Until five or six years ago, Kent Graham, a narcotics investigator from Nacogdoches County, could count on finding one or two methamphetamine labs a year. Now, strangers stop Graham at the grocery store or take him aside at Wal-Mart—one man even approached him when he was hunting ducks—to tell him about the neighbors who are making homemade speed or the house down the street where it is being sold. Since 1999, while assigned to the Deep East Texas Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force, Graham has tracked down more than 350 meth labs in the Piney Woods. He has found meth ingredients in motel rooms, car trunks, mobile homes, suitcases, sheds, toolboxes, and clearings in the woods. Some labs have been sophisticated operations equipped with professional-grade glassware and surveillance systems; others have had just a hot plate, a couple of Pyrex bowls, and ingredients bought at the hardware store. “Pretty much any place you can think of, someone has cooked dope there,” he said. “It gets so bad that I’ll tell my partner, ‘Well, I’m not on meth, and you’re not on meth. So that’s two of us.’”
One afternoon in March, Graham and I climbed into his pickup and drove to an unincorporated community on the banks of the Angelina River, the first of many places he would show me where meth has taken root. It was one of the early days of spring, and the red-clay soil and blue sky spread out before us. Graham turned off of U.S. 59 and steered toward the river, down county roads where the pines grew so densely that the afternoon looked as if it had turned to dusk. Graham, who is 38, works in plainclothes; that day, he was wearing his usual faded blue jeans, a T-shirt, and a beat-up ball cap pulled down over his longish, sandy hair. His stories usually involve a hunting feat—shooting a ten-point buck that he came upon unexpectedly or stopping a wild boar in its tracks—but as he drove, he talked about meth. “All along this river, you have the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of bootleggers and moonshiners,” he said. “In the old days, they made their own whiskey. Now it’s meth. Sometimes the whole family is cooking dope.”
Graham drove farther into the woods, until the roads began to dead-end. “Meth is the most destructive thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. Part of its allure in a region hit hard by unemployment is that its high comes cheap: Twenty-five dollars buys a dose, or about a quarter of a gram, that lasts for a full twelve hours. The initial euphoria gives way to an exhilarating surge of energy, making people feel powerful, self-assured, and capable of doing anything—“like Superman,” said one former user. That has a deep pull in a place where logging jobs have become scarce and paper mills have shut their doors. Its wreckage was all around us as Graham drove toward the river; we were less than two hours north of Houston, but the ruined landscape seemed to have no point of reference. We passed burned-out trailers and “No Trespassing” signs and clotheslines that sagged with laundry. Yards were strewn with trash; the hulls of junked cars sat rusting in the weeds. Every so often, Graham would point out his window. “There was a meth lab here … and in that trailer … and in that house over there,” he would say, gesturing toward an abandoned building or a double-wide whose windows were covered with blankets.
When he could go no farther, Graham turned around, and we headed back to Nacogdoches, where an investigation waited for him. Jessie Wolf, Tyler County’s newly elected sheriff, had recently called Graham about a suspected meth lab, and Graham needed to pay him a visit. Wolf was in a bind; he had only two deputies patrolling the entire county at any given time, and no one on his payroll knew much about investigating meth labs. Graham and his partner, Kim Courtney, went to see Wolf in his office in Woodville, about seventy miles south of Nacogdoches. “We’ve got some folks down in Spurger who are selling meth out of a house right in the middle of town,” Wolf told them. “It’s an old farmhouse, around the corner from the Baptist church.” He added that an infant had died in its sleep there a few months earlier, of natural causes. He had no other information except the name of the man in Spurger who had first called the sheriff’s department to report suspicious behavior around the house. “See what you can do,” Wolf said.
METHAMPHETAMINE IS EASY ENOUGH TO MAKE that a fifteen-year-old boy from the East Texas town of Center, who had never taken a day of high school chemistry, told me in less than five minutes exactly how to cook it. The ingredients run about $100, and most of them can be found at Wal-Mart. Cooking “old dope,” or the speed that was used a generation ago, took skill; it required a basic understanding of chemistry, professional-grade lab equipment, and some land out in the country where the strong cooking odor it produced would not attract attention. When its key ingredient, phenyl-2-propanone, became harder to buy after a federal law was passed in the late eighties, speed cooks invented an easier process that relied instead on ephedrine, the active ingredient in non-drowsy cold medicine. Rather than needing days, the new method took three hours and gave off a less acrid smell; the only complication was that the process used highly flammable ingredients and often sparked fires. It first became popular in the Midwest, then migrated down to North Texas and the Panhandle before making inroads in East Texas in the late nineties. Techniques vary from region to region, but most meth cooks in the Piney Woods use what is called the “red phosphorus method.” All it requires are some pH strips, Pyrex bowls, coffee filters, a hot plate, matchbooks, and six main ingredients: Sudafed, Drano, paint thinner, acetone, muriatic acid,