The Rise of Nazi Dope
Stanley Harris trundles up to meet me in an oily old truck that spits out a trail of exhaust fumes. I’m staying at a local “meth motel,” one of a string of fifty-dollar-a-night establishments arranged along a neon corridor on Glenstone Avenue, on the northern edge of town. The motels are often frequented by methamphetamine manufacturers, so-called cooks, who sign in under false names and pay in cash, then go up to their rooms where they cover the door cracks with wet towels to mask the smell and then they start making the drug. Harris is here to show me some of the sights and give me a tour of some of the local meth landmarks.
“I used to sell meth out of that motel across the street.” He points to another hostelry on the other side of the highway, one slightly swankier than the threadbare place where I’m staying.
Harris is a walking meth history lesson, living proof that sometimes speed doesn’t kill. A roofer by trade, he’s only forty-six, but he’s been shooting up methamphetamine for thirty-five-years, ever since at the age of eleven he eased a spike into his arm in the school playground while trying to impress an older crowd of boys.
“I was real scared at first,” he says in a raspy country accent, sounding as if his vocal chords have been rubbed raw by sandpaper. “But after I did it I felt like I was on top of the world.”
In the following three and a half decades, Harris shot up meth when he was happy and he shot up meth when he was sad. He shot up even when yellow puss was oozing from gangrenous holes in his arms and his doctors told him if he didn’t stop injecting himself they might have to amputate them. He continued to shoot up after twice flatlining during heart attacks. He spent half a lifetime pumping gram after gram of methamphetamine into his veins, in the process creating chaos in the lives of everybody he loved. But six months before I met him in early December 2005, Stanley Harris quit.
Harris is a stocky man with graying hair and big black circles ringing his eyes that give him the appearance of a demented panda bear. His big, hairy, tattooed arms resemble gnarled and rotted-out tree trunks. A hyperactive chatterbox, when he speaks the words come flooding out of his mouth accompanied by a barrage of facial ticks and herky-jerky hand gestures. When he does pause for a moment, he doesn’t so much take a breath as wheeze like a puff of wind.
Even though at the time I spoke to him he had just pled guilty to drug manufacturing and distribution charges and was facing life in state prison as a persistent offender, Harris was a happy man.
“I’m real happy because thanks to Jesus I’m not a servant to meth anymore.” He smiles, revealing a dental disaster zone. Harris doesn’t have bad teeth, he has practically no teeth; some of them he lost in bar fights and motorcycle accidents, he says, but most of them fell out because of his meth habit.
As world-class dope habits go, Stanley’s was a monster. At the height of his addiction, he was shooting an eight ball (an eighth of an ounce) of meth a day. But in early 2005, Harris finally hit rock bottom. He’d tried to kick the drug a number of times, but within hours of completing a treatment program he’d shoot up again. He was on parole and had already given two dirty urine samples. He was sure he was headed back to jail. It was then he decided that he was going to go on one last binge and either kill himself or let the police do the job. On his fourteenth day without sleep, Harris collapsed and was admitted to Sigma House, a local treatment center. After detoxing for a couple of days, an Alcoholics Anonymous counselor came to see him and they had a conversation about God that awoke long-dormant religious feelings in Harris.
“I used to hate Jesus Christ,” says Harris, who as an impressionable teenager was so influenced by the movie The Exorcist that he used to get down on his knees and pray to Satan. “I thought he was a pussy. What had he ever done for Stanley? But by this point I was ready for something to work in my life because if it don’t work, I might as well blow my head off.”
Missourians have been mainlining methamphetamine since the 1950s. In a 1959 article, Time magazine reported about a new drug craze among some Kansas City, Missouri, high school students who had learned how to extract and then inject the methamphetamine contained in Valo inhalers, which could be bought at the time in local drug stores for seventy-five cents apiece. The magazine highlighted the case of Gary A. Hamilton, aged twenty-two, who was arrested after ordering tea at a lunch counter, pouring the hot water into an inhaler, and then taking pictures of himself in an automatic photo booth injecting the liquid into his arm.
A Kansas City narcotics detective was quoted as saying: “There are at least two hundred known users in the city, and at least twice as many that we don’t know about.”
Meth in Missouri isn’t a new phenomenon, then, but a persistent and entrenched problem that has been around for decades. But something happened in the Ozarks in the early 1990s, something that dramatically changed the local meth landscape and turned a manageable problem into a genuine crisis, something that by the end of the decade had transformed the southwest corner of the state into a meth-manufacturing Mecca.
To call Missouri the meth lab capital of America is a little misleading. The phrase “meth laboratory” summons up images of foaming beakers, flaming Bunsen burners, and bubbling three-necked flasks, the sort of elaborate glassware and equipment found commonly at so-called superlab sites in California and Mexico. While it’s true that Missouri has reported more “meth lab incidents”—a catchall phrase that includes not just working labs but also abandoned labs, stockpiles of ingredients, and chemical dump sites—than any other state for four years in a row (2002–2005), most of the labs seized are what the Drug Enforcement Administration calls STLs (small toxic labs): do-it-yourself operations that employ everyday household items like coffee filters, plastic bottles, Pyrex dishes, and liquid blenders to produce small amounts of the drug. To an outsider who stumbles across one, these so-called mom-and-pop labs would seem like little more than a messy garage or an untidy garden shed.
A better way to describe Missouri would be to call it the kitchen chemistry capital of the United States, a place that in the mid-1990s saw an extraordinary fivefold increase in the number of hobbyists churning out homemade meth, a phenomenon comparable to the heyday of moonshining during Prohibition and an illicit drug manufacturing boom that is only now beginning to subside. In 1992, local authorities raided nineteen meth labs in the Ozarks and the DEA raided only two in the entire state. By 2004, there were more than 2,800 meth lab incidents—that’s roughly one meth lab for every two thousand Missourians. While the State Highway Patrol reported a 44 percent decrease in meth lab busts in the last six months of 2005, a drop largely credited to a new state law making it harder for local cooks to acquire the supplies of pseudoephedrine-containing cold medicines they need to make the drug, it