A new method of making methamphetamine is turning run-of-the-mill addicts into drug manufacturers. In North Texas, the kingpins are living out of their cars.
Amphetamine and methamphetamine are simple molecules. Diagrammed on paper, amphetamine looks like a hexagon with a forked tail. Its skeleton is just a ring of six carbon atoms, with two more carbon atoms attached to the ring, and then a carbon and a nitrogen attached to the second of those.1 Pencil in another carbon in the right place, and you have drawn methamphetamine. Various other stimulants look quite similar. Ephedrine, the active ingredient in herbal diet pills, differs from methamphetamine by just an oxygen atom-while those same atoms arranged differently would give you pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient in many cold medicines. Slightly more complicated alterations yield the drugs 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (Ecstasy) and methylphenidate (Ritalin). Such conversions are not just possible on paper. In some cases, they can be carried out quite easily. It’s not at all hard to turn the pseudoephedrine in Sudafed into methamphetamine-also known as meth, speed, dope, crank, ice, or crystal. Over the past few years in certain areas of the country, especially the rural Midwest and West, this has become a well-known fact.
Mike* learned to cook dope as many do, by helping somebody else make it. He was 22 and a business student at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls when he first tried smoking meth at his older brother’s house. He immediately started smoking it every day-at his brother’s, in the car, or wherever the urge struck. He dropped out of school and broke up with his girlfriend of two years. (“Last thing I wanted to do was take her down with me,” he now says.) Then he started selling meth to supplement the money he earned working off and on at a mobile home factory and a couple other places. Finally he began stealing anhydrous ammonia from a farmer’s co-op in a neighboring county, and he would trade the ammonia-a common fertilizer, and the one thing his meth supplier needed to make a batch that he couldn’t buy at a Wal-Mart-for finished product. Eventually, Mike says, “I’d go with him once in awhile when he made it, and after six months of that I tried it myself.” The two became partners, bouncing from county to county with their bowls and jars and coffee filters, their ground-up Sudafed pills and lithium strips from Energizer batteries, their salt and sulfuric acid and cans of Prestone antifreeze, looking for some remote, wooded spot out in the country, away from the highway, where no one would see them at work.
The process is straightforward and takes less than three hours. There are several steps involved, and it’s the very first one in which the pseudoephedrine is converted to methamphetamine. “The ammonia went in the bowl first, then the lithium. That would melt and then you sprinkle the pseudoephedrine in it, and you get this sky blue mushy potato-looking stuff,” Mike says, recalling the procedure he and his partner followed. One of them would stir the blue mush as the other extracted ether (used in a later stage) from the bottoms of Prestone cans. Meanwhile, inside the bowl, the essential conversion was taking place: Free electrons-the source of the blue color-were transferred from the lithium to the pseudoephedrine, which would lose an oxygen and a hydrogen. Then another hydrogen atom would bond to what used to be pseudoephedrine, and that was it. The molecule was now methamphetamine. A controlled substance from here on out: Even if they didn’t finish the process, even if they didn’t get any usable product, what Mike and his partner had could put them in prison for a long time.
Speed has a long history in North Texas, but the new method of making what has come to be called “Nazi meth” arrived recently. “It has exploded on the scene so quick, it’s so easy to do, and there are so many people involved in manufacturing it, that it has completely overtaxed our capabilities,” says R.W. Smith, commander of the North Texas Regional Narcotics Task Force, whose 11-county, 10,000-square-mile purview includes Wichita County. The task force busted its first Nazi lab in late 1998, and by the following summer they were busting one every week. “Everybody’s trying to do this,” one cook told me. “It’s very easy to do. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist.” Recipes for making Nazi meth are available on the Internet. Around Wichita Falls, the “labs” have cropped up in trailers and motel rooms, houses and sheds, even cars and vans. Sergeant Jim Whitehead, head of the Wichita Falls Police Department’s organized crime unit, says his officers find a lab or lab components roughly twice a week. These aren’t really labs in the usual sense, since unlike other clandestine drug labs, there’s no glassware, no Bunsen burners or pipettes, just bowls and jars and a makeshift contraption for bubbling gas into a liquid-say, a Clorox bottle with a piece of aquarium tubing stuck through it. (The word “Nazi,” which refers to the process, is probably also a misnomer. Rumor has it that the process was developed by the German army during World War II, and though there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to support the rumor, the term has stuck: it’s Nazi meth, or Nazi dope, or “that Nazi shit.” According to the DEA, the name traces back to a Missouri dope cook who wrote up a recipe on stationery with a swastika.)
