How Kirksville, Missouri, Kicked Meth
In 2001, Missouri took the national title from California ““ lunging to first place in methamphetamine lab seizures. To the chagrin of the state’s police, mental health workers, judges, and foster care officials, Missouri has stayed number one ever since.
While the rural Midwest is notorious for meth problems today , illegal methamphetamines were first produced in large quantities on the West Coast thirty-five years ago. Motorcycle clubs then dominated the manufacturing of “crank" or “speed," jealously guarding their “cooking" methods. But by the 1990s, the drug had moved east. Recipes began appearing on the Internet, many formulas calling for anhydrous ammonia, a common corn fertilizer. Built from such innocuous materials — kitchen matches, cold pills, tubing, and brake fluid — and requiring no more space than an ordinary kitchen or motel room, meth labs proliferated in the Midwest, taking law enforcement and small towns by hideous surprise.
By 2001, Adair County in northern Missouri had a full-blown problem on its hands. Only the 42nd most populous county in the state (pop. 24,795/July 2001 US. Census estimate), Adair ranked 8th in meth lab seizures.
For the people of Adair County, however, meth crime wasn’t statistical; the drug had a stench and a face — a sinister reality. The county seat of Kirksville and surrounding countryside had been horrified by a grisly string of events after a man born in rural Adair County moved back home and taught a network of friends to “cook" speed. By the mid-1990s, his mini-industry has grown ultra-violent: he burned down a barn to confiscate evidence of drug-making, shot a deputy sheriff, and allegedly murdered and decapitated an errant drug runner.
Patrick Williams, principal of Kirksville High School, admitted, “It was scary." Williams says that by the late 1990s there were “kids so violent they had to be removed from school by police. One Saturday night, a house burned down two blocks from the church I attend," when a meth lab’s toxic chemicals exploded.
In 2003, Kirksville hired James Hughes, a native of SE Kansas and veteran of Boulder, Colorado’s police force, as its new police chief. “Like a frog dumped in hot water, I came with a fresh perspective," Hughes says. The new chief devoted his first two months to meeting citizens, business owners, and county and state law enforcement teams in the area, as he sought a strong direction for his department. He looked at the number of local drug cases, dump sites, fires and burglaries, and saw children endangered by home meth labs and placed into foster care. Hughes decided that meth was "the most wide-reaching problem" in Kirkville and that tackling it could have the biggest impact on the town and surrounding community.
From experience with other anti-crime initiatives, Hughes knew “the most successful were those that brought in stakeholders" ““ that involved not just police and judges but schools, churches, businesses, and mental health professionals, too. He knew Kirksville needed ” a true community coalition" to face its drug problem, and in July 2003, the Adair County Meth Coalition went to work.
With a core of dedicated community leaders, the Meth Coalition (now involving 30 local organizations) adopted what Hughes calls “an in-your-face approach." Its message, broadcast on public service announcements through all the Adair County media, was blunt. Hughes spells it out: “If you’re on meth, we want you to get fixed. If you won’t, we’re a community that’s gonna run you out of town."
Local merchants had endured non-stop theft of over-the-counter cold medications containing pseudoephedrine ““ a key ingredient in meth. The loss-prevention manager of Kirkville’s Wal-Mart took a strong early role in the coalition, creating a brash publicity campaign. “Eradicate Meth" was the Coalition’s slogan, and a huge black cockroach its logo. By October 2003, Kirksville High School students were parading down Franklin Street at homecoming with a banner reading “Stop the Infestation" and the Coalition’s anonymous tipline number in bold print.
Through free spots on local TV and two radio stations, and a strong series of stories in Kirksville’s newspaper, the community group alerted citizens to meth’s telltale signs: the acrid smell of a speed lab in operation, discarded sacks of batteries and light bulbs, the addict’s sleeplessness, sudden weight-loss and paranoia. Residents added up their observations, and the tipline began lighting up.
Community leaders for the first time started measuring meth’s real impact. Principal Pat Williams began listing the names of teenagers who’d dropped out of high school in the previous two years, then “filtering these through the juvenile offices," probation officials, and courts, to identify students with known meth associations. He discovered “at least half (the dropouts) had been impacted by meth in some fashion," either they’d made, sold or abused the drug themselves, or their families had been involved in methamphetamine crime. This kind of evidence was a powerful impetus to get involved and stay involved with the Adair County Coalition,
In December 2003, the organization held workshops for retailers. The seminars explained existing Missouri laws limiting sales of pseudoephedrine products and showed storeowners how to spot potential drug makers. Then, the Kirksville Daily News initiated some true enterprise reporting. The paper sent two young people undercover into 23 local stores, where they tried to buy illegal quantities of pseudoephedrine pills. The paper reported in January 2004, “Fifteen of the 23 outlets sold cold medicine to one person in quantities that exceeded the legal limit. Only one store meanwhile, contacted the authorities to report suspicious activity."
