By Brooke Sutherland

Zeb Anthony Henson was 16 when he started using methamphetamine, a drug that made him feel unstoppable, like he was running “wide open”— so open he’d drive cars up to 100 mph.

“The first time? It was like you’re on top of the world; there was nothing you couldn’t do,” he said.

Henson, 35, has since been arrested more than 10 times on charges that range from sexual battery to eluding the police to reckless driving. He was sentenced to nearly 13 years in prison on federal and state methamphetamine, or “meth,” distribution charges, a probation violation and one count of assault.

“It’s done nothing but ruin my life,” Henson said of his meth use. “It’s just very hard to quit. I lost everything   because of it.”

Meth cases make up 50 percent of all drug arrests in the Rockbridge area and 50 percent of all federal drug cases in southwest Virginia, according to law enforcement officials.

Meth use among state and federal prisoners has steadily increased since 1997, according to a 2006 report by  the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.

But the cause of its growing popularity is unclear, said Donald Schley, an investigator for the Rockbridge  County Sheriff’s Office and a member of the local drug task force.

What is clear is that the area has a serious meth problem that is straining cops, courts and community services.
An “epidemic”

Henson said he still wakes up at night, holding his hands like he’s holding a pipe, about to take a hit.

“I’d hate myself for doing it sometimes,” he said. “I ended up going back to it every time. It always won.”

While Henson has attended several Narcotics Anonymous meetings, he said he has never received any formal drug treatment.  NA is modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous in its step-based approach to sobriety.

According to the probation office serving the Rockbridge area, Henson was offered treatment several times after he continued to test positive for meth. He refused all offers, said Walt Obenschain, deputy chief probation and parole officer for the Virginia Probation and Parole District 12 Office.

Meth is easy to buy, easy to make and very easy to get addicted to.  It’s so addictive that it can take up to a year for treatment to begin to have an impact, Obenschain said.

“It’s an epidemic,” Schley said. “It’s bad.”

Meth, a stimulant drug, comes in many colors and forms, including powder and crystals. It can be smoked, snorted, injected or swallowed. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the drug has many street names, including crank, ice, poor man’s cocaine and biker’s coffee.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s website, meth increases the level of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that signals reward and pleasure, and makes users feel energized and aware.

But meth also blocks later dopamine production, meaning that no high can ever top the first, said Officer Alan Buzzard of the Buena Vista Police Department, another member of the local drug task force.

Irregular dopamine levels disrupt the brain’s neural pathways to the point where all that users can think about is getting more meth, Obenschain said. Recovering addicts need to rebuild those neural pathways— just like someone who has been shot in the head, he said. It takes much longer when addicts don’t fully commit to recovery, he said.

As the number of meth cases has increased, funding for treatment has become tighter, curtailing the number of programs designed to help addicts.

“(We’re) asking officers to decide who you want to get in that program,” Obenschain said. “Who you think can succeed and who you’re just going to have to let fall by the wayside and just hope that something doesn’t happen to them real serious.”

Poor People’s Drug of Choice

The vast majority— more than 90 percent— of the meth used in southwest Virginia isn’t produced locally but is manufactured in “super” labs in Mexico, said Tim Carden, agent in charge at the DEA’s Roanoke Resident Office.

Methamphetamine’s path from labs in Mexico to Virgina (Graphic by Brooke Sutherland)

These labs can produce meth en masse— sometimes hundreds of pounds at a time. By comparison, the typical at-home labs use supermarket chemicals to produce around three or four grams of meth, roughly the equivalent of one teaspoon, Carden said.

Mexican meth makes its way across the border into Texas, up to Atlanta, into the Carolinas and eventually into southwest Virginia, Carden said.

But while most of the drugs are trafficked in from outside the country, meth usage is almost entirely local, law enforcement officials said.

Among both state and federal prisoners, white inmates were almost 20 times more likely than black inmates to report recent meth use, according to the 2006 BJS report.

Rockbridge County and meth seem almost destined for each other, given that the drug’s users are primarily white and poor, Carden said.

The population in the Rockbridge area— Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista— is on average 90 percent white, with more than 15 percent of its residents living below the poverty line, according to an analysis of the most recent census data available for the area.

That local demographic is what sustains the area’s meth problem when supply lines from Mexico are disrupted or severed, Carden said.

“I think it’s an issue where … when the supply’s not there but the demand is, then they’ll look at other ways of doing things,” Carden said.