You don’t have to go to Wichita Falls to find Nazi meth. It’s widely available in East Texas, or Missouri for that matter, where the new method of manufacture is thought to have caught on first before trickling down through Arkansas and Oklahoma and into Texas. On the other hand, there isn’t much Nazi meth on the border or west of the Pecos. And though methamphetamine is common in some West Coast cities, the drug seems to be more prevalent in rural areas than in urban ones. According to Patricia Morgan, a UC-Berkeley sociologist who has studied groups of meth users in California and Hawaii, “This drug really takes root in rural communities, communities that are economically declining and isolated.” Its increasingly strong and destructive presence in parts of Middle America earned it the nickname “the crack of the nineties”-recently updated to “the crack of the new millennium” on Wichita Falls local news. Methamphetamine was around long before crack, but because it is a cheap, harsh drug whose users are often poor, the popular image of meth use in rural areas has come to resemble the old picture of inner-city crack use in the 1980s: a looming crisis on the other side of the tracks.
The new way of making meth is strikingly simple, and as a result, a human-scale conversion has taken place beside the chemical one. Users become cooks almost as easily as Sudafed is transformed into crank. “I equate it to the old moonshiners, that’s what we’re dealing with now,” says Bill Coombs, a chemical dependency counselor who works with people on probation in Clay, Archer, and Montague counties. Most manufacturers are poor, addicted to speed, and on the run from the cops. And just as the difference of an atom in a psychoactive substance can translate into a markedly different effect on the brain of a person who ingests it, an addict who starts cooking batches himself can end up setting off a distinctly different response from the legal system. What happens to a cook who does get caught depends a great deal on where that happens. In Wichita Falls itself, where the court docket is crowded with methamphetamine and other drug cases, first-time offenders who plead guilty may be offered probation. In some rural counties, though, it’s a different story. Thirty-year-old Doug Marchand had no prior convictions on his record when he was indicted in 1999 on meth charges in Wilbarger County, west of Wichita Falls. He pled not guilty, and in October of 1999 his case went to trial. The jury found him guilty and, after deliberating his punishment for less than 20 minutes, sentenced him to a prison term ending in 2094. “The judge gets up and he says ’95 years, I sentence him to 95 years,'” recalls Stacy Marchand, Doug’s wife. “I said, ‘Did you say 95 years?’ And he slammed his fist down and said, ‘I said 95 years!'”
Marchand’s sentence is unusual, but not unique. Rural juries in North Texas don’t tend to look too kindly upon drug offenders, and this is not, as a city-dweller might assume, because drugs are alien to rural communities. If anything, stiff sentences reflect the fact that methamphetamine has become all too familiar in the places where these convictions occur-wind-wracked plains towns like Vernon, Montague, Henrietta, and Archer City, little county seats where two or three highways converge upon a courthouse, in a region where farming and ranching are as tough as they are anywhere, and the oil has just about dried up. In his novel The Last Picture Show Larry McMurtry, who grew up in Archer City and lives there now, portrayed a similar place as it might have been 40 years ago: the town of Thalia is dusty and bitter; Wichita Falls is a little racier but no great improvement. “Life’s too damn hard here,” says one character. “The land’s got too much power over you?. Everything’s flat and empty and there’s nothing to do but spend money.” (Mike’s mother grew up in Archer City, and when I asked her what she thought of the book she said, “Pretty accurate.”)
Though much has changed since those days, the rural economy has only declined further, and some of these towns still seem to have a hard quality, their streets relatively empty and quiet, the people there reticent with outsiders. And considering what is different, you might think some bad trades had been struck with Wichita Falls, the towns giving up their shops to the city and accepting drugs in return. There is no longer a full-sized grocery store in Archer City, but there are meth labs. For a spell in December and January, after newly-elected Sheriff Ed Daniels took office and implemented a”zero-tolerance” policy, a meth lab bust appeared on the front page of the Archer City News almost every week.
