The Herald Bulletin

February 22, 2014

Users tell of drug's horror

Cheap and easy to make, meth tightens deadly grip on Madison County

By Jack Molitor
The Herald Bulletin

— Brian Hudson spends a few afternoons a week washing dishes in the kitchen at an Anderson family restaurant, a favorite food stop for locals.

The restaurant is a short drive from Alexandria, where Hudson has lived his whole life. It’s an easy job, and Hudson doesn’t have to interact with a lot of people. He can work and be alone with his thoughts.

Lately, he’s been contemplating how lucky he is to have back his own thoughts. And his life.

For about three years, methamphetamine controlled him. Everything in Hudson’s world revolved around the hyper-addictive drug. And he wasn’t alone.

The drug has gripped economically-depressed Madison County, and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in prevention, treatment and law enforcement.

In recent years, the county has shot to the top of state and national charts in meth lab raids. From 2000 to 2009, 40 meth labs were discovered in Madison County by police. That number has skyrocketed to 217 in the past four years.

As the number of meth busts across the country has steadily decreased, meth lab busts show the level of meth use has persisted in Indiana and grown in Madison County. Part of that reflects actual user abuse; another part reflects concentrated efforts by law enforcement.

While local officials seek solutions, meth continues to ruin lives in Madison County.

“It turned my life into a living nightmare,” said Hudson, who says he’s been clean for six months. “Kids. Family. Work. It all went on the back burner. It absolutely puts itself right at the front.”

Hudson, 43, credits the Madison County Drug Court with his rebirth. Once a slave to meth chemicals, Hudson now speaks freely and frankly about the addiction that almost killed him.

'The walking dead'

Meth was one of Hudson’s drugs of choice in the 1980s. Growing up in rural Madison County without much stimulation in his day-to-day life, he turned to illicit drugs.

Sale or use, it didn’t really matter to Hudson. Sometimes the simple thrill of selling illegal drugs was as addictive as the substance.

Back in the ‘80s, meth was less potent and was more difficult to produce. The old way of cooking meth demanded more time, equipment and supplies; now, meth makers can use a relative simple and fast “one-pot” or “shake-and-bake” method to mix meth in plastic soda bottles.

Today, pseudoephedrine is the key. The easily purchased nasal decongestant provides quick and effective relief to cold sufferers around the world. However, its similar chemical structure to amphetamines allows it to be readily reduced to meth when combined with other substances. Many of these meth precursors, such as hydrochloric acid, lithium, ammonium nitrate and sulfuric acid, exist in products sold at supermarkets.

The relatively cheap cost and ease of production have caused what law enforcement officers call an epidemic of meth labs, particularly in rural and often isolated areas of the Midwest.

While Hudson’s first experience with meth was decades ago, he later turned to other intravenous drugs such as heroin. Around 2010 he rediscovered meth. From that time until his arrest in the fall of 2012, Hudson became, in his own words, one of “the walking dead.”

A stimulant, meth causes a surge in the brain of a chemical called dopamine, resulting in a high that can last for a day or longer. Typically, even after the high has worn off, the user will stay awake for nearly a week, inflicting extreme stress on the body and opening the door to a litany of psychological side-effects — hallucinations, psychosis and paranoia.

Methamphetamine is unique in the way it increases dopamine levels in the brain. Having sex raises dopamine levels to about 200 units. Cocaine spikes dopamine levels to 350 units. Methamphetamine spikes at 1,250 — more than 12 times the base level of 100.

Meth also metabolizes much slower than cocaine and remains in the brain much longer, allowing it to cause damage as a neurotoxin. When smoked, a cocaine high can last from 20 to 30 minutes. A meth high can last 8-24 hours.

“It’s like living in a dreamworld,” Hudson said.

Meth landed Larry Hounchell, 34, in the Pendleton Correctional Facility, where he’s serving a life sentence. Here’s how he got there: At the age of 19, strung out on meth and sleepless for several days, Hounchell desperately searched for his next high. Broke and delirious, he robbed and killed a local dealer.

Hounchell pleaded guilty to the crime in 1999. The earliest he can be released from prison is 2068.

“I just wanted money,” Hounchell said. “Any moral compass you have flies out the window.”

'A shadow gang'

The son of a white father and Korean mother, Hounchell grew up out of place, he says, in Elwood and Kokomo. He had had a hard time fitting in with predominantly white student populations in Madison and Howard county schools. Hounchell’s family had high expectations for him and wanted him to attend college, but he desperately wanted friends.

“Indiana can be an extremely boring place, so the only thing to do in a lot of places is get into trouble,” Hounchell said. “Whole families would get into meth. Uncles or even fathers would teach family to cook. And even back then, it wasn’t like it is now. It’s so easy to make now.”

