Crystal Meth: Plague in the Heartland

A hellish tour of a home-cooked drug crisis that's burning a hole through rural America

Conceptual photograph of Meth Pipe with Lighter Credit: Apolinar B. Fonseca/Getty

It looks less like a crime scene — and still less like a farm — than it does a tour of an unhinged mind. Out behind the barn on this half-mile-square spread at the base of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state, there is a riot of stolen cars and trucks, parts stripped and chassis mangled. A months-old Lexus, its seats splayed beside it, lies nose-down in mud. Two white Chevy SUVs, their axles spavined, hunker on bales of hay. Lawn mowers and dirt bikes sprawl, tires up, in poses of mechanized porn. Thirty yards away, in a vast stocked, mill 20 of the skinniest cows in the county. There were 80 head out there as late as last month, then the bank came up and seized 60 of the herd to satisfy unpaid debts.

"That's what happens when you start smoking meth — people repossess your cows," says Chuck Allen, chief of the Granite Falls police force and one of the dozen or so cops and Snohomish County deputies buzzing around the grounds. In the five years since methamphetamine entrenched itself in this former logging town north of Seattle, Allen's work life has consisted of responding to one outrage after another, each more numbing than the last. The month before, there were the tweakers (as meth users are known) who clubbed to death 17 newborn calves. Before that, it was the boy, high out of his mind, who fancied his thick skull bulletproof and blew much of it off with a .25. Like no drug before it — not crack, coke, Ecstasy or smack — meth has so swamped this rural community that it has largely come to define it. Granite Falls, a town of 2600, is now notorious as Methville or Cranktown among the hundreds of kids bused to school here. That is unkind, and in any case unjust: There isn't a town from Tacoma to the Canadian border that couldn't as easily have earned that mantle. Meth — cheap, potent and insuperably addictive — is everywhere in the Pacific Northwest, and coming soon to a town near you.

Allen, a stout man with Elvis sideburns and a thatch of ginger hair, walks me around to the barn. The squalor inside rivals the scene outdoors, a tumult of garbage and cow shit. Additionally, there's a piercing stench that scours the back of my throat. On a bench near the door is an array of buckets rigged to a kerosene vat. This, says Allen, is where the 32-year-old farmer "cooked," then dried, his meth.

"Battery acid, ammonia, paint thinner, lye — that's what you're smelling," says Allen. "Take a bunch of the most toxic solvents there are, mix 'em up with some Sudafed pills and put that in your pipe and smoke it. Your teeth'll fall out, your skin'll scab off, and a month from now you'll be coughing up chunks of your lung — but hey, what the hell? Party on, right?"

That isn't so much bitterness as bafflement talking. Despite dozens of local deaths attributed to meth, and a pitched campaign by school officials to scare teens off the drug, it remains wildly popular on the party scene, which starts as young as fifth grade.

"These aren't no-tooth yokels from trailer parks," says Allen. "They're kids whose moms and dads work at Boeing."

We walk out back to where the other cops are taking vehicle-identification numbers off the trashed cars. Passing the stockade, I spy something peculiar stretched across neighboring pens. Black, brown and moist, it seems to ooze sideways, like an oil spill encrusting the grass. After a moment, it comes to me: These are the remains of two calves left to sicken, starve and then melt.

Allen shrugs. "That's meth — a dairy farmer who forgot he had cows."

When we speak of the drug plagues of the last half-century — heroin, the poisoner of postwar Harlem; crack, the deathblow to countless downtowns — what comes to mind first is the chaos they've wrought, the derangement of public and private life. But for all the pain and confusion sown, drug epidemics were actually orderly things, obeying their own deep logic. Invariably — until now — they began offshore, imported to America from exotic locales such as Bolivia and Southeast Asia. Invariably — until now — they took root in port towns, opening markets in New York or Miami before hopscotching west to other cities. Invariably — until now — they then radiated outward, moving from megalopolises to suburban towns, and from there to the exurbs and farmlands. And invariably — until now — they hit the poor hardest, entrenching themselves like rogue bacteria in the playgrounds and stairwells of projects.

