Editor’s Note: This issue contains articles and related columns about the growing addiction problem facing our state.
NASHVILLE — Tommy Farmer has been dealing in drugs for 17 years. Like anyone involved in drugs, he’s had a lot of lows.
There was the time he got a call about grandparents losing their home because their grandkids had turned the house into a meth lab, making it an uninhabitable biohazard. Then there was the family that unknowingly bought their dream home only to find out it was contaminated as a result of meth production. He recounts one after another. The stories go on and on.
“I can’t tell you the number of calls I’ve received from moms and grandmoms who are just tired and desperate from dealing with this,” he said. “It’s devastating and you just do what you can do from a law enforcement perspective to help them deal with losing their kids or grandkids to addiction, fire and explosions, and everything else that goes along with crystal methamphetamine.”
Drugs — specifically crystal meth — have carved a deep gash across the soul of Tennessee and piled high the human carnage. Farmer has watched from the front row for 17 years where he’s stood opposite an escalating social crisis and tried to stem the rising tide of an escalating industry that is illegal, dangerous, and out of control. As the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s director of the Tennessee Meth & Pharmaceutical Task Force, there is little he hasn’t seen, and almost always it involves human collateral damage that takes the form of death, violence, devastating personal injury, destroyed families — and on the list goes.
Nothing good comes from a drug addiction, and Tennessee has a serious addiction problem.
Addictions come in many forms, but Tennessee’s drug addiction has reached near epidemic proportions. Statistics compiled by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, a 2013 report by the General Accountability Office (GAO) and other sources reveal that the spread of drugs like crystal meth, heroin, and prescription drug abuse is so ubiquitous in the Volunteer State that it is statistically likely that everyone in Tennessee either knows, or is related to, someone dealing with drug addiction.
“It is devastating to look at the numbers and think about the impact to lives and families,” said Randy C. Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. “Addiction of all kinds are serious, but the number of drug users, abusers, and addicts in our state is shocking and should sound an alarm for all of us. This isn’t something we can ignore and expect to just go away.”
How significant is the problem? Tennessee is listed among all states as the second leading producer and consumer of crystal meth behind Indiana, and other reports list Tennessee second in prescription drug abuse. According to TBI director Mark Gwyn, heroin is making a strong run through the state and is rapidly spreading to the urban centers of Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. When it takes off in the larger cities, he said it will create a crisis.
A problem of this magnitude leaves a costly footprint financially and socially, but how big is it really? Farmer said that according to conservative estimates reported by various studies, Tennessee spends $1.6 billion annually dealing with the meth problem alone.
“If we were dealing with just the meth problem and taking down the meth labs across the state, We would still have a substantial challenge,” Farmer said. “We reduced the number of meth labs by 43 percent last year, but the demand for meth is still there. Mexican cartels are producing it and trafficking it into Tennessee along with driving the heroin trade. The problem is stretching our resources, and there is a limit to the resources we have to allocate to fighting the drugs.”
But the drugs and the accompanying addictions aren’t isolated in a vacuum. There is a collateral human toll that ripples through society and to those within Tennessee who have never, and would never, consume illicit drugs. These are the citizens whose taxes support the more than 2,000 children who have been removed from meth lab homes since 2007 and placed in foster care at a cost of nearly $80 million over that time, according to the GAO.
“The devastating element to the removal of these children,” Farmer said, “Is that the majority of them are never reclaimed by a family member and wind up as wards of the state until they are too old to continue in the foster care program.”
The gloomy news continues when one looks at the biohazard meth production creates. Nearly 2,000 homes across the state are quarantined because of meth contamination. More significantly, Farmer said that between 2010 and 2014, one-fourth of all patients seen by Vanderbilt University Hospital’s burn unit were injured in meth lab fires. Most don’t have insurance and are treated at a cost of $10,000 a day.
It is ironic that people associate Tennessee with being the buckle of the Bible Belt. A February 2014 article that appeared in Nashville’s The Tennessean newspaper called the drug problem in Tennessee a “plague,” and labeled Tennessee as the, “Buckle of the meth belt.” Farmer believes the migration to being a state shackled with meth production and addiction can be traced to 1977, when the Food and Drug Administration transitioned drugs containing pseudoephedrine – the primary ingredient in creating crystal meth and a common element in allergy drugs like Sudafed – from being regulated to being over-the-counter and readily accessible.
Recently, Tennessee legislators put some regulations in place to limit the quantities of allergy medicine that can be purchased, however, many officials like Gwyn and Farmer believe the limit was set too low, and that people can still buy large enough quantities to both easily produce crystal meth and traffic the over-the-counter drugs across state lines for production elsewhere.
Lawmakers, many backed by pharmaceutical lobbyists, claim setting an even more stringent limit creates a burden on average people needing allergy medicine. However, research compiled by the TBI and presented to lawmakers on a number of occasions shows that only about 11 percent of the population suffer from allergies that would require these pseudoephedrine-type drugs. According to the GAO report, both Mississippi and Oregon put stiff legislation in place regulating drugs with pseudoephedrine. Oregon returned the medications to “by prescription only” status and has seen a more than 90 percent reduction in meth labs since taking the action in 2006. Mississippi has realized a similar result.
“I believe there are two factors in play that drive the problem in Tennessee and in the United States,” Farmer said. “The first factor is addiction. We have become a nation addicted to medication, both legal and illegal, and it has created a dependency that fuels demand.
“The other factor is greed, both on the part of legitimate drug manufacturers and the traffickers. This is not a problem that law enforcement can solve. There has to be a change in people.”
Davis said it is obvious where that change needs to take place: In the heart.
“It devastates me to think about the number of Tennesseans – friends and family members – who are struggling with addictions of all kinds but especially drug addiction,” he said. “So many destroyed lives and families.
“At the same time this is an opportunity for the people in our churches across the state to move beyond their walls and into their communities to take the good news of Jesus Christ to people whose only hope resides in the gospel.
“We’ve got more than 3.6 million spiritually lost people in Tennessee and so many of them are touched by addiction. I believe this is a perfect opportunity for those of us called by Christ to be salt and light, and be the bearers of Good News,” Davis said.