Meth a Growing Menace in Rural America

Production and Use of Highly Addictive Drug Has Exploded

Graph showing growth in rural meth labs, 1998-2004

In 1998, rural areas nationwide reported 949 meth labs. Last year, 9,385 were reported. This year, 4,589 rural labs had been reported as of July 26. Source: El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), U.S. DEA hide caption

itoggle caption Source: El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), U.S. DEA
Anhydrous ammonia, a popular farm fertilizer, sits in tanks in rural North Dakota

Anhydrous ammonia, a popular farm fertilizer, sits in tanks in rural North Dakota. It's also a main ingredient in the production of methamphetamine. The state recently began a pilot program to put locks on all tanks in order to curb meth manufacturing. Tim Pederson hide caption

itoggle caption Tim Pederson
An abandoned schoolhouse

An abandoned schoolhouse in Williams County, N.D. Abandoned buildings on remote roads have become favorite places for impromptu methamphetamine labs. Anne Hawke, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anne Hawke, NPR

One of the nation's most dangerous drugs is increasingly found in the most unexpected places. The government's latest studies indicate the production and use of methamphetamine — an addictive stimulant also known as speed — is escalating, especially in rural areas.

Meth is made using anhydrous ammonia — also used by farmers for fertilizer. Thefts of anhydrous ammonia storage units have prompted law enforcement officials in some areas to urge farmers to lock their tanks.

Still, meth remains a growing problem in rural America, filling jails, straining police and threatening children and neighbors with exposure to toxic chemicals. It's also severely addictive.

Rural places generally report the highest rates of binge drinking and driving while intoxicated. Some say that suggests a predisposition to substance abuse in rural places — where some young people complain there's not much else to do.

The problem doesn't discriminate by neighborhood, says Marlyce Wilder, an assistant state prosecutor in Williston, N.D., who finds connections to meth in her own community.

"We had a meth lab about three blocks from my house," Wilder says. "Both neighbors on both sides, their families have been touched by methamphetamine, fairly seriously. And, you know, I think I live in a fairly safe neighborhood."

NPR's Howard Berkes and producer Anne Hawke report.

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