One place to get a feel for methamphetamine’s reach is a county courthouse. Last February, at the Clay County Courthouse in Henrietta, I watched jury selection take place in the matter of the State of Texas versus Kevin Seale, who’d been accused of meth manufacture. As is typical during that initial part of a trial, Seale’s court-appointed attorney, Versel Rush, led the 42 prospective jurors in a talk-show-style discussion of issues like punishment ranges and the reasonable doubt standard-trying all the while to put the notion of drug manufacture in a relatively forgiving light, and to ferret out which jurors to disqualify. This wore on into the afternoon. Rush, a charismatic Bowie native and U.T. Law School graduate, has a thick crop of red hair and a small, round, expressive face that freezes every so often into either a crinkled smile or a quizzical look. As Seale looked on impassively, she talked and smiled and took sips of iced tea from a giant styrofoam cup, and finally got around to the subject of Nazi meth. Who had heard of it? What was it? Did anyone have friends or family members with drug problems?
“I’ve heard about it,” volunteered an older man. “The stuff’s readily available. It’s hard to catch it, to my understanding.”
“It used to be cocaine that everybody thought was the biggest problem,” said another man, “Now it’s meth. Drugs are the biggest problem facing Clay County right now.”
Rush proceeded from person to person, and about every second or third one said that a close friend or family member had a drug or alcohol problem. At least half of those mentioned methamphetamine.
“A friend of mine from high school has a big drug problem.”
“My brother’s into speed. He’s in denial about it.”
“I have a cousin who’s on meth right now, and it’s broken up the family.”
“I’ve got friends who make the stuff.”
“My baby brother is in prison for it.”
“I had some employees who stole from me. They were involved in drugs.”
“Some very close family members have a problem with meth. I’m not sure I can be objective about it.”
The trial itself never happened: After jury selection, Rush managed to have Seale’s confession to the police excluded on a technicality. The assistant D.A. lowered the state’s plea offer to 20 years from 25, and Seale took it.
I later remarked to Rush that, given all the personal stories they’d told, the jurors had seemed as if they might have extended some sympathy toward Seale-who’d had marital problems, sunk into a depression, started taking speed with a neighbor, and then started making it himself. “Yeah, I think I could have gotten 30 to 40 years for my client,” she said, noting that because Seale had a prior conviction for shooting with intent to injure, the jury’s store of sympathy would have been limited. Then Rush said she’d been surprised by the extent of the courtroom testimonials. “It is bad in Clay County. I’ve never gotten almost half of the prospective jurors. And most of these, it was meth.”
Methamphetamine itself is not new to the region. From the time of their introduction in the 1920s until the 1970s, amphetamines were liberally prescribed by doctors and marketed by pharmaceutical companies all over the country. (The pharmaceutical company Smith, Kline, and French introduced amphetamine in the 1920s as a substitute for ephedrine, which was already in use as a decongestant. Methamphetamine was introduced a few years later. Over the next couple of decades, accepted clinical uses for amphetamines included treatment of schizophrenia, addiction to painkillers, head injuries, infantile cerebral palsy, radiation sickness, low blood pressure, seasickness, and hiccups.) Large amounts of the drugs were diverted into the black market, which swelled in the 1960s as speed use escalated, prompting Congress to enact laws to stem illicit sales in 1965. It was then that clandestine labs really started to proliferate, many of them large-scale. The region between Dallas and Oklahoma City, with its ready access to interstate highways and its miles of unpatrolled farm and ranch lands, became home to more than its share of “P2P” labs, named after one of the precursor chemicals, phenyl-2-propanone. Back then the manufacturing process required some chemical savvy, it smelled much worse than the Nazi method, and it took a few days; speed cooks would go out into the country and come back with a pound or two. In North Texas it was, in part, a kind of oilfield supply business: Roughnecks commonly took speed to get through their shifts of 12 hours and longer.
