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Michael E. O'Dell has worked in the district attorney's office in Fort Payne, Ala., for 30 years, the past 15 as district attorney for DeKalb and Cherokee counties. Defendants charged with crimes ranging from forgery to murder, or their family members, make their way through his office. He keeps the lights dim to create a calm atmosphere for people who are anything but calm.
O'Dell's major headache these days is methamphetamine production and use. Meth first came on the radar about 12 years ago, but now it is the No. 1 crime problem throughout Alabama: About two-thirds of the crimes O'Dell sees are meth-related. He has seen users as young as 11 and as old as 80, but most are between 18 and 35. Users cross all race, religion, and socioeconomic boundaries. The most common reason women give for starting to use meth: weight loss.
Meth production is largely a rural phenomenon because it leaves behind telltale evidence. It emits a foul odor and results in noticeable trash: Red Devil lye containers, coffee filters, battery acid, empty blister packs of cold medicines, and thousands of match books missing their strike plates. Windows covered with black plastic bags are a telltale sign of a meth lab, where paranoid users hide behind the blocked-out glass.
The connection between meth use and family disintegration is staggering. O'Dell says a direct correlation exists between meth use and domestic violence and increased child abuse. Denise Raines, director of the DeKalb County Department of Human Resources, says she didn't have a single drug case when she became a case worker in the department in 1998; now, 95 percent of the child protective cases have some kind of meth connection. She says meth leaves users angry and often violent. Their homes are dirty: "It gets to where a person on meth doesn't care about anything but getting more."
The power of the addiction means that caseworkers don't have much success reuniting families. They almost never get their kids back, Raines said: "They only care about meth." O'Dell says the problem "has been tearing the fabric of our community. . . . It has caused a great many of us to lose sleep figuring out how to combat it." Thirty years ago both he and his department thought they knew how to deal with drug crimes: "Arrest, prosecute, convict, and throw away the key." But with Alabama prisons at 199 percent of capacity, prosecutors began rethinking what to do.
O'Dell, a conservative Democrat, is emphasizing prevention, education, and restoring lives: "That's what God has called us to do." To combat juvenile meth use, his office two years ago began a ZeroMeth campaign, which features graphic before-and-after images of meth addicts, their raccoon eyes staring out of blemished faces. The program targets kids age 12-21: "If you stop it on the front end, you don't have to deal with it on the back end."
For first-time meth users who get arrested, O'Dell co-founded in 1999 the DeKalb County Drug Court and in 2004 the Cherokee County Drug Court. The program requires defendants to enter a guilty plea if they want to enter an 18-month program that requires drug testing and counseling. If they successfully complete it, the court dismisses their cases and expunges their records.
By the numbers
Most crime movies have big city settings, but small DeKalb County (population 79,000) has a Drugs and Major Crimes Task Force that made 552 arrests in 2009-393 of them for methamphetamine. It executed 170 search warrants, with meth the reason for 143 of them. Agents destroyed 97 meth labs, cleaned up 45 meth lab dumpsites, and seized 26,270 grams of meth along with 23,508 grams of meth oil, which is meth in a liquid form that hasn't been processed to the powder substance. (Agents also seized 100,993 grams of marijuana and 2,205 marijuana plants.)
When the police bust a meth lab, they have to clean up the toxic residue. It can cost $5,000 to clean a single lab. Even a "shake and bake" lab cleanup can cost $2,500. Alabama seized 1,200 meth labs in 2010, with the cost of cleanup borne primarily by the federal government. In February, Washington stopped paying the cost of meth cleanup-and according to a review by the Associated Press, Alabama meth lab seizures were down 62 percent once federal funding ended.
Meth makers use common household ingredients cooked with ephedrine or pseudoephedrine (PSE), an ingredient in some over-the-counter cold medicines. The purity and cost of meth goes up and down depending on where and how it is made, which depends on the availability of PSE. In 2005, Congress limited the amount of PSE-containing drugs that customers could legally buy. Domestic meth cookers found ways around those laws by making small purchases of cold medicine at many stores rather than purchasing all of it at one time.
When stores developed electronic registries that allowed them to trace purchases made by one person in different stores, traffickers began hiring lots of people-often users-to make purchases for them. By resorting to these tricks-known as smurfing-drug manufacturers stay a step ahead of the law. One report from the National Drug Intelligence Center says that Mexican drug gangs have relocated from Mexico to California because they can more easily obtain PSE in California from smurfing than in Mexico.
District Attorney O'Dell sees firsthand the effect of these changes in his counties. A half-dozen years ago law enforcement noticed an explosion of meth activity in northeastern Alabama, so a drug task force made up of federal, state, and local officials focused on busting small labs, making more arrests in those two rural counties than on the whole Eastern seaboard combined. When the Mexican drug cartels became active, O'Dell saw the problem in his jurisdiction change from many labs producing 5 to 10 grams at a time to 18-wheelers bringing in 150-300 pounds at a time. But the new trend is "shake and bake" production in 2-liter soda bottles from recipes found on the internet.