This swift, well publicized test of the Meth Coalition’s effort showed how much the group had left to do. Law enforcement and other Coalition members kept the pressure on, and by the end of 2004, with better informed citizens and more energized policing, meth lab seizures in Adair County had declined 70%. (Over the same period, meth seizures in Missouri as a whole declined less than 3%.)
Sondra Sanford, the Coalition’s meth prevention project coordinator, credits much of this success to Adair County’s full time prosecutor. “Part-timers have divided loyalties," she says. Adair voted to spend some $45,000 more per year to hire Mark Williams as its full time prosecutor in January 2003. Williams trained local law enforcement officers to gather evidence with the rigor and precision to get convictions. He even organized a student art contest for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders, asking them to illustrate the dangers of meth, and turning the children’s drawings into a community calendar.
In Missouri, meth has been especially cruel to the young. Based on interviews with children’s advocates in western Missouri, the Joplin newspaper described the children of meth addicts as “emotionally orphaned" and often “unkempt, undernourished, hyper-vigilant and developmentally disabled." Children diagnosed as asthmatics in many cases have actually been impaired by the chemical fumes of home-meth labs.
Christine Steele, a social services investigator and caseworker in Adair County, says that because they’ve been neglected, the children of meth addicts are “very self-reliant. You get a lot of the parentified child roles." Deb McKim, a former Headstart teacher here and now an in-home service specialist, has worked with children who were exposed to meth and other drugs in vitro. She says such children show developmental delays and sometime severe physical handicaps; they’re especially prone to anxiety and depression.
In 2005 Missouri’s Department of Social Services began keeping statistics on the numbers of children coming into foster care due to meth and other drugs. DSS found that in December 2005, statewide, 12% of all foster children had been displaced by drug abuse. In far Southwest and Northwest Missouri, numbers are higher than 30%.
In this respect, too, the Adair County Meth Coalition had shown progress. In Adair’s judicial circuit (DSS’s unit of measurement) less than 10% of all foster care children had been taken from their homes for meth-related reasons (December 2005). In August 2004, the circuit manager had told Kirksville’s newspaper that “about 24% of the 75 children in its custody have parents with a drug problem" — in 17 months, drug-related foster care cases here are down by more than half.
Nobody in Adair County is claiming victory over the meth problem. Sondra Sanford says that meth seizures in 2005 were slightly higher than in the previous year, and she acknowledges that while the Coalition has closed down some of the local meth labs, the drug now comes to Adair County in another form called “Ice," imported, police think, from the Southwest U.S. and Mexico.
Sanford and Police Chief Jim Hughes shudder at the thought of complacency, even as they prove that the Coalition is working. One awkward sign of success is that while meth lab seizures in Adair have declined since 2003, busts in Macon County just to the south more than doubled between 2003 and 2004. Still, the Coalition is accomplishing what it set out to do. “We can’t solve the problems of the region or the state," admits Pat Williams. “All we can do is our own neighborhood."
Chief Hughes adds that shoplifting in Kirkville is “sharply down.” The Coalition’s education team has mounted tags on the shelves of local stores next to meth “precursors"”“ everyday items like glass jars, light bulbs and aluminum foil that are also meth paraphernalia ““ alerting drug-makers that they’re being watched.
Pat Williams says that the meth problem has been curbed at the high school. "It is impossible to mask the outward signs," of meth abuse, he says. “Behavior becomes volatile, erratic," students lose weight, develop sores on their skin and even lose their teeth. He remembers seeing these symptoms five years ago, but today, out of 800 students, he says, “I couldn’t tell you there’s one student taking meth." Missouri’s high school dropout rate for 2005 was 3.8 %. Williams says Kirksville High School’s is now below 3%.
Why has Adair County succeeded, if not completely, at least measurably and noticeably in tackling its meth problem?
In 2003, the Adair County Meth Coalition took an aggressive stand. Its message was tough and timely, in a community still haunted by a hideous murder and the “scary" events of the 1990s. Sondra Sanford says, too, that the Coalition underlined meth’s economic consequences, to show how the drug was “everybody’s problem." Public service announcements and educational programs calculated money lost in burglaries and theft, and money spent on jails, courts, foster homes, and health care. Chief Hughes contends that in a community this “rural, conservative, and economically disadvantaged," the focus on costs helped sustain citizens’ interest and “convince people the problem is their problem, not just something for law enforcement and treatment. If we hadn’t gotten the buy in from Mr. and Mrs. Kirksville, we wouldn’t have had anything like this success."
Sanford stresses that fighting the meth problem required involving all parts of the community: churches, teachers, police, teenagers, business owners. “If I’m an atheist, a faith-based (approach) is not going to reach me. If I’m a youth and rebellious, law enforcement is not going to reach me, ” she says. “When sectors come together, you’re able to intensify the message. You have more arms reaching out there."