Now those rules are void; meth has rewritten the book. As the first epidemic born on our soil, it is seeding the ground for future plagues while confounding cops and drug czars. It is made, for instance, from legal and easily obtained ingredients, not from opiates that must be smuggled ashore. It flows inward rather than outward, beginning in small towns before migrating to urban centers. (Having overwhelmed much of the rural Northwest, it's now one of the fastest-growing drugs in seven Western cities, among them Seattle, Denver and Salt Lake City, and rivals crack use in Los Angeles and San Francisco.) And where other drugs targeted the inner cities, meth for the most part hits the middle class.

"Around here, crack and heroin have a ghetto stigma that doesn't apply to meth," says Rick Bart, the personable sheriff of Snohomish County, who, as the region's top cop, presides over a beleaguered staff of 230 deputies. "The kids here think it's a rave drug like Ecstasy, or just some cool thing they read about on the Internet. You can go online right now and find 300 Web sites with recipes on how to make it, then go out to the drugstore and home-supplies shop and pick up all the fixings. How in the world am I supposed to stop that — post a man in the allergy aisle at Walgreen's?"

Actually, that won't be necessary. Walk into a drugstore in Washington state and you'll find the Sudafed and Drixoral behind thick glass, padlocked like vintage scotch; taped to the sales case is a yellow sign limiting shoppers to two packs a day. This is the result of one of several new state laws aimed at keeping meth ingredients out of the hands of cooks. Ephedrine, found in most nonprescription cold drugs, is the key constituent of meth. State officials have also put restrictions on the sale of compounds such as anhydrous ammonia, a compressed liquid gas that cooks use to distill ephedrine during the volatile cooking process. (Get a drop of the stuff on you and it will burn through the skin, singeing right down to the bone.) Two years ago, anyone with a tank and the right tubing could buy as much chemical as he or she liked; now, it can be sold only to certified licensees, and in amounts of at least 500 gallons. That hasn't stopped thieves from raiding the plants or siphoning it into gas cans from rail cars. Recently, someone botched a heist at a local factory and released a cloud of ammonia that covered 40 acres, forcing an entire town to evacuate.

"Understand that we're not dealing with the brightest bulbs; methheads either start dumb or get there fast," says Lynn Eul, the youth-violence-and drug-prevention coordinator for the Snohomish County prosecutor's office. "The solvents used to make it literally gouge out their brain. After only a couple of weeks, tweakers suffer permanent brain damage. And that's not counting the neurochemical part. Meth addicts can't make dopamine anymore, which sends them into such a deep depression, they want to kill themselves or the people around them."

Eul would know; she was a tweaker herself during a horrible stretch in the Eighties. Accepted on a scholarship to Stanford University, she got hooked on coke, then meth. Within months, she was living in her car in Los Angeles and being beaten up by pimps and dealers. Now 15 years sober, a curvaceous mother of three and a much-sought speaker on the intervention circuit, she still suffers mood swings that fell her for days and broad gaps in her long-term memory. Still, she counts herself sublimely lucky; only six percent of meth freaks get and stay sober, the lowest number by far for any drug.

"It's impossible to overstate the hold it has — crack's like baby food compared to meth," says Eul. "It addicts folks, on average, the third time they use it and permanently hijacks their judgment. They don't sleep for weeks, they defecate on the floor and let their kids starve and go naked."

Since 1998, when meth use reached plague levels in Snohomish County, every index of social misery has soared. The crime rate is up 40 percent at a time when it fell sharply across the country. Jim Krider, the former county prosecutor, estimates that two-thirds of the violent criminals he tries use meth, cook it or sell it. The prison near his office, built for 300, sleeps 500 inmates on an average night, most doubled and tripled up in cells. The drumbeat goes on: Foster-care placements are up by a third, while admissions to the state's drug programs have jumped tenfold. "I could hit you over the head with lots more numbers — what's happened with ER admissions in the last years; the skyrocketing increase in domestic violence — but let's just put it like this: There isn't a single aspect of life in this state that hasn't been drastically hit by this drug," says Jim Chromey, the commander of Strategic Weapons and Tactics for the Washington State Patrol. "A whole generation is being lost out here, and we'll never get that back."

