By Sara J. Korash-Schiff

For the Rockbridge area and surrounding counties, methamphetamine use and manufacturing are more than just a plot line for a hit television series.

Around here, local law enforcement officials say, “Breaking Bad” can be more reality than fiction.

“Yes, there’s meth here, there’s coke here, there’s heroin and marijuana, too,” said Capt. Larry Conner of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office. “We have all the above.”

Though Donald Schley, an investigator with the Rockbridge Sheriff’s Office Drug Task Force, said drug usage fluctuates in the area, depending on what suppliers are selling, he said meth use stays pretty consistent. “Meth is one of the most abused drugs in the area,” said Schley. “The Rockbridge area averages about 100 cases combined in meth related arrests annually.” Most of the task force’s work, he said, involves following up on leads.

Conner did not have statistics on meth-related arrests, but he said he did know of meth lab seizures in the Rockbridge area.

“This past year we’ve had two arrests that I know of,” he said.

Statewide, the number of meth lab-related raids in Virginia has more than doubled, from 106 in 2010 to 221 in 2012, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

The DEA figure includes meth labs, “dumpsites” and “chemical and glassware” seizures. That means that the 221 seizures included places where lab materials were found, in addition to labs themselves.

Conner said the sheriff’s office is well aware of the drug abuse problems in the area.

“That’s why we have a drug task force and deputies searching vehicles for drugs any chance they get,” he said.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Mexican drug trafficking organizations are the primary manufacturers and distributors of methamphetamine to cities throughout the United States. Such trafficking figured in the plot of the AMC television series “Breaking Bad,” which concluded it fifth and final season Sunday night.

But local law enforcement officials say small meth labs are a problem in Virginia, including the Rockbridge area.

Chemical reactions

The methods used to produce the meth depend on which chemicals are available, they say.

Rockbridge Regional Jail Superintendent John Higgins says local meth manufactures like to use what’s called the “shake ’n’ bake” method.

Though meth can be made from many different ingredients, the most common for the “shake ’n’ bake” method are Sudafed, or similar cold medicines, lighter fluid, crushed beads from icepacks, muriatic acid and lye. All can be purchased at a grocery or hardware store.

Higgins said small labs also use two-liter soda bottles and lithium batteries.

In the “shake ’n’ bake” method, all the basic meth ingredients are placed into a two-liter bottle and shaken up.

Higgins said a small meth lab raided in Rockbridge County in mid-August used the “shake ’n’ bake” method because it is relatively easy.

All meth users have to do, he said, is mix the ingredients in the bottle, cut open a lithium battery, place the lithium strips into the bottle and add a drop of water to the lithium.

The chemical reaction between the drop of water and lithium battery strips releases heat, which in turn “bakes” the meth ingredients. But too much water can result in a fire or a meth lab explosion, a result of the hydrogen gas given off from the reaction.

“Picture a small Hindenburg exploding in a house,” is the analogy Washington and Lee University pre-med student Thomas Day used to explain a meth lab explosion.

Day was referring to the May 1937 disaster in which the Hindenburg, a German passenger airship filled with hydrogen, caught fire, killing more than 30 people.

Physical and legal consequences

Along with potentially causing fires in production, meth abuse has its own consequences.

“We have seen people out of their minds hallucinating and seeing stuff,” said Maj. Candace Bane of the Rockbridge Regional Jail. “But then we see some who are belligerent and mean and others who say some pretty funny stuff.”

Bane said she has seen many addicts and dealers come through the jail. But she said it was difficult to know what drugs they abuse.

“We don’t know what they’re on when they come in,” she said. “All we know is that they come in obviously on something and then after a day or two they come down from whatever high they’re on.”

Stimulants come in many forms, including pills, powder, “rocks” and injectable liquids. They can be smoked, snorted, injected or taken into the body in other ways.

Methamphetamine is a stimulant drug. That means that it produces a sudden sensation known as a “rush” or a “flash.” 

Stimulants, like meth, are frequently taken to produce a sense of exhilaration, enhance self-esteem, improve mental and physical performance, increase activity, reduce appetite, extend wakefulness for a prolonged period, and “get high.” Meth abuse can cause extreme anorexia, memory loss and severe dental problems.

Legal consequences of abuse can also be dire. Possession or distribution of the drug can result in a fine or a jail term ranging from a few days to several years, depending on the amount the person is found with.

Federal law mandates a prison term — even for first convictions — of at least five years for anyone convicted of possessing five grams of meth with the intent to distribute it, and at least 10 years for possessing 50 grams for distribution purposes.

Heavy users of meth may inject themselves every few hours, continuing until they have depleted their drug supply or reached a point of delirium or physical exhaustion.

Users can become obsessed with re-creating the initial euphoric rush of their first high, but, according to the DEA, that rush can never be fully felt after the first use. Paranoia, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations, can also occur.

Though some meth users may hallucinate or turn into little comedians, like those Bane has seen, that is not always the case.

According to the DEA, high-dose use of meth is frequently associated with agitation, hostility, panic, aggression and suicidal or homicidal tendencies.

For a more information on meth use in the Rockbridge area visit:

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