Griggers member of new methamphetamine task force

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Few of Alabama’s law-abiding residents have any idea what the drug methamphetamine looks like, smells like, does to those addicted to it, or even how its name is pronounced. But that hasn’t stopped “crystal meth” from quietly becoming the state’s number-one drug threat, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Now state Attorney General Troy King is fighting back against the drug, and local District Attorney Greg Griggers has agreed to do his part by serving on King’s new Methamphetamine Task Force.

“I was honored to be asked to serve on the Task Force,” he says. “The group the AG has put together has vast experience in dealing with the problem. If any group would have a chance at putting something together that would make a difference, this is it. I’m excited about doing something to help.”

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One of King’s driving motivations behind the Task Force is to protect the many children who are suffering at the hands of meth-addicted and meth-producing parents.

“It is especially heartbreaking to see the devastation inflicted on innocent children who are under the complete control of parents and adults who put them in extreme danger,” King said in a public statement. “These children suffer a variety of health and safety risks, including inhalation, absorption, and ingestion of toxins, drugs, or contaminated foods that can cause injury and, in some cases, death.”

The number of children placed into foster care has skyrocketed in counties hardest hit by the spread of meth. Jackson County has experienced a 243 percent increase in foster children in only four years. Griggers says helping these children is a worthy priority for the Task Force.

“One thing the task force is trying to do is establish a statewide protocol for helping the displaced children,” he says. “Not only are children being raised by parents who are addicted to the drug, but they’re being raised in houses where the drugs are being cooked, where they’re affected by the toxic substances used in the cooking process.”

As a District Attorney, Griggers is volunteering his time with the prosecutorial sub-committee of the Task Force, whose job it is to examine the laws that deal with methamphetamine and its abusers and how best to apply them.

“What we’re trying to do is devise a plan that will address what we can do when we get meth cases in court,” he says. “We’re trying to devise statutes that, if we can get them passed, might help.”

One vital statute would work to disrupt meth producers’ supply of ingredients. Meth is created from a cocktail of common household chemicals, but one key ingredient is pseudoephedrine, a compound found in many over-the-counter cold remedies, such as Sudafed. Griggers says the Task Force will push hard for legislation requiring retailers to limit access to these products.

“Wal-Mart and others have graciously agreed to move these products behind the counter, but we need something on the books,” he says. “Everybody around us has a statute: Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia. Alabama is becoming a home for it because it’s so much easier to get access to the ingredients.”

The lack of a behind-the-counter statute is only one of a number of problems that have conspired to make the job ahead of the Task Force extremely daunting, Griggers says.

“The biggest problem in combating this is that not only is it in existence, but it’s rampant. We’re already starting out behind the 8-ball on this,” he says. “It’s easy and cheap to make. It’s cheaper than crack and offers a much longer high, up to 3 to 5 hours. This is why it’s so attractive to the drug community and why so many users prefer it.”

While Griggers says that his judicial circuit–which includes Marengo, Sumter, and Greene counties–has not yet suffered from a large-scale meth problem, he worries that “it may just be a matter of time” before meth pushers begin infiltrating the area.

“It’s so prevalent around our area. It’s to the north, east, and south of us,” he says. “Sooner or later, we’re going to have a problem. It’s going to get worse before it gets better…and once we get it, we’re not going to be able to get rid of it.

“This is one of those problems you could correctly define as a crisis,” he says. “We’re lucky that we’re still at this stage, at the threshold of getting the drug into our area. We’re not in the kind of crisis like some areas that are overrun with these labs, but we’re at that crisis point where we might could do something to curtail or hold back the problem when it may just be fixing to explode.”

In addition to the difficulties caused by the drug’s low cost, its rampant spread, and Alabama’s weaker statutes, Griggers says efforts are hampered as well by the state’s overcrowded prison system, which frequently releases drug offenders after only a brief stay in jail or none at all. Since the lack of a chemical treatment means there is only a “slim chance of rehabilitation” for meth addicts, according to Griggers, upon release nearly all meth offenders go back to producing and abusing the drug.

“We know they will not stay in very long, which lends itself to the problem. It’s a scary deal,” Griggers says. “When you think about it full circle, it almost looks insurmountable. Right now, we do not have the necessary tools to combat the problem.”

One of those tools is money, and Griggers admits that those working to produce and sell meth have more of it than law enforcement does. That makes it all the more important, he says, for local residents to get involved in the fight against the drug. Those efforts are especially needed in the remote, rural areas where meth labs are usually found.

“It makes it a whole lot harder,” Griggers says of the labs’ rural locations. “Everybody’s short on manpower, from the state to the Marengo County Sheriff’s Department to local law enforcement. The labs pop up in very rural places, and law enforcement don’t spend a lot of time in those areas and the labs can go undetected. That’s why we need help from the people living in these communities. People often migrate in to cook the stuff. Whenever anyone sees something unusual– strange people, the smell of the chemicals involved, anything–they should tip law enforcement so they can investigate and see if someone’s making meth.

“It’s a problem everybody needs to be aware of…What it is, how bad it is, that we need people to contact law enforcement if they’re aware of suspicious behavior in their area,” he says. “We need to create more awareness across the state and in my three counties. If people come forward, that makes law enforcement’s job a lot easier. But most people are ill-informed about meth. Even if they saw the signs, they wouldn’t know what they’re seeing. That’s one good thing about the Task Force, the education of the general public.”

With further education, Griggers also hopes to limit the number of people willing to experiment with meth and drive down the demand for the drug.

It would be “a huge accomplishment” for the state to reduce the demand for the drug down to only those people willing to put in the effort to produce it.

But as King points out in his statement, given the drug’s already strong foothold in the state, that day may be a long way off.

“The gaining popularity of methamphetamine abuse in small towns and communities is directly responsible for the increase in thefts, violent assaults, and burglaries,” he says. “Methamphetamines are a plague that is spreading across our state. No community, large or small, is safe from them or the destruction they bring with them.”