Like most deliriants, meth started out as something very different. Its first appearance in the medical literature, in 1887, was as a Victorian cure for narcolepsy. Fifty years later, a tableted version showed promise as a bronchial aid and was prescribed by doctors in the U.S. and abroad despite evidence that it was psychoactive. Then, as now, its core element was ephedrine, which, taken in high doses, revved the nervous system with a sharp, swift burst of adrenaline. Such, in fact, was its stimulatory kick that by World War II, it was widely dispensed to both Allied and Axis troops, with the dispiriting result that many came home with ravening addictions. Thereafter, meth went underground, surfacing occasionally as powdered "crank" with outlaw-biker drugs, or as an injectable fluid spiking the pre-AIDS frenzy in gay clubs across the country. (During the first phase of use, meth is as potent an aphrodisiac as any; within months or even weeks, though, the brain's taste for pleasure is more or less permanently shorted, leaving the user incapable of arousal.)

Finally, in the Eighties, the big bang: A smokable version appeared. "I was running a clinic in Haight-Ashbury in '88 when ice showed up on the street," says Dr. Alex Stalcup, a national authority on meth and a pioneer in the treatment of its addiction. "It was so powerful that you had a rush like nothing before it. In terms of dopamine triggered, it was the chemical equivalent of 10 orgasms at once — and you didn't need a needle to get it. Once a drug bypasses the needle stage and induces a giant rush, you have the twin preconditions for an epidemic, which is exactly what we got here. Add to that the fact that it can be made at home, and we've gone from epidemic to pandemic, meaning it's so easily and widely available that you can't stop it."

Stalcup, who runs a premier treatment center near San Francisco, has been in the trenches of the drug wars for most of four decades and says he's never seen anything as pernicious as meth. "Forget, for a moment, what it does to kids while they're in the binge-tweak cycle — the rage and delusions, the spontaneous violence. The true hell starts when they try to get sober and find that meth has stripped out their higher functioning, much of which won't come back. They can't process words, can't think abstractly, can't, in fact, remember what they did five minutes ago. Worse, their psychic skin has been peeled away and they're indescribably raw. As we speak, there's a 12-year-old girl down the hall, curled up on the floor, screaming, 'I can't take it, I can't take it.'"

Dr. Alice Huber, a researcher at the University of Washington and a frontline player in two landmark meth studies, says that the pain and despair in the first phase of rehab make it all but unbearable to continue: "The biggest hurdle to treatment is keeping them there. They're in agony and we can't quell it. As a rule, you have to wait at least six months before they can begin to understand what's being said to them. But with managed care, you're lucky to get two weeks."

Given that kind of odds, it would certainly behoove local and federal authorities to prevent the drug's spread to other regions. But there, too, the news is disheartening. Meth, which began its run in central California and took I-5 north to Oregon and Washington, has already traveled the east-west corridors to the heartland and Southern states. Drug gangs operating along I-80 have flooded the Corn Belt with crystal ice, the most potent form of the drug. (There are three different grades of meth being sold: Crank, a foul-smelling yellow powder, is generally snorted, not smoked; lith, short for the lithium culled from batteries to distill out chemical harshness, is a smokable paste that induces a fierce rush and costs about twice what crank does; and ice, triple-crystallized of all impurities to create an unmatched high, sells for $150 a gram and is almost instantly addictive.) Nebraska and Indiana are glutted with meth, and Missouri has recently supplanted California as the number-one state for labs seized. Down south, I-40 has become a superconductor for sales to rural whites. Both of the Carolinas report full-on plagues, while in Tennessee home cooks are so pervasive that child-abuse charges are being added to drug counts if a minor is found on the premises.

