The old yellow tape on Hazelwood Road: Meth houses remain long after meth makers leave

Traveling down Hazelwood Road, northwest of downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, leaves fall and crunch under slow moving tires. Yellow and red rain down, refusing to let the notion of Fall leave the mind.

The season seems welcomed by many residents. They dawn seasonal pumpkins, ghouls and warning signs of the faux undead across their lawns.

But to Molly Franklin, as the leaves fall and the bushes die, an affliction that was once hidden by the summer green, is now exposed again by old yellow tape.

Her neighboring home is a quarantined meth lab.

“It was around 10 in the morning when the shouting started,” Franklin said. “I’ve lived here for 28 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The shouting drew her attention to the window where 10 police vehicles surrounded the home beside her. Her neighbors, a man and a woman, were being led to a car in handcuffs. What followed still haunts her to this day.

“The children,” Franklin said. “It was so hard to see…”

Wiping her eyes with shaking hands, she is unable to continue her recollection. But she is reminded everyday of what she witnessed. While the summer months did provide some cover, Fall has exposed the memories of a home and a family she once knew.

“I used to love this season,” Franklin said. “But now it just shows that old yellow tape that won’t let me forget.”

Driving up to the quarantined property would give no indication of an issue. Hazelwood Road offers a depiction of the typical suburban neighborhood. Homes painted in neutral whites and browns. Middle class families looking to achieve the American dream.

But as the home comes more into view, the eye immediately grabs that old yellow tape.

POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS. POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS. POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS.

Behind that tape sits a two-story home, white with green shutters. Mirroring its neighborhood style, there’s little that stands out. That is, until the old yellow tape.

A grey sedan remains untouched in the driveway. A thick layer of tree sap clouds the windows. The front door of the home bears a large yellow paper explaining the details of the quarantine.

“Sometimes I just want to go rip it [the old yellow tape] down,” Franklin said chuckling. “But I’d probably be joining them [her neighbors] in jail.”

Her assumptions mesh with the current Tennessee law. According to Chris Andel, Tennessee Department of Environmental Conservation Remediation Division director, it is illegal to tamper with a quarantined property until it has been decontaminated by a certified contractor.

“To deem a property safe, it must go through the necessary steps before the quarantine can be lifted,” Andel said. “If the steps aren’t followed, no one is getting into that house.”

The steps are as daunting as the old yellow tape. The property owner must contact a certified methamphetamine remediation contractor. The contractor will survey the property and determine the work to be done.

Once a price is agreed on and paid, the contractor’s team enters the property to begin decontamination. After an extensive clean, a hygienist is called to verify that the property is cleaned to standards. If not, the process repeats.

While certified contractors are readily available, there is no requirement to use them. The old yellow tape can stay there forever.

“There are currently no laws that require the owner of a contaminated property to have it cleaned,” Andel said. “No fines or penalties; no incentive to pay for the services.”

Franklin is no stranger to this news. Several calls to city and county officials have left her feeling that the old yellow tape may never come down.

She is left to start the day watching the wind blowing the tape, taunting waves and teasing its existence.

“I guess I’m just left to deal with it,” Franklin said. She jokingly added, “Maybe I’ll add a new color to my house to get some attention away from next door.”

Anything but yellow.

One step at a time: Former drug user becomes counselor

One in 10. That’s the number of individuals who successfully complete a drug rehabilitation program without relapse. But that single digit is more than just a number. It is a role model, an educator, a counselor and a friend. A person, Zach Newton.

His day begins like many citizens of Knoxville, Tennessee. Traveling to work on congested highways, sometimes stopping at the nearest gas station for an energy drink to start the day.

Pulling into the parking lot, Newton is met with a rare feeling.

“I feel a sense of home when I come to work,” Newton said. “That’s not something everyone can say.”

Zach Newton is a drug rehabilitation counselor with the Steps House program in Knoxville. The program is designed to provide services to those struggling with addiction and homelessness.

Newton has spent the last three-and-a-half years helping everyone he meets with the goal of recovery.

For a counselor, a typical day might consist of group therapy, one-on-one sessions, job searching or legal help. However, for Newton, the role is much more.

“I relate with them [clients] on their level,” Newton said. “I try to show them the love that they haven’t seen in a long time.”

That relationship is something that seems to come natural for Newton. He credits this success as a counselor to “experience on the other side.”

Newton is a former drug addict.

“This place was once my literal home,” Newton said. “Now I’m five years in recovery.”

Typically, an individual will describe their addiction treatment as the process of going through recovery. However, Newton’s recovery extends much further. It is a constant reminder of the progress and the drive to continue in a positive direction.

“For me, recovery doesn’t end when you complete the program,” Newton said. “It’s a mental state and a lifelong process.”

Life prior to entering Steps House paved a difficult path. A family disconnect and moving from his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, to Knoxville, left Newton feeding more into his addiction.

Finally, a turning point came with blue light and handcuffs, as Newton was arrested for illegal drug possession.

“It was eye opening,” Newton said. “I knew that it was not the place I wanted to be and never wanted to go back.”

Following his time in jail, Newton entered the drug rehabilitation program through Steps House. Like many addicts, Newton succumbed to relapse and did not complete the program. However, the old habits never felt the same.