“Up through the early ’90s North Texas was the methamphetamine capital of the world, back when they made the ‘good meth,'” says Bill Coombs, the chemical dependency counselor. “Then the precursors were made illegal, and so the supply of methamphetamine almost dried up. It was fairly expensive until this new method came about.” (The changes in speed manufacturing techniques over the years are a textbook case of regulation-inspired evolution. Each time the government manages to clamp down on one version of the drug, an easier manufacturing method emerges, often resulting in a more potent product.) The new method has affected not just the drug’s availability, but its palpability, the sense of its presence in small communities. Because the method is easier, faster, and not quite as smelly, the drug is more likely to be made in town than in the past. And because there are more manufacturers, there are more manufacturing cases moving through the courts.
Tim Cole, District Attorney for Archer, Clay, and Montague counties, says that after first encountering a Nazi meth lab case in 1998, “for a while we were just floored. Three and four were being busted a week, and we couldn’t keep up. It’s still happening, but now we’re still seeing four or five a month maybe.” The number of drug cases in Montague County (population 18,000) has increased from 12 in 1997 to 60 in 2000, and methamphetamine cases make up most of that increase. There have been similar rises in nearby counties. Statewide, there were 702 clandestine meth labs seizures by drug task forces between May of 2000 and April of this year, according to the Texas Narcotics Control Program. That figure does not include hundreds of labs busted by local police and Department of Public Safety officers.
Then there are the farms and co-ops, which lately have been targeted by thieves. The northern half of Clay County has been especially hard hit, because the soil there is of the sandy, loamy type that farmers fertilize with anhydrous ammonia. From June until December, the landscape is dotted with large white capsules on wheels: anhydrous tanks, which farmers typically leave out in the field between applications. That was never a problem until recently, when meth cooks or their accomplices started tapping the tanks in order to siphon off a few gallons of the chemical. “The summer of ’99 is when it started getting really popular,” says Clay County Sheriff David Hanes. “We started getting a big jump in calls from farmers, two or three calls a week.”
A sturdily built man with a buzz haircut and a moustache curling over his upper lip, Hanes seems about as calm and straightforward as they come. (“Some departments don’t allow them,” he explains when I note that every man in his office has a moustache, “but around here they’re pretty common.”) Hanes worked for 10 years as a deputy before becoming sheriff in January, and he has participated directly in the shift in police tactics brought on by the new meth, staking out tanks and chasing fertilizer thieves.
Hanes takes me on a drive up through the rolling wheat fields and grazing land of northern Clay County, and it becomes clear just what a frustrating task it must be for a couple of officers to patrol such a vast territory. “The county is 1,150 square miles,” he says. “We’ve got eight officers, and four are contracted by the city of Henrietta. A lot of times, that’s one officer per shift for the rest of the county.” One or two officers, and dozens of tanks: “You can spend all night staking out one that’s been hit in the past, and nothing happens, and turns out they’ve hit another one down the road.” Meanwhile, there are the actual cooks to worry about. We are a few miles south of the Red River when Hanes points out an old gravel pit full of dense, leafless thicket, with a thin muddy lane leading down into the brush. Here, with the help of the drug task force, Hanes and two other officers caught a pair of cooks in 1998. “We were doing surveillance up on that berm,” he says, pointing to a high mound next to the pit. “We had seen the tracks, and came here and found cans, and a full propane bottle of ammonia, so we figured they’d come back. When they did, they were dressed in camouflage and one was patrolling with [a] shotgun.” Hanes and the other officers apprehended the meth commandos as the two of them climbed back up the lane toward the highway.
Back at his office in Henrietta, Hanes shows me a piece of evidence from one meth case: a dirty plastic jar with what looks like a layer of clumpy tan powder on the bottom. “That’s a lot of dope,” he says. It looks like something you’d throw away while cleaning out the garage.
We could go to Wal Mart,” more than one person in Wichita Falls told me, “and I could point out the ones who are on meth.” Actually, you don’t need to go to Wal Mart to see people who fit the profile of a heavy methamphetamine user: the bone-thin, jaundiced woman behind the counter at the deli, hands trembling as she makes your sandwich; another skeletal woman, who might be in her thirties but whose face is riven by deep wrinkles, checking behind her before ducking into a motel room; the ashen, jittery former police officer who keeps repeating himself during an interview.