"Meth is the number-one threat to rural America," says Will Glasby, the chief of media relations for the Drug Enforcement Agency. "If you look at a map, it's like a tidal wave moving east from California and the Northwest states. Last year, we took down 7000 labs, many in the middle of the country. Some were in areas that had never seen crime before, let alone drug gangs and shootouts. We're hopeful it won't reach Eastern cities. Because if it ever does land in urban America ..." Glasby stops a moment to choose his words. "Well, let's just say there'll be major problems."

Pressed on what the DEA is doing specifically to stem the flow of meth, Glasby cites its longstanding work with local cops as well as a series of town-hall meetings that were attended last summer by the agency's head, Asa Hutchinson. Told that this seems a faint response to the "number-one threat" in the country, Glasby makes mention of harsh budget constraints, saying the agency has "many priorities and limited dollars." Curiously, one priority that's well-funded, however, is the DEA's war on medical marijuana, featuring armed invasions of hospice co-ops in California and elsewhere. If the agency can summon the resources to roust terminally ill seniors and cuff them at gunpoint to their walkers, couldn't it find the money and additional manpower to intervene on behalf of kids?

"According to published numbers, there are almost 10 million people who've tried meth in this country, although the feds say it's only 1.8 [million]," says Stalcup. "But even by their figure, that's a national crisis. We've got a whole generation here whose lives are just over, even if they manage to get sober. You see them in the streets now, sleeping in boxes and hustling survival sex. These are our children, and the people in power better start paying attention."

When a town is confronted by a social ill, it usually conducts itself in one of two ways. Paralyzed by shame, it denies the problem until the moment to effectively act is lost, or it comes together with candor and grace to meet the crisis head-on. After a timid start, Granite Falls did the latter, shucking its downhome modesty to admit it was swamped by drugs. A coalition of businessmen and school officials formed to draft a plan of attack, which included a youth meth summit that drew a thousand kids from the area last summer. Congregants from churches went door-to-door, passing out packets about the epidemic in progress to parents of school kids. And the police force joined cops from neighboring towns to take down street-level dealers and buyers, assembling an informal SWAT team. Although the yield of these efforts is hard to gauge, the passion that informed them is front and center: This town is terrified of losing its children.

"I do have other duties, but this seems like all I deal with: another kid tweaking out in class," says Bridgette Perrigoue, the psychologist at Granite Falls High School. "They come in dirty, not having eaten or slept, and sit there clawing at the skin on their arms 'cause they think there's bugs underneath it. Or they threaten the kids next to them and scream at the teacher, then disappear for a week. And mind you, these are eighth- and ninth-graders."

I had spent much of the morning with three such kids in a conference room down the hall. Only months removed from the treatment programs that, for the moment at least, broke their falls, the three, who happened to be bright, verbal girls, described life in the thresher of meth. Heather, whose friends turned her on at 12 and who was soon robbing houses to support her habit, plowed a car into a tree at 80 mph and spent a year learning to walk again. Kale, who waited till 13 to start, ran away to sleep on drug dealers' floors and went missing, on and off, for two years; her pretty face is fretted, still, with contrail scars from gouging it during all-night tweaks. And Neva, 16, snorted a line three years ago and soon found herself on the streets of Everett, a rough-and-tumble city 15 miles south. Running with a posse of older boys, she was stealing and dealing and on the verge of being pimped out for faster money when the cops took her in for loitering. After two stints in rehab, which she describes as "torture" — months of round-the-clock drug sweats and breakdowns — she is back in school and determined to shine, though her old friends keep calling at night.

"That's the thing about this town — there's no escaping it; meth's behind every rock and cranny," she says. "Go to the skate park, it's there; go to Burger King, it's there; about the only thing you can do is run home. And I'm getting along better with my mom and all, but it sucks that I, you know, have to hide out. I mean, what am I supposed to do for the next three years? Just 'cause I'm sober doesn't mean I'm a nun."