“I relapsed,” Newton said. “But the time I was with Steps House stuck with me. It made me want to go back.”

Steps House again welcomed Newton for a second time. He spent 10 months as a client to successfully graduate the program. After graduation, he was met with a job offer.

Now, five years later, it’s time to give back.

“I almost feel like it’s [counseling] a calling,” Newton said. “I do it because someone did if for me.”

As Newton continues to move forward in his recovery, every day he faces a new challenge as counselor. As more methamphetamine related arrests happen in Knoxville, more individuals seek rehabilitation. However, success is never guaranteed.

“Methamphetamine addicts coming into our program are steadily rising,” Newton said. “It’s frustrating to see these individuals getting arrested over and over again after leaving our program.”

But that frustration is easily replaced with what Newton describes as the reason he is proud to be a part of this program.

“Just seeing one person make it through like I did makes it all worth it,” Newton said. “It’s why I do what I do.”

Today, Newton reflects on his past, describing the difference between now and then as the difference between night and day. He has mended the relationship with his family and developed a solid support group to thanks to the Steps House.

“Part of recovery is having like-minded people in your life” Newton said. “I’ve seen tremendous growth in my life, but I still try to stay humble.”

Newton carries this mindset with him throughout his duties as a counselor. Aside from daily programs within Steps House, clients are treated to outside activities, like bowling, where they can freely interact with one another.

As the days progress into weeks, months and years, Newton no longer sees his life as a countdown, but a single step forward. Through the challenges he has faced, two words solidify where and who he is today.

“I’m happy.”

A Complicated Meth: Pharmacy regulations confusing, unhelpful in battle against methamphetamine

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]In the United States, nearly 50 million people suffer from nasal allergies. Waking up to a congested nose is an experience many Americans understand.

East Tennessee resident Nancy Blackwell is among that group. Suffering from allergies since she was a child, Blackwell has depended on relief from one particular drug.

“Sudafed is the only thing that works for me,” Blackwell said.

Looking for relief, she often finds herself headed to the nearest pharmacy. Although she is no stranger to the usual “behind the counter” routine, Blackwell recalls a time where she felt having allergies was “almost a crime.”

“I always stocked up on Sudafed,” Blackwell said. “But one day that labeled me as a criminal.”

She entered her local pharmacy, only to find that the Sudafed was not in its usual spot. Upon asking a clerk for help, she was directed to the pharmacy.

“I walked up to the pharmacist and told her what I wanted,” Blackwell said.

The next thing she knew, her driver’s license was being logged into a computer data base, questions on her use of Sudafed and her condition were demanded and a feeling of criminal intent surrounded her.

“I understand why they do it,” Blackwell said. “But I’m no criminal. I just want some relief.”

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Blackwell’s story resonates with many who suffer from severe allergies. Today, pharmacies are required to verify identification from the buyer of any product containing pseudoephedrine and to answer two questions.

Do you have high blood pressure? What is your intended use?

If answered correctly, the pharmacist will ensure that the buyer has not purchased their legal limit within the past 30 days. After the buyer is screened, questioned and booked, they are free to leave with their drug of choice.

These laws were put into effect in Tennessee in 2005. The regulations stemmed from an epidemic that has plagued the state, as well as the country, for years.

Reason for implementation: hinder and ultimately stop the illegal production of methamphetamine.

Efforts to control the sale of pseudoephedrine date back to 1986. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) introduced legislation that would make the drug a controlled substance. Under this label, individuals would need to present a prescription to purchase.

Consumers complained. Lobbyists fought the change. Ultimately, the legislature denied the label change and continued the approval of over-the-counter sales.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s Danger Drug Task Force Director Tom Farmer recounts the sudden restrictions in the law and the impact it has had on the country since.

“Law enforcement across the country were asking ‘What are you [legislators] doing’?,” Farmer said. “We knew then that this was going to be a huge problem.”

Farmer’s prediction would come true. Since the initial denial, DEA has reported an increase in the amount of methamphetamine seizures. In 1986, 234 kilograms of methamphetamine were seized, compared to 2,946 kilograms in 2014 in the United states.

After 20 years in law enforcement, Farmer has seen these statistics play out first hand, watching meth users and manufacturers repeatedly getting arrested, to nearly losing their lives in explosions, only to return to their illegal practices.

Frustrated, overwhelmed and over budget in his enforcement efforts, Farmer has shifted his attention from this constant cycle. His theory, summed up in just a few words, may be the key in solving Tennessee’s meth problem.

“You stop the sale of pseudoephedrine,” Farmer said. “You stop the meth.”

Though frustrating, there has been progress in diverting sales of pseudoephedrine. Nancy Blackwell’s experience on a stuffy Spring morning was the result of the Tennessee Meth Act of 2005. This law required all businesses that sold products containing pseudoephedrine to log and track each sale.

The law also limited the amount a consumer could purchase within a 30-day period. This new tracking database would work two-fold in providing businesses with the means of knowing who they can and cannot sell to, as well as providing law enforcement information on repeat buyers, which might help in tracking down meth makers.

Generally, the tracking system has worked as intended. However, just as bacteria react to antibiotics, drug abusers have begun to adapt to and overcome their new obstacle.

Farmer’s agency began seeing a steady increase in meth production across