“They look like walking death,” says Tim Cole, and in some cases that’s an accurate description. Even among users, this drug has few boosters. “I have bruises all over my legs from sticking needles in them,” says Marie, a pretty but weary-looking woman in her thirties who, over a plate of macaroni at the Pioneer Restaurant in Wichita Falls, describes to me her unsuccessful efforts to stop using. She’s been doing speed for 20 years. “I have been to eight treatment centers. It didn’t work. I’m screwed in my head. My thinking is messed up. It fucks up love relationships and family relationships. I’ve stole from my own mother. I’ve ripped the guts out of my daughter’s heart.” She talks quickly, her thin arms clenched, leaning forward to say one thing and then leaning back against the booth to say another. Talking about how horrible meth is makes her want to shoot up. “I am jonesing my ass off right now,” she says. She hasn’t used in three days, and is on her way to her father’s house in Dallas to try, once again, to get clean.
She starts skipping from story to story. How she and some friends were out stealing anhydrous the other night, and how one of them kept opening up the container, getting off on the smell, until the fumes filled the back of the car. How as a teenager she was scared of needles, until one night her boyfriend backed her up against the wall to put the needle in her arm. How it took him three hours to finally get it in. How recently she and a bunch of people had been partying at a motel, but how she herself had holed up in the bathroom schizzing, afraid to come out for fear she would end up having sex and then regretting it later. (“Schizzing” is a common term for doing speed-appropriately enough, since high doses of amphetamines send some users into a state indistinguishable from paranoid schizophrenia.) “When you shoot dope it intensifies sex big time,” Marie says. “It makes you do all kinds of kinky crazy shit, and then you wake up in the morning and think God, what have I done?”
Since so many different people are cooking Nazi meth, under unknowable conditions and without anything like quality control, and since any drug affects different users differently, it’s hard to make blanket claims about this particular drug. Reports from users are not always a reliable source of information, but many consider Nazi meth to be inferior to “the old dope,” saying that you have to shoot it more often to maintain the high, and that the effects are harsher. That impression is seconded by David Keesling, Program Director for Adult Chemical Dependency Services at Red River Hospital in Wichita Falls. With the new meth, he says, “To achieve the same effect, most have to use more often, and it’s not uncommon for them to be sticking a needle in some part of their bodies six, eight, 10 times a day.” Treatment professionals also believe that Nazi meth takes people down faster. Whereas it might take an alcoholic 10 years to lose everything, says Bill Coombs, he sees methamphetamine users who have wrecked themselves in one year.
Of course, it’s the worst cases you hear most about. The recreational user, who manages to avoid arrest and use the drug in moderation, remains largely invisible. It’d blow people’s minds, several users told me, if they knew who was doing this drug. But it’s evident that methamphetamine, particularly if it’s injected or smoked, can have very adverse effects. Speed can play a cruel trick on people, providing short-term bursts of pleasure and drive while undermining, over the long term, the ability to get anything done. The basic structure of the amphetamines is similar to the structure of certain neurotransmitters in the brain that regulate mood (dopamine in particular), and the drug both stimulates their release from neurons and blocks them from being re-absorbed. For the user, this can cause a rush of exhilaration and an increased sense of energy, as well as sleeplessness and loss of appetite. “I just like schizzing,” says a Wichita Falls woman who first tried speed, she says, at age 13 or 14. (“My granny did it,” she said by way of an explanation.) “It made me feel so sure of myself, so beautiful, like it’s all me, and everything is fine-didn’t have no worries, and no problems.” The brain fiddles while the body burns: Lack of sleep and poor nutrition start to wear a person down. It’s common to stay up for two to four days (seven to 10 is not uncommon) and eat very little while on the drug.
Amphetamines also arouse the sympathetic nervous system-which mediates “fight or flight” responses-and habitual users, in whom this system is consistently aroused, become paranoid. They invent stories to go along with the sense of danger brought on by the drug: The same Wichita Falls woman says she always liked speed “until the last couple years when I thought there were people living in the attic and people living in my trees. I would do a shot and stand at the window literally for hours at a time, looking out, without moving, thinking they were fixing to get me.” Over time, regular methamphetamine use reduces the amount of dopamine available in the brain, and though in many cases those levels can be restored after months of not using, in the meantime a person in this condition will experience anhedonia-the absence of pleasure.