Neva has been clean now for nine and a half months. I ask if she still gets cravings.

"Yeah, sometimes," she murmurs, casting a fugitive glance at the two girls across the table. "Like, I taste it, still, in the back of my throat. You never forget that taste."

"Me either," says Heather. "It's just super-intense, the most amped-up high you've ever had. You think you can do anything, like fly a plane or beat up dudes. I used to get real violent when I tweaked."

"But that's not why you do it — at least why I did," Kale intercuts. "It's more of, your friends are all using, and you want to be with them, so you go ahead and smoke, too. And at first I didn't like it. I mean, yeah, it was all this energy and stuff — I was having the most amazing thoughts. But later on that night, you know, the fear kicked in and I was totally bugged out and wired. I remember running to the park and hiding behind bushes because I thought everyone was a spy for my mom. Finally, I got so freaked I was gonna die right there that I walked to the police station and said, 'Arrest me,' and wound up in jail for a while."

"And that wasn't enough to scare you off?"

"Well, for a minute, it was. I was in detention a month — they do that when you run away here. But then I got out again and saw my friends and — well, that's the problem with methheads. They're persistent."

Perrigoue, the counselor, hangs her head. Like most everyone I've talked to in the course of the last week, she's closely acquainted with the burden of meth. Earlier, we paid a call on a former student, a young kid living in a house so fetid that the stench blew me back out the door. Peering inside, I saw a gaunt blond girl lying face down in her own filth. The student hadn't bathed in days and melted when I offered to buy him a meal at the burger place down the block. Stepping onto the porch in sweat-stiff jeans and a mesh shirt that slid off his ribs, he stared exhaustedly into the morning sun, looking somewhere between 16 and 60.

"Yeah, I'll smoke if it's around," he said, yawning. "But it ain't like I run out to cop."

I could still smell the brown-water funk of the house, though we were 10 yards clear of the door. "Is that because you cook your own?"

There were a couple of kids sitting in a green Chevelle, watching from across the street. The one in the passenger seat shook perceptibly, as if the car had a heavy idle.

"Nah, I'm just a popular guy," he said. "I got friends who help me out."

Not yet 18, he's long out of school. Reportedly, an adult lives on these premises, but no one has seen him in weeks, and the place has been put up for sale. That hasn't slowed the parade of visitors, say neighbors, though none, apparently, is there to buy a house.

"What would it take," I asked, "to get yourself straight again and back in school, where you belong?"

He was about to make a reflexive crack, but stopped himself short and grunted. "What would it take?" he murmured. "I mean, I want to get clean. I've got lots of plans still, and ..." He broke off, scratching, eyes lost in space. "I dunno, I guess something bad, like going to jail."

That fatalism, or an exhaustion that sounds just like it, is a tone I encountered all week. At dinner one night with the plainclothes detectives from the county's Regional Drug Task Force, the talk was of a wave of lurid crimes and the system's futility to check it. There were first-person recaps of deadly chases on the hairpin passes up north. There were tightlipped accounts of recent attempts at "suicide by cop," all involving tweakers who, tired of living, fired a weapon at an arresting officer. And there were grim testimonials to the power of meth as a catalyst for further crime. "Put an ounce of it on the street, and in less than an hour it'll be surrounded by stolen property," said Mark Richardson, the deputy commander of the 15-member squad. "You've never seen people more motivated to thieve. It's buy meth, use meth, repeat."

So, too, over lunch with school officials whose fatigue and distress were palpable. "We've tried everything we could think of to break the denial, but it's like beating our heads on a wall," says Kathy Grant, the project coordinator for the superintendent's office. "Our dropout and truancy rates keep going up, and so do the number of kids in special ed because of behavioral and emotional issues. You ask yourself, where are the parents in all of this? As urgent as this is, we have parent-teacher nights where just a handful of parents come out, and never any ones who need to."

