Dying for Crystal

Dying for Crystal
Jackson County Sheriff Jim Bishop has had to bust people close to him. "But you can't turn a blind eye to this problem," he says, "just because it's a dear friend."
Eric Larson

02/02/2004 AT 12:00 PM EST

Not long ago, Sheriff Jim Bishop's jail often looked and sounded like something out of the old Andy Griffith Show. The total population might be a few small-time crooks and some local drunks snoring it off. Not anymore. Now, the screams coming from the 28-cell lockup can sound like a bad day at a medieval madhouse. "They'll see snakes and spiders crawling on them," he says of the methamphetamine users who make up most of the jail's mushrooming population. "Then they'll have excruciating toothaches because the drug has rotted their teeth." As the meth has ripped through Jackson County, Ark. – where, a state drug-task-force official estimates, a remarkable 30 percent of adults are users – the sheriff believes he has seen a preview of what could happen across the country. "This drug," he says, "is a plague."

Indeed, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, what's happening in Jackson County is happening in hundreds of rural communities from Florida to the Rockies. And what's happening in Jackson – a 630-square-mile area with a population of 18,000 – is eye-popping: Bishop has had to arrest friends and has seen one of his own family members busted. On one recent day, of the 44 prisoners housed in his jail, 30 were there on meth-related charges. Staffers at a center for drug-addicted mothers in central Arkansas report that before 2000, less than 4 percent of their patients were on meth; now more than half of them are. At a time when crime is falling in many places around the country, over the past 10 years felonies are up 33 percent in the area encompassing Jackson County. Even more alarming is that meth use seems to be spreading throughout the nation. Although it has been around for decades, and was long considered the drug of choice for poor rural whites, it has now "invaded all classes of society," says Arkansas Republican Rep. John Boozman. "Doctors, lawyers and professionals are just as affected. It's as addictive a drug as anything out there."

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