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WRAL Investigates: Methamphetamine Use On Rise In N.C.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina's fastest growing illegal drug is methampetamine, also known as meth, crystal meth or crank.

Methamphetamine is an addictive stimulant drug that strongly activates certain systems in the brain. The drug has been around for decades, but in the past few years its home-cooked recipes and increasing appeal to women have changed the landscape of the drug trade.

Wanda Thompson and Carmen Chance, inmates of the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women, know firsthand the highly addictive highs of meth.

"You don't really care where it comes from as long as you get it," Thompson said. "I felt superior. I could do anything.

"I can definitely see it being a woman's drug," Chance said.

These women also know the horrific lows of using the drug.

"It just pretty much has destroyed my life," Thompson said.

In 2002, authorities busted close to 100 homemade meth labs in North Carolina -- triple the number of the previous year.

"This is a problem that we didn't go looking for. This is a problem that found North Carolina," said Roy Cooper, N.C. Attorney General.

When WRAL inquired about meth, a room-full of concerned SBI and DEA agents turned out to talk us about the growing drug threat.

"There's not a part of the state that really isn't impacted by this," said an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation.

"We consider this an emergency," said an agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency.

"Safety is obviously one of the greatest concerns," said another DEA agent.

"There's many different danger potentials," said Rob Bailess, DEA special agent. "Not only for the highways, but for the person that's using it and for law enforcement when they're dealing with these violators."

Meth trafficking is still a problem, but instead of heading to the street corner, more and more users and dealers are cooking it up themselves.

The major appeal is accessibility.

Various recipes are available on the Internet and retailers sell meny of the ingredients, like cold medicine, iodine, muriatic acid, match books, anhydrous ammonia -- even embalming fluid.

Chance said she cooked up meth in her bathtub.SBI agents call it "dirty chemistry."

"These people really don't know how to handle them. They don't know the hazards of them," said Deana Koontz, SBI special agent.

The fumes are toxic, flammable -- even explosive. Manufacturers and law officers have been injured by the fumes or fires in homemade labs.

To protect themselves and the public, the SBI has outfitted a $100,000 truck and a trailer with special safety suits, breathing apparatus and detection equipment. The truck is used specifically for responding to meth labs.

Aside from the dangers and time it takes law enforcement find the operations and to analyze evidence, there is another cost. Taxpayers pay an average of $10,000 to clean up the labs, each considered a hazardous waste site.

Then there is the personal toll.

"My drugs were more important than my children at the time," Thompson said.

Thompson has lost custody of her four children and is currently serving a 6- to 8-year sentence for robbing a Wake County tanning salon with a knife.

Thompson said she needed drug money. She said she often took her children to drug houses, then abandoned them. When reality caught up to her, Thompson said she tried to kill herself.

"The sad part about it is having your children standing there at the bed looking over you crying, 'Mama, why are you doing this?" she said.

"Feeding the children becomes second to the drug. Maintaining the children's health becones second to the drug. It's a very tragic situation," said Van Shaw of the SBI.

Agents said, because of meth, tragic situations like that play out more and more

Thompson and Chance are getting help behind bars, but they will always live with the consequences of their addiction.

So far this year, authorities have raided 19 meth labs across N.C. They warn the state is on track to double last year's number of lab busts.

In the past two weeks, a firefighter and a baby were hospitalized for breathing in meth fumes in Watauga County.