So far this year, the DEA has busted about 60 meth labs in Virginia, putting the agency on track to surpass the 83 labs it took down last year. About 85 percent of those 60 labs were in southwest Virginia, Carden said.

Law enforcement isn’t necessarily doing a better job of finding labs; there are just more of them, he said.

“We’ve made a significant dent in Mexican drug trafficking organization methamphetamine in this area,” Carden said. “I think that’s pushed people … to manufacture their own.”

“Shake and bake” labs

The Rockbridge area seems to have fewer problems with meth labs than the rest of southwest Virginia, Schley said. He said he can remember having to take down only a few local labs in recent years.

But that doesn’t mean home-cooked meth doesn’t exist in the area.

Nathan Lee Conner, 29, a Rockbridge area native who is in the Rockbridge Regional Jail awaiting sentencing on meth-related charges, said he’s made his own meth several times.

“A middle school kid can make it,” he said.

These “shake and bake” labs are dangerous and volatile but often consist of not much more than an empty soda bottle, Carden said.

However, the meth made in local labs is often purer than the drugs that come from Mexico. Mass-produced meth is usually diluted. The drugs trafficked in from across the border typically contain around 50 to 70 percent actual meth, he said.

The remaining ingredients can range from other drugs to battery acid, ammonia and lye, Obenschain said.

The idea of digesting such toxic chemicals is stomach churning, but the mixture yields a sweet payoff for drug dealers, Carden said.

“You’re increasing the volume which increases the profit,” he said. “It’s not like they’re going to go to the Better Business Bureau and complain that your meth is only 40 percent.”

Meth in this area can cost anywhere from $800 to $1,200 per ounce, about the same price as an ounce of powdered cocaine, Carden said. Most users prefer to buy an eighth of an ounce, which can cost anywhere from $175 to $250, he said.

Schley said that addicts often commit property and other crimes to raise the money to buy meth.

Whether they’re selling eighths or ounces, meth dealers can bring in big bucks, Carden said.

Conner said he used to make a couple thousand dollars a day selling meth. But then the meth became more addictive than the money and selling drugs came second to using them, he said.

A tough drug to beat

Conner said he started using meth when he was 15. He and Henson used to be friends before they got into a disagreement involving drugs.

When Conner started using meth, he said, he used only small amounts. But after a few years, he said, he started using a half-ounce to an ounce every day, “which is a lot of drugs.”

Meth in one of its many forms

When he was doing meth, he said, he could go days without sleeping or eating. He would hallucinate constantly; he’d see inanimate objects move and animals run around that weren’t really there.

“I’ve always thought that somebody was there with me while I was doing (meth), but there never was,” Conner said. “So I’d sit around talking to people that wasn’t even there.”

And he wasn’t always nice to the people who were really there, Conner said. His wife and kids left him because of his drug habit. He hasn’t seen them in five months, he said.

Conner said he tried to quit and even tried to commit suicide to put a stop to the havoc his drug use was wreaking on his life. His suicide attempts failed, but so did his efforts to say no to drugs. He always ended up back on meth, he said.

The first time people are caught with meth, if they have a relatively clean criminal record, they are considered a first offender, said Rockbridge County Commonwealth’s Attorney Bucky Joyce.

That usually means they receive a period of supervised probation rather than prison time, and a chance to erase the felony charge from their record if they stay out of trouble, he said.

But these probationers often find themselves back in the meth game and back in the legal system, Schley said.

Placing drug addicts on probation is unpredictable. Sometimes the programs work and sometimes they fail completely, Joyce said.

At times the meth offender is at fault because he doesn’t want to get clean; sometimes it’s the fault of too little funding and too little space to give recovering addicts the assistance they need, Obenschain said.

‘No Miracles’

There are two options for drug treatment in Virginia: private rehabilitation centers and state-funded community services, said John Westervelt, clinical director of Mount Regis Center, an inpatient substance abuse program in Salem.

But these two options are far from equal in terms of cost and quality of care.

Private centers are the best places to get drug treatment, Obenschain said, because they offer the kind of personalized attention required to overcome meth addiction.

But the majority of meth users on probation lack health insurance, which means a publicly funded treatment programs is often their only option, he said.

Obenschain’s office sends meth defendants to Rockbridge Area Community Services (RACS), where they are evaluated and directed to either inpatient or outpatient treatment.

Outpatient treatment involves attending group sessions twice a week. Standard outpatient programs typically involve three-day-a-week services, said John Young, clinical services director at RACS.

