product. And if the dope cooks liked her, they helped her out.
“I never had a whole lot of money in my pocket, but I always ate, had cigarettes, gas in my car,” she says. “And my kids always had money, cigarettes. The dope cooks, (if) they liked me, they had to take care of my kids, too.”
James Thacker, known as Benny, is the other half of the meth culture: the cooker. He got the recipe in prison, while he was serving time for selling marijuana.
Thacker, 36, traces his criminal history to his teenage years in New Madrid, a rural town in the Bootheel, when he says he threw a rock at a man’s head for no reason.
Thacker says he was the black sheep of the family. His parents owned a roofing business that he worked for; his brothers didn’t do drugs. But Thacker got into — and stayed into — drugs, even after his family moved to central Missouri. His father fired him when Thacker was arrested for selling pot and took him back when Thacker was released from prison in 1999.
That same year, he started cooking in the woods, partying all night. He’d get back home just in time for work the next day. He was thin and ragged with dark circles under his eyes and tattoos on both his arms. His dad called him a vampire. Thacker says when his dad finally discovered what he was doing, he gave Thacker an ultimatum: his job and family, or meth.
Thacker chose meth.
“You get addicted to making it more than doing it,” he says. “It’s the thrill — not getting caught while you do it, and it gives you a strange sense of power. You get real popular, and everybody’s looking for you.”
He wasn’t out cooking and using for long before he was arrested again, this time for possession of pseudoephedrine, or cold pills. He tells his story from the visitors’ room at Licking State Prison, where he is serving 15 years for possession and intent to manufacture meth.
He’s been here since January 2003, and his gaunt face has filled out. He leans back in his seat, seemingly proud, and brags that he was a good cook. He says he never got burned and never let anyone who was high near his lab. He says he could make meth in the middle of town, and no one would be the wiser.
Meth labs have a pungent and lingering chemical odor from the anhydrous ammonia and ether used to make it. A cook can freeze his lungs by inhaling the chemicals. Some cooks cover the stench of meth with the stench of manure, hiding their labs behind a small hog farm or chicken coop. Some go deep into the woods or cook in their garages, masking the odor by putting their equipment in coolers.
Thacker kept his lab in the cab of his truck. Sometimes he would drive through the woods cooking with the rear cab window open to create a draft and dissipate the smell.
“I won’t stay in one place for long and never cook in the same place twice,” he says. “I go out in the middle of the woods, in the middle of nowhere, in a four-wheel drive. No one’s looking for you out there, and if they do, you can make your own road.”
Thacker blames one of those chases with the cops for the loss of his baby.
When Thacker’s then-girlfriend got pregnant, he says, she also got jealous. She would go with him to the woods when he cooked to keep him from sleeping with other women. She would stay in the car to try to avoid the worst of the fumes.
Four months into her pregnancy, they were driving back from a cook when Thacker spotted a cop car. He took off, going 90 mph over muddy, rutted roads.
“I floored it, and you know I hit them low-water bridges and it jarred her,” he says.
She had been cramping badly for a couple of weeks. The rough ride was too much, and she miscarried a day later.
“She left me after that,” he says. “She told me she didn’t want to have nothing to do with me or that shit or anything else again.”Thacker swore off meth for a while, and she came back. But it wasn’t long before he was cooking again to pay for the rent at his mom’s or to take care of his 16-year-old son. The police kept watch and, despite Thacker’s proclaimed prowess, gathered enough evidence to convict him.
Now he says he’s finished with meth. It has cost him too much. He says his son was using drugs. His father doesn’t speak to him. Even the veins in his arms are ruined. “I’m done with that stuff. I feel like I’m 90,” he says. “If you actually want to change, you can change.”
But for all his conviction, Thacker still speaks of his meth days in the present tense. He gets jazzed just talking about them. And last year, right before he was picked up to start serving his sentence, he shot up five doses of meth.
He wasn’t trying to commit suicide rather than go to prison, he says.
He just didn’t want to waste the drugs.