TRI-CITIES, Tn/Va. (WJHL) – Law enforcement nationwide and here in the Tri-Cities region are at war with methamphetamine.
The powerful drug has made a devastating and alarming comeback in the past few years.
WATCH Part One – A Rise in Meth:
“It’s overwhelming. It’s every single day we are signing search warrants,” said Judge Stacy Street of the First Judicial District criminal courts.
Data from the 2021 Tennessee Annual Overdose Report shows more Tennesseans are dying from an overdose involving illicit drugs than prescription opioids.
Deaths due to stimulants, including meth, saw a sharp rise in 2019.
Why has meth seen this rapid resurgence in our region? It’s as simple as supply and demand.
After the federal government cracked down on access to prescription medications nationwide, effectively cooling off the opioid epidemic in the past decade, dealers saw a new opportunity for illicit drugs.
Washington County, Tennessee Sheriff Keith Sexton says our region is a target.
“When questioning them, the drug dealer would say, ‘we can get twice the money here than we can get in other cities,'” said Sheriff Sexton.
Sexton reports of 30 drug arrests the Washington County Sheriff’s Office has made since December – 19 were for methamphetamine.
“There is so much money involved and they have an almost endless market for it,” said Judge Street.
Street says meth, affordable and cheap, quickly became the drug of choice in our region once opioids became harder to get.
“This is a whole different game and a whole lot more users. I think it’s because the opioid epidemic got so many people that would not otherwise use drugs addicted. These drug dealers are trying to fill that void,” said Judge Street.
“When an addict can’t get one drug, they are gonna go to the next drug that is readily available. Drug cartels, they know this,” said Sexton.
The Tennessee Department of Health reports from 2016 to 2020 there was a nearly 600 percent increase statewide in overdose deaths related to meth alone.
In Northeast Tennessee, TDH data shows Sullivan and Washington Counties ranked highest for overdose deaths in 2020.
U.S. Congresswoman Diana Harshbarger of Kingsport, Tenn. says the problem is only getting worse.
“We’re gonna lose a whole generation to this overdose effect. That not only affects families, it tears them apart,” said Rep. Harshbarger.
The meth epidemic of today has evolved. Now, it’s not common to see meth labs that cops can go bust. It has become more complicated to track down the source.
“This is a different meth than you saw made in mobile homes, cars and hotel rooms. This is 100 percent, pure methamphetamine coming from Mexico,” said Judge Street.
Street reports last week they intercepted five pounds of pure crystal meth in one case in Johnson City – worth about 50 thousand dollars.
“Now, you don’t have those meth labs because it is synthesized, it’s being brought in from California and from Mexico. And there is nothing to stop them right now,” said Rep. Harshbarger.
Harshbarger believes the solution starts at the Southern border.
“All this stems from having a wide open border. The roads that were created to build the wall are now being used to traffic illicit substances by the cartels,” said Harshbarger. “Every state is a border state because the border between Mexico and the U.S. is wide open.”
Overdose deaths can also be linked to meth laced with fentanyl – another substance coming across the border.
Street says this makes the meth epidemic even of today even more lethal as dealers will cut meth with fentanyl to generate more quantity and more profit.
“The problem is, the users think they are getting methamphetamine but they are getting methamphetamine laced with fentanyl,” said Street. “In its purest form, fentanyl is an elephant tranquillizer. Just a few grains can kill someone.”
Solving the problem? “It’s addiction we have to address.”
Local law enforcement agencies are hoping for more than just locking up those addicted.
“I would like to see more emphasis on addiction, helping these people as they leave the detention center so they don’t repeat offend,” said Sheriff Sexton.
Judge Street agrees.
“When they come out, if they don’t have the tools to deal with that addiction, then that cycle is going to repeat itself,” said Street.
WATCH Part Two – Addressing addiction:
They say treating the root cause of addiction and helping our region heal one person at a time from this drug crisis is how we start to solve it.
“You have to address the emerging threat that it is all over the country,” said Rep. Harshbarger.
The Congresswoman took those words to Washington D.C. where President Joe Biden signed into law her bipartisan legislation, the “Methamphetamine Response Act of 2021.”
“The policemen and the law enforcement agencies are begging us to do something. Now, Congress has stepped up in this way on one drug, we need to get tough on everything else,” said the Congresswoman.
The bill acknowledges meth as an emerging threat and requires the Office of National Drug Control Policy to develop a national response plan to combat the rising use of meth within 90 days.
“We need to go after the source, go after the cartels, be tough,” said Harshbarger.
“One step behind”
“The trend is, we are always one step behind whatever the drug of choice is at the time,” said Judge Street.
Law enforcement agencies agree – solutions should be focused on the root problem of addiction and mental health, not any one drug in particular.
“If we stop the meth trade, there’s gonna be something else come through,” said Sheriff Sexton. “The answer to the drug problem is not to just throw every drug dealer and person addicted to drugs in jail. They do their time, get out and it’s a vicious cycle.”
WCSO has three officers assigned to narcotics – Sexton says it will never be enough to “police” away this problem.
“We can’t jail everybody unless we want to build jails as big as city blocks,” said Judge Street. “What else can we do? It’s things like recovery court.”
The drug recovery courts of Northeast Tennessee’s First Judicial District take inmates who qualify out of jail – putting them instead on an intensive path to recovery.
Judge Street touts a recovery rate of around 50 to 70 percent for those who graduate the program, which even received national honors for its success in March.
“It’s a spit in the ocean. But that one person you save has children, a momma, a daddy, a circle of people that it affects,” said Street.
Frontier Health is on the frontlines of the addiction epidemic, offering a wide array of programs for those battling all kinds of substances.
“We really as a community have to work on the why they are doing it, not how, not what they are doing,” said Chad Duncan, who covers intensive outpatient programming for Frontier Health.
Duncan says they have noticed the boom in meth and more people are seeking treatment for addiction now than ever.
It’s a crisis he says is a community problem – one that requires more access to affordable housing and transportation, common barriers to those addicted or people being released from jail.
“We’re not gonna treat our way out of it. Frontier Health isn’t going to fix this. We’ll help the community fix it and help those who need help, but the community has got to own it. It’s gonna be done through a lot of different programs, a lot of different community organizations,” said Duncan.
“The best shot we’ve got at breaking the cycle.”
In Northeast Tennessee, the creation of a regional addiction treatment facility could be a ‘game changer.’ Multiple localities are pledging millions of dollars in settlement money from an opioid lawsuit totaling 21 million dollars to build it. The proposed location for the facility is in Roan Mountain, Tenn.
“This may be able to get us ahead of the curve a little bit. It’s not focusing on just opioids or meth, it is addiction that we have to address. That’s the best shot we’ve got at breaking the cycle,” said Judge Street.
The recovery facility would have 185 to 200 beds with treatment for both addiction and mental health crises.
“We’re not gonna win the war. But man, we can win some battles. We can do it if everybody gets behind this,” said Street.
“This could be a model for the rest of the country,” said Rep. Harshbarger.
Similar to the recovery courts, the regional treatment center would focus on those incarcerated – giving them the tools needed to break the cycle of addiction.
This would include recovery programming, access to education and even the opportunity to receive certification for a trade.
“We have to let these people know they can do anything. This is not what you are sentenced to, a life of addiction. Let’s give them hope,” said Harshbarger.
Duncan agrees, he tells people who are addicted to simply start the process – and keep going.
“All you’ve got to do is take one step. Then another step and another step. It’s lots of little things. If you take those little steps, eventually you turn around and you’ve come a long way,” said Duncan.