Indeed, the question of parental culpability is much on people's minds here. Washington, like its neighbors in the Pacific Northwest, is a left-leaning state with evolved views on drugs and a history of letting certain things slide. "There's a lot of folks out here who were kids back then and smoked, shot, tripped and what have you," says Butch Davis, a burly sergeant for the Snohomish County sheriff's office. "They think, 'I survived that and didn't do too bad — so what if my kid gets high?'"

It's rare to talk to teens here, alone or in groups, without hearing some version of that thought. "Seems like everyone smokes weed and drinks after school, and it's no big deal to their parents," says Alycia Mills, a pretty, red-haired junior who writes for the school paper.

Later, at a school assembly, which is part of a series of scared-straight symposia on meth, sheds a different light on the problem. Lynn Eul, from the D.A.'s office, goes first. She begins by citing the local casualties since her last school visit in May: an 18-year-old high school senior who killed herself after a meth binge, and a 16-year-old who was beaten, then strangled, during a small-time buy gone bad. As Eul vividly parses her own biography — honor roll at 16, meth fiend at 20, a skeletal single mother on the streets — there is a constant undertone from the stands, a buzz of so-what impatience. Glancing behind me, I see a group of boys taking hits off an imaginary pipe.

Eul is followed by a plump blond woman who trembles as she takes the mike. She introduces herself as Tammy Sheary, the mother of two teen boys. One of them, Tyler, is seated beside her; the other, Brady, she says, couldn't make it today, but she brought along pictures to show. As the house lights dim, a screen descends and a remarkable slide show begins. To the tune of Puff Daddy's trite elegy to Biggie Smalls, "I'll Be Missing You," a cycle of snapshots evokes the life of a lithe blond boy at play. He is a toddler, kneeling in the surf; a 10-year-old pedaling a stunt-jump bike; a teen in a tank top and cargo shorts, showing off a just-caught salmon. Boy-band handsome, he is the pop ideal of every kid in here, the essence of their stylized id. As the lights come up, many in the room are sobbing. "Five months ago," says Sheary, "Brady was brutally murdered by a boy in a parking lot. My son was brilliant, the jewel of my life, and the kid who killed him was worthless scum who still shows no remorse. The only thing in common was they'd both used meth that night …" She breaks off a moment to steady herself, clutching at the chair behind her. "This kid stabbed my son in the heart with a knife, but no, that wasn't enough. After he killed him and dragged him up out of the car, he smashed his skull with a great big rock, fractured it in three different places. That is hateful, that's inhuman and that's what I call meth. It took my son away forever and handed me this box instead."

Bending for her bag, Sheary produces an urn, hugging it as she weeps. It is a devastating coda and hits the mark flush. As we rise to applaud, though, I hear the boys in back of me snickering into their sleeves.

"Yo, let's bounce," jeers one of them. "That just made me want to get high."

On Mountain Loop Highway, leaving Granite Falls proper and headed up the swayback spine of the Cascade Mountains, the air is so rich with the musk of trees that it intoxicates you in two deep breaths. Spruces and hemlocks soar overhead, poking holes in the fat-bottomed clouds; it has rained all morning, and ribbons of fog thread the ground cover like Christmas trim.

"Yeah, it's beautiful up here, but plain old scary when you're patrolling by yourself at night," says Butch Davis, the Snohomish County sergeant, from the back seat of Chief Allen's cruiser. "This is prime lab country down these setbacks and trails. When you're out here alone, it could be hours, even days, before anyone finds you if you step your foot into something."

Allen turns right on a gravel path. The road bucks crazily beneath our wheels, like an earthquake in no great hurry. Here and there, hidden by a stand of firs, is an RV pitched under greasy tarps, engine off and windows blinkered. Allen slows, looking for signs of life; methheads park campers along these roads and hole up to binge and cook. Tourists who happen by have been stabbed and beaten by tweakers who mistook them for cops. And the officers themselves have had guns fired at them.

