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?”