“We don’t have that level of care,” he said, comparing RACS services to other outpatient programs.

State-funded inpatient treatment is provided at the Boxwood Recovery Center in Culpeper and typically lasts for a period of 14 to 28 days, Obenschain said.

But once the stay ends, probationers are transferred to outpatient treatment — and right back to an environment they associate with drug abuse.

At that point, recovery comes down to a question of whether the probationer has been educated enough to be able to say no to meth, Obenschain said.

Given that it takes most people a year to beat a meth addiction, more often than not, the answer to that question is no, he said.

“These people have had this problem for years and years and no miracles occur in 14 days,” Obenschain said.

Old Habits

The Rockbridge area is a particularly hard community to come back to, Young said.

“It’s not got a lot of public transportation and a lot of times addiction brings issues like no license, dependent on others, isolation,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that start to work against you.”

Henson and Conner said the abundance of meth in the area offers an additional hurdle to quitting.

“I’ve thought about moving away from here,” Conner said. “This is the meth capital … And it’s just everywhere.”

And the two are not without company in the penal system.

Bag of meth (Photo by AP, courtesy of the DEA)

“It just seems like all my friends are in jail right now for the same stuff,” Henson said.

If a meth offender falls back into old habits, the probation office still has a few more treatment options.

Diversion programs, where probationers stay in a facility but attend drug classes and work in the community, serve as a last resort to keep drug offenders out of prison, Obenschain said.

“They’ve sort of got a foot in the prison system and a foot in the community,” he said.

There are two diversion centers in the area: the Appalachian Men’s Detention Center in Honaker and the Harrisonburg Men’s Diversion Center in Harrisonburg.

But these programs typically last only five to six months and often fail to provide meth addicts with the tools they need to resist the temptations in their communities, Obenschain said.

There is only one halfway house in the area —  the Lebanon Community Corrections Center in Lebanon —  that attempts to ease addicts back into society.
“We don’t do a good enough job of being ready to bring them back out of treatment,” Young said.

Not enough money, not enough space

State-funded rehabilitation programs have their faults, but a flawed program is better than no treatment at all, Obenschain said.

Obenschain said his office must stop sending probationers to RACS because the budget has been maxed out by increased demand and there won’t be any more money until July 1.

A stay at Boxwood costs $47.50 per day, or $665 for 14 days, said Robert Lewis, a substance abuse technician supervisor at Boxwood.

“That’s why we don’t keep (probationers) very long because it would just exhaust all our treatment monies really fast,” Obenschain said.

The probation office isn’t the only organization that’s limited.

The halfway house in Lebanon has 65 beds. But those beds have to accommodate a wide range of abuse cases from both the federal and state courts, Obenschain said.

There is rarely a spare bed, he said.

“If I make a referral today in March, I probably couldn’t get an offender in there until August,” he said.

When there is not enough funding or not enough space, the best the probation office can offer is free Narcotics Anonymous meetings and maybe a couple extra drug tests, Obenschain said.

Unlike marijuana, however, meth stays in the body’s system for only about three days, Obenschain said. That means that even if probation officers give drug tests once a week, offenders can still use meth and never score a positive test.

And NA classes are supposed to be voluntary, meaning addicts have to take it upon themselves to attend.

“I went to NA,” Henson said. “But I mean, it’s just like, you just sit there and talk for an hour and people talk about their experiences and stuff like that. It wasn’t really no drug counseling. I mean you could go in there high probably and they wouldn’t even know.”

One last shot

Henson admits that he deserves the sentences he’s received. He said he knows he’s made some bad choices.

“I won’t lie, I’ve sold drugs in this county,” he said. “They’ve been chasing me for a long time. I always got away so I really can’t complain for the time that I got.”

He’s also done some “crazy things” on meth, he said.

One time, he said, he held his girlfriend to the ground while he drilled holes around her head with ¾-inch drill. She was eight months pregnant at the time.

Henson said he doesn’t want to go back to his life as a meth addict when he gets out of prison. He said he wants to get treatment, any kind of treatment.

But if overcoming meth addiction on probation is a challenge, overcoming it in prison, where the waitlists for programs are even longer, is almost impossible, Obenschain said.

“You’re just marking time until you come out and use it again,” he said.

But for Henson, it’s his last shot.

“This is it for me,” he said. “I’m a goner.”

Kelly Mae Ross, Tory Dickerson and Stephen Peck also contributed to this story.