Meth can be ingested in many different ways: it can be eaten in crystal form, snorted as a powder, and swallowed or injected into the bloodstream as a liquid. Hounchell said the high happens almost immediately, but after about four days of being awake, a user can start to lose his mind.

“Imagine a shadow gang is after you,” he said. “You start hallucinating. You crave the physical high even with the mental downfall. You’re just surviving, and you don’t care about anything or anyone else.”

With the psychological torture comes physical deterioration. Users typically lose weight because they don’t crave food. Most users don’t want to drink anything, so the mouth dries out. The condition is known as “meth mouth.” Teeth, eroded by the chemicals in meth, rot or fall out completely.

Sores or acne on the skin visibly worsen instead of healing. Other tell-tale signs of meth use: abnormal lip curling, fidgeting, obsessive chewing and swallowing, dilated pupils and dirty fingernails.

“I remember this girl from high school,” Hounchell said. “She was your typical beautiful, perfect high school girl her junior year. After she got started, by senior year, her face was all chewed up from acne that hadn’t healed.”

A sordid society

Meth abuse was previously rampant in the western United States, particularly in remote desert areas where meth cooks gravitated to large tracts of sparsely populated land to avoid detection. This sort of meth cooking set up is familiar to many from the popular TV series “Breaking Bad,” which was set in New Mexico.

Today, as cooking methods have been simplified, statistics show that the epicenter of meth manufacturing and use has shifted to the Midwest, where addicts can produce their own supply as easily as they can buy it.

Groups of people work together, “smurfing” in rings to produce meth, hitting several stores to purchase ingredients and precursors. In this way, they can avoid detection by law enforcement, which monitors large purchases of pseudoephedrine.

Meth cooks pay those who contribute ingredients with portions of the finished product. This gateway into the meth culture, more than anything, leads to the proliferation of meth abuse, according to former addict Paul Rice. He said that one cook can teach as many as 10 other people how to make meth for themselves.

Rice, 50, has been attending weekly counseling sessions in Madison County drug court for five months and says he has been clean for 15 months. He started using meth in the 1990s, along with many others, he says, in the predominantly white Iron Horsemen motorcycle gang.

“I’ve had black friends who prefer coke and crack,” Rice said. “The thing about those drugs, they don’t last that long. Twenty-five dollars of meth, you’re good for a whole night. Twenty-five dollars of coke, that’s like 10 minutes. It’s (meth is) winning people over because of that.”

A U.S. government drug and alcohol data report in 2005 indicated that 71 percent of meth users were white. Three percent were black; 18 percent were Hispanic.

Detectives with the Madison County Drug Task Force — a combined effort among local agencies — report the growing popularity of the one-pot meth cooking method.

Ingredients are mixed in a soft drink bottle. The method may be fast and easy, but it is fraught with peril. Many of the ingredients are toxic to humans. Lye eats organic matter. Hydrochloric acid rusts metal. Lithium combusts when it reacts to water. And the fumes from the process are harmful to breathe.

In 2012, a man and a woman were injured in an explosion at the Days Inn on Scatterfield Road in Anderson. Both suffered severe burns. Tracy Price II, 31, was burned so badly he had to be transported to Wishard Hospital in Indianapolis. Price, it was later learned, had been using the one-pot method to cook meth.

Rice said, “You hear people say, ‘Well, I haven’t had an accident.’ Well, it just isn’t your time yet. ... It’ll go off on you sooner or later.”

No way out

On a continuum of addiction to substances, meth lies at the high end just below nicotine and heroin. In addition to physical and psychological addiction, past users agree that there’s an addiction to the lifestyle, which is even harder to break. Rice remembers watching a friend die after ingesting meth and then another drug.

“He was on meth, had been awake for days, took Xanax, trying to come down so he could sleep, and he went into a coma. A few days later, he died.”

In recent years, Indiana lawmakers, leaders and law enforcement have dedicated efforts to combating the scourge of meth. The local Drug Task Force and Indiana State Police meth team detectives said they believe it’s making a difference. Hudson does, too.

“I can say that getting arrested saved my life,” Hudson said. “And they follow up on you after you’ve been busted. I’ve never seen something dry up and stop so quickly. It seemed like overnight, everyone I knew was arrested or stopped. They really tightened the noose. I can honestly say I’m not sure I know anyone else who’s left from the people I knew who did it.”

Hudson and Rice acknowledged they’ve been lucky to reach an age where they can’t physically sustain the meth lifestyle, and they still have enough of their lives ahead that they’re committed to preserving. For people willing to admit they have a problem, resources such as drug court can help.

For others, prison or death await.

“It’s a maddening lifestyle,” Hudson said. “You’re so paranoid. You know you’re going to die or get caught, but you can’t stop.”

Like Jack Molitor on Facebook and follow him @aggiejack4 on Twitter, or call 640-4883.