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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!'” archand’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.111. 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 occurwind-wracked plains towns like Vernon, Montague, Henrietta, andArcher 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, 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 newlyelected 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 standardtrying 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 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5/11/01