GREENE COUNTY, Mo. — Located in the heart of the Bible Belt, where Jesus is King and you can find a church on every corner, not too long ago, you could find a meth lab just as easily.
At their peak in the early 2000’s, at-home meth labs in the Ozarks became synonymous with the local area code, 417. In fact, the first entry in Urban Dictionary defines 417 as, “the area of the country with the largest number of meth busts, located in Southwest Missouri.”
But data from local law enforcement shows meth lab busts have become nearly non-existent. A KOLR 10 investigation set out to find out if Missouri, or Greene County, is still the meth capital of the world.
“Meth is everywhere. Any street corner, any hotel room you go to around here, you can find meth,” Cody Pickens, a recovered meth addict, told KOLR 10.
Pickens struggled with addiction for about 16 years, but never bothered to find out where his drugs were coming from.
“I didn’t really care where it came from,” Pickens said. “I just wanted to get high.”
In 2004, data from the Missouri State Highway Patrol shows meth back then most likely came from an at-home lab. Missouri had the most meth lab busts in the country that year. With 189 in Greene County, that was second only to Jefferson County near St. Louis.
Charlie Romine is also a former addict.
“It’s awful,” Romine said. “It’s a waiting game. You wake up and your primary mission of the day is find that way to get high. So if you wake up and you don’t already have something, that’s what you’re gonna do. Before you go to work, before you make breakfast for your family, before anything.”
Mercy Hospital’s Emergency Room in Springfield often treats drug addicts. Doctor Joseph Jones can spot someone overdosing on meth by their agitation, racing heart, and hallucinations.
“I did my residency in Cleveland, Ohio, and over four years I didn’t see one patient on meth,” Jones said. “I came here and in my first shift I probably saw four or five patients acutely intoxicated on meth.”
Since 2004, meth lab busts across the country become scarce. In 2018, Missouri drops from the nation’s top 10 list. On the county level, the number of busts and seizures decreases from nearly 200 to just three. What seems like good news, could represent merely a change in meth manufacturing.
“The injuries they’re coming in with are different,” Jones explains. “It used to be that we’d see folks that were making meth at home. We’d see explosions, burns, other traumatic injuries. But now it just seems that they’re acutely intoxicated and they come in with altered mental status.”
In 2010, Missouri enacted legislation to track the sale of drugs used to make meth. That year, the Greene County coroner recorded 7 deaths from the drug. A decade later, that many people died in Greene County just in the first two months of 2020. Though he doesn’t know for sure, Jones hears that meth in the Ozarks could now be coming from south of the border.
“My understanding is that meth production has gone from basements and little hideouts to industrial grade stuff in Mexico and we’re just importing it,” he said.
Data from the county coroner for the last few years suggests meth is more deadly than ever before. In 2017, 30 people died from meth in Greene County. In 2018, 32 people died. And in 2019, the medical examiner reports 67 people, more than double the year before, died from meth in Greene County.
Thankful he lived to tell the story, the thought of rock bottom brings tears to Pickens’ eyes.
“I remember being homeless on the streets of Branson, with nowhere to go, no one to turn to, just absolutely broken,” Pickens said. “All loss of hope, eating out of dumpsters so I wouldn’t be hungry.”
Jones describes death by meth as slow over time. Sometimes that means he treats the same addicts pretty often.
“Unfortunately we know a lot of them on a first name basis,” Jones said. “They know mine; I know theirs.”
From all accounts, the high is euphoric, and the sobering crash back down to earth, painful. That’s why it often takes more than medicine to save a life from addiction.
Tomorrow, KOLR 10’s investigation continues: after addiction, learn how a local program is helping addicts get sober and stay sober.