"Just pure dumb luck that we haven't lost men yet," says Allen. "These idiots are super-paranoid, and most of 'em are armed to the teeth. You go into one of these places and you always see three things: guns to the ceiling, a boatload of porn and appliances with the backs taken off. TVs, computers, even ovens and vacuums."

"And why is that?" I ask.

"'Cause Big Brother's in the icebox, taking notes!" Davis chortles.

Back on Mountain Loop, Allen wheels down lanes that take us into dirt-road slums. On little clearings without lawns or yards sit random clusters of saltbox shacks, aproned by a foot of mud. Husks of old cars rot glumly out front; a dog barks from every door. On our left is a shed with a madman's touch: a sunroom made from vinyl truck caps. The driveway beside it is heel-to-toe with bombed-out Chevy flatbeds.

"Eh, this one's a prince; he cooks such skank meth that the fumes have rotted his kids' brains," says Davis. "He's got four boys, and not one could count to 10 if you spotted 'em the one through nine."

Asked why he's not in prison, Davis rolls his eyes. "In this state, the small fish don't do hard time. The jails are so full, and the D.A.'s caseload's so jammed, that they kick it down to simple possession."

After a tour of several more grim redoubts, including something straight from Heart of Darkness, a fortress built of deer skins and tree stumps, we head down the mountain to the sheriff's office, where we're met by three detectives in an SUV. Our destination is a remote brown sward on the outskirts of city lines. Though landlocked by tree farms and highway trestles, it's known as Smith Island for its isolation and anonymous air of menace. No roads lead onto it, only gaps in the brush that grows as high as canebrake. Jouncing over ruinous, foot-deep ruts under a drumbeat of slanting rain, we come to a rise near the eastern edge and find a sprawl of mud-logged trailers. The cop beside me unclasps his gun; reports from informants say that meth use is rampant among the three dozen squatters dug in here.

"Wanna speak to one of these clowns? They won't talk to us, but they might to Rolling Stone."

Davis and the other cops hang behind, as I approach a white camper with piebald tires and a peace sign moldering on the door. When I knock, a man curses and lurches up from a makeshift dining table.

"What d'ya want?" he growls, filling the frame. He has broad logger's shoulders, a chest-length beard and eyes that dart from side to side, pulsing inside their sockets. Trailing him out the door is the hell's-bells stench of oxygenated household solvents. I ask if he's been doing some cleaning.

"Who are you?" He glares at the cops.

I tell him I'm writing a story about meth. Has he or anyone he knows been personally affected by —

"Meth?" he snarls. "What's it, like some new-type insect?"  

By now, the reek is so profuse that I have to turn sideways to breathe. "So if you were to invite me in there, I wouldn't see anything involved with making meth? No open jugs of lye or maybe paint remover, a bucket full of allergy tabs?"

His pupils bulge; his shoulders mass; he seems to almost float with rage. "Get out!" he screams. "You're on my property!"

"Well, actually," I note, "it's someone else's land. You're parked here illeg —"

He steps back and fumbles for something behind him. I freeze; a couple of the cops edge forward. But the object the man brandishes is not a gun. Rather, it's a hand-blown crystalline pipe.

"You see this? I made this. I'm an American citizen who makes pipes," he seethes. "As for what people smoke in them, that's their deal. Their right as American citizens!"

And with that, he gives the door a good slam, though it rattles and doesn't quite latch. Dauntless, he winds up and slams it again, succeeding this time in both closing the door and dislodging the tattered peace sign. It flutters from its perch, rides the breeze a moment, then settles in the weeds underneath a tire.

Back in the truck, I am wobble-headed, the van's fumes coating my throat. "Are you telling me he's together enough to change his shirt, much less peddle dope?"

"Well, I don't know about the shirt — he's probably worn that for months — but, yeah, he can move some meth," says Davis. "What's worse is he'll teach 10 kids to cook, and each of 'em'll teach 10 more. That's how it spreads, you know, from numbskull to numbskull, and if I was to lock up all the idiots, who's that leave?"