Kirksville’s enterprising newspaper was committed both to the Coalition effort and to its own role — to report the group’s real impact. The paper took a huge risk with its advertisers by staging essentially a “sting" of local merchants less than six months after the Meth Coalition began. In explaining “Why We Went Undercover," the editor Derek Spellman wrote, “Though a phone call to retail owners would give us a store’s policy on cold medicine sales, only an actual visit would show the policy in practice." That it did. The paper’s expose’ woke up readers and local merchants and, it’s reasonable to think, tightened the sales of meth precursors.
The same year that the Adair County Meth Coalition began and the county hired its full time prosecutor, 2003, Circuit Judge Russell Steele held the county’s first “Drug Court." In Missouri, there are now approximately 80 such courts for adults where drug offenders, with the consent of the local prosecutor, can choose a 21-month intensive program of monitoring, counseling, drug-testing, and rehabilitation instead of jail time.
The Adair County Drug Court convened for the first time March 1, 2003. Its first applicant and first graduate was Kami Hubbard, a former meth addict who was facing 14 years in prison. Hubbard is now a member of the Adair Coalition’s education committee. She calls the drug court program “really rigid": a fixed schedule of appointments with therapists, probation officers, and social service workers, set numbers of 12-step meetings each week, and regular court appearances — as well as frequent random urine tests. “The different phases were really good for me," Hubbard says. She came to view its tight structure and requirements as “safety nets," and now tells other drug-court applicants, "It’s simple, as long as you do what they tell you to do."
Now clean for three years, Hubbard has been reunited with her husband and four children. As well as working with the Adair County Meth Coalition, she’s studying criminal psychology at Truman State University and facilitating a support group for recovery meth addicts at Kirksville’s treatment center.
Another reason that Adair County may have succeeded is historical and cultural. The Meth Coalition wasn’t this community’s first big challenge. In the 1980s, with a fiscal squeeze on all Missouri’s public universities, it became clear that Northeast Missouri State, in Kirksville, would have to change its regional mission or close. The college has evolved into Truman State University, and prospered, as Missouri’s only “statewide public liberal arts and sciences university." Also, having its requests for funding from the state transportation department turned down year after year, Kirkville citizens in 2002 voted overwhelmingly (78%) to tax themselves and widen the highway south of town.
These were major changes, major commitments, and major rehearsals for the communitywide project to address drug abuse. Pat Williams says that undertaking something like the Meth Coalition requires “a community mentality." And, he says, it’s “significant events" — like the opening of the new highway and Truman State’s success ““ that “tend to create that mentality."
Police chief Hughes believes that Kirksville’s geographic isolation — three hours from a metro area — worked in favor of the Meth Coalition. “People were ready, and they were used to working together," he says. There were “no turf battles" among the area’s law enforcement agencies, he says, because “we can’t afford them. There’s nobody here to help us."
Williams agrees. Adair Countians, he says, share “a belief we’re in control of our own destiny here. Maybe it’s being isolated here."
The Adair County Meth Coalition began as an all-volunteer effort. In the Spring of 2006, the group is applying for its third $100,000 SAMSHA grant to keep the pressure on criminals and sustain the public’s dedication. Having achieved some success versus crime, the organization is now turning more attention to rehabilitation and treatment. The group’s new co-chairs are Pat Williams, newly named superintendent of Kirksville schools, and Kelly Van Vleck, program director at Preferred Family Healthcare, the local treatment center.
Initially it made sense for the group to take a hard line against crime: “People needed to be shook," Van Vleck says. “We kind of backed out treatmentwise." Now, she says, Adair County needs to consider “the other side of the supply/demand chart." Without letting up on enforcement, it’s time to reckon with Kirksville’s meth addicts and to learn what it will take to help them change. “You’ve got to send out a message of hope," Van Vleck says. “Recovering addicts at first were not involved (in the Adair County’s Meth Coalition). Now they are."
On the clinical side, Van Vleck wants better cognitive testing of meth addicts and better measurement of treatment outcomes. On the social service side she intends to tackle problems like housing, so that recovering addicts don’t drift back into the same sick environments. She, and others too, also want a new marketing strategy for the Coalition, something beyond the cockroach. Meth addicts, she says, “don’t look like weird monsters or beasts. They look like the girl next door." Van Vleck says the Coalition needs to convince the public that structured, long-term treatment (like the drug court) works, that drug addicts can and do recover.
The meth problem presented Adair County with an overt crisis; an “outsider," the new police chief, managed to mobilize a frightened community and deliver results. “With seizures and arrests down," Hughes says, the issue now is “how to maintain the integrity of the coalition, keeping it alive,"
Will Adair Countians be as ardent and united about treatment for addicts as they have been about busting meth labs? Coalition leaders know their new direction will be a harder sell, its new goals harder to reach. “Suspension is easy,” says Pat Williams. ” Locking them up is easy. Let’s try to attack the root causes."
DSS investigator Christine Steele, another Coalition member, sees crack cocaine coming to Adair County now. She voices equal parts encouragement and caution: “It’s gotten better in the last two years," she says. “We’ve made great strides but it’s going to be an ever-changing beast."