It’s impossible to track levels of illicit drug use precisely, but most people interviewed for this story seem to think that the ready availability of meth is spurring at least a modest increase in use. That sense is stronger in the smaller towns. “The majority that come to us are on meth-that’s their drug of choice,” says Jerri Skelton of the Cross Timbers Council on Substance Abuse in Henrietta. “I’ve been here since ’83. It’s happened within the last two or three years; there’s been a switch. Where we might have seen a lot of cocaine use, now it’s meth use.” In Wichita Falls, according to Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse statistics, the number of people enrolling in licensed treatment facilities who listed amphetamines as their primary drug has climbed steadily, from 17 in 1997, to 96 in 2000-compared to 97 enrolled for alcohol and 67 for crack cocaine.
As these numbers suggest, the availability of treatment in North Texas for any kind of drug or alcohol use is limited. In Wichita Falls, there are 54 inpatient beds and 227 outpatient slots in licensed chemical dependency treatment facilities, which serve not only Wichita County (population 133,000) but surrounding counties as well. One facility, the Treatment Center, had to scale back to 18 beds, down from 30 last year, because of cuts in state funding. The waiting list, according to the center’s Executive Director Al Brown, currently has about 50 people on it; by the time a space opens up the prospective client has often lost interest or started a new job. The standard regime for those who are admitted, meanwhile, is about 28 days of treatment followed by around five weeks of aftercare. For heavy meth users this is often insufficient, according to Dr. Richard Rawson, associate director of the Integrated Substance Abuse Programs at UCLA and an expert in treating methamphetamine users. What recovering addicts need is not necessarily inpatient treatment, he says, but treatment that continues for at least four to six months, which is how long it seems to take for the brain’s neurochemistry to return to normal. “We’re dealing with brains that have been damaged,” he says. “When the meth addict needs help the most is three or four months into treatment.” Rawson notes that the Matrix Institute clinic in San Bernardino, a UCLA program affiliate that follows this protocol and is linked to a drug court, has seen considerable success. Meanwhile Bill Coombs, who has worked over the years with hundreds of meth addicts on probation in Archer, Clay, and Montague counties, says he believes that 90 percent of them relapse.
Almost every law enforcement official and prosecutor interviewed for this story emphasized the need for better treatment options for meth addicts. Yet the rules of the game are often at cross purposes with the goal of treatment. It is the job of the narcotics officer to try to get information, not to rehabilitate people. Everybody snitches on everybody, users complain. “They take these young kids,” says one cook, “and instead of telling them they need to get clean, they need to get a job, they need an education, they say okay, snitch on somebody and they’ll let you off. Eventually they end up with nobody to snitch on and then they go to prison.”
No one should do this shit. It’s bad,” says Jamie, a guy in his mid-twenties whose house I visit on my last trip to North Texas. Jamie’s friends say he is a meth cook, and the fact that he has some of the raw materials on his desk would suggest as much, though at first he doesn’t admit to it (and he is generally not too pleased that a reporter has shown up to talk to him). He is sitting in the dingy back room of his small frame house, at his desk, in front of a six-inch monitor linked to a surveillance camera on the front porch, which shows the empty street in shades of grey. The house is not in great shape. Squiggles are spray painted on the walls, and “No more than three people at one time” is scrawled in black pen on the door to the back room, which at the time of my visit contains five people. Drywall is stacked in the living room, apparently intended for a home improvement project, next to heaps of clothes and garbage bags full of stuff belonging to his current girlfriend, who Jamie says he is kicking out because she stole from him. Brand new cabinets have been installed in an otherwise disorderly kitchen. In the back room, two people who seem to be customers sit on the couch, while Jamie rocks back in his chair and eyes me warily.
He is thin, but not as thin as many other users, and he says speed has never messed him up as badly as it does some people: “I eat three meals a day. I sleep six hours a night.” Before he was a meth user he was an alcoholic, Jamie says, and he would get violent when he was drunk. He picks up a small Tupperware container with lithium batteries inside. “What they should do is just outlaw these, then it would be harder to do. What do people need lithium batteries for anyway? Why can’t they just use normal batteries?” Once he gets going, his speech is as incessant as a radio deejay’s, though often he doesn’t finish a thought before switching to a different subject. “Of course then you could just use a different alkali metal, but most people don’t know that.”
Jamie’s friends talk about how smart he is, but he never finished high school and can’t seem to hold down a job. Until recently, his largest source of income was hunting snakes and mailing them to reptile dealers in other states. There is an upside-down, half-folded poster of reptiles taped to the wall. Above his desk and on a bookshelf next to the door sit dozens of old science textbooks, along with a police scanner. When he’s done some speed, he says, “I notice I can read a lot faster, but I don’t think I retain very much of it.” He picks up a book, a musty college organic chemistry text from the ’60s or ’70s, and flips to a page with a diagram of ammonia on it. All of it, everything you need to know to make dope is right in these books, he tells me. He says he has come up with an odorless method. “I’ve attempted to make it and not even come close,” he says. “Most people aren’t even making actual meth. Most people don’t even know what they’re making.” The room we’re in smells of the half-full ashtray on the floor and a faint sourness I can’t identify.
Should Jamie go to prison? For how long? Prosecutors and law enforcement officials in North Texas maintain a kind of split consciousness regarding meth manufacturers. Almost everyone acknowledges that most meth cooks have a bad drug habit and no money. “These people are in it for the dope first and the money second,” says Task Force Commander R.W. Smith, “Most of them we see are making two to four ounces. They don’t generate enough money (from sales) to do anything but party on the weekend or buy more chemicals. Most of them are destitute.” Members of the task force are first to recognize this, since they are supposed to generate a 25-percent share of their operating funds by seizing the assets of the people they catch. “These people have nothing,” Smith says. Last year, for the first time, the task force failed to make enough money through seizure, and it had to appeal to the counties for assistance.
The new way of making meth turns every addict into a cook, says Tim Cole. “This is such an easy way, they’ll be doing one, two, three cooks a week just to keep themselves supplied, at four or five grams a cook. It’s really become a problem. People with labs are usually in horrible health, living under horrible conditions, penniless except that they may have a little cash. They don’t own any property but the clothes on their back. The old picture of a drug dealer just isn’t accurate.” In “two or three cases,” he says, the meth cooks who’d been busted were living and cooking in their cars.
Ultimately, though, there has to be a bad guy. Cole says that he tries to steer people into treatment when warranted, but that he’s less likely to give probation and treatment to a manufacturer than to someone in possession. Doing so is politically difficult, he adds: In the last election, his opponent attacked him for “putting drug dealers on probation.” Cole says that he stands by his decisions to offer probation in some cases, and that it’s the “major guy,” who should go to prison. “What I would define as major is people who we’ve seen before, with a track record of one or two convictions, regardless of the amount they’re producing.”
In Wilbarger County, no track record is required. “I’m of the opinion that if they’re pushing the drugs, manufacturing dope in any way, they need to go to prison,” says Wilbarger County District Attorney Dan Mike Bird. “It’s not just the dope, it’s a character flaw. They’re bad people.” In the 1999 trial of Doug Marchand, Bird made an impassioned speech to the jury, requesting that they decide on a punishment of 99 years. Drugs, more than anything else, were responsible for the “unraveling” of society, he told the jury, and manufacturers like Marchand were to blame. “If we don’t want it happening, we can stop it, long terms in prison, at least with this defendant,” he said. “That’s how we stop it.”
Marchand was caught with both finished and unfinished meth; evidence introduced at trial suggests it would have come out to about six or eight ounces in all. That’s more than the average cook is busted with, and at $1,000 an ounce, enough to make some decent money. (There is some question as to whether all of it was his: Marchand says that several people used the house to cook dope, though he won’t discuss details because of his pending appeal.) But he was convicted of having twice as much meth as he actually had, because of the way the law is written.
Texas law defines the weight of methamphetamine to be the weight of any mixture containing methamphetamine. So if someone is caught in the middle of a cook, when they are likely to have a large quantity of liquid or slush, they can be charged with more than 400 grams (14 ounces) of meth, which carries a punishment range of 15 to 99 years-even if the process would have yielded only a few grams of finished product. “The irony is, attempt to manufacture methamphetamine can bring a higher punishment than the finished product,” says Wichita Falls defense attorney Bob Estrada, who is handling Marchand’s appeal. “You theoretically get a higher sentence for trying to make it than for actually making it.” Several district attorneys, including Cole, have said that this is a problem that needs to be fixed, but the law stands, and Bird stands by the law. Because of that law, almost any cook can be defined as “major.” The current Legislature, meanwhile, is likely to pass a law making it easier to go after them. House Bill 3351, sponsored by Representative Jim Keffer, would make it illegal to possess all the ingredients for a cook, even if it hasn’t been started yet.
Step back from all this, and it might seem strange that manufacture of methamphetamine has so quickly become regarded as an evil in and of itself, given that large pharmaceutical companies were churning it out just 30 years ago. Then again, that’s just a shortened version of what has happened with most illegal drugs over the past century: When they were legal, they had a range of uses and effects but were abused by some; made illegal, they are uniformly bad. Unlike guns, for instance, drugs are not viewed as agents of harm. They are harm itself, measurable in grams.
One strange thing about Nazi meth is how often people mention Wal Mart in association with the drug. You can buy all the ingredients at Wal Mart. You can pick out the dopers at Wal Mart. When I interviewed Bill Coombs, he even called it “Wal Mart meth.”
Wichita Falls is not a large city, but Wal Mart is hardly the only store. You could buy the relevant ingredients at K-Mart, and presumably some dopers shop at Target. No other store has the symbolic associations of Wal Mart, though, and there are a number of parallels between what people say about Wal Mart and what people say about methamphetamine. They are both spoken of as the thing that ate rural America, destroyers of small towns. They are both linked, though not exclusively, to low-income consumers. And they both induce varieties of overstimulation.
“If you want to see some tweakers,” Stacy Marchand told me, “Go to that Wal Mart on the highway at two in the morning. That’s who’s there, walking around with their shopping carts and not buying anything.” Curious to see if this was true, I headed over to the 24-hour Wal Mart on Highway 44 late one night, at about one a.m. The lights were overwhelmingly bright. The shelves teemed with merchandise. An advertisement for a squeegee mop played on a television monitor while a competing ad for a Brittany Spears album played over the loudspeaker. I did see one woman who looked like a meth user, pushing a cart draped with clothes and pausing to examine a cereal bowl, but mostly I saw night stockers, dozens of them, tearing apart boxes and unloading more and more stuff. In that moment, what Wal Mart and speed really seemed to have in common was a kind of relentlessness-a kind of overdrive that tries to gloss over sadness but, in the end, only brings it into relief.
Drug addiction is our biggest open secret. There they are, the addicts, skeletal and jaundiced, walking around Wal Mart. The Wal Mart corporation has instituted limits on the amount of cold pills you can buy at its stores, and in some parts of Texas, police even stake out Wal Marts to try to catch meth cooks. Yet I have not heard of, say, an outreach worker stationed at Wal Mart trying to help these people. Their obvious suffering goes unacknowledged.
Even the smallest recognition of pain can be startling. I asked Stacy Marchand how she fell in love with Doug, and she told me it happened five years ago, one night when they were both working at the same bar in Wichita Falls. Both he and she were dating other people at the time; Doug came in and said his girlfriend was having cramps. “He said, ‘Is there anything I can do for her?'” recalls Stacy. “So I told Doug to get her Midol, and he said, ‘What about Pamprin? I bought Pamprin.’ I said ‘That’s good.'”
Doug left to go deliver the Pamprin to his girlfriend. Stacy turned to another waitress, she remembers. “And I said, ‘You know, in all my life if I ever had any man go to buy me personal items, much less Pamprin, or give a crap how I feel during that time of month?. Because they just really don’t care. That’s your problem. You worry about it.”
She continues: “I said to Jennifer, ‘How sweet is that?'”
Stacy thinks Doug is the kindest man she’s ever known. They were married in January of last year, two months after Doug was sent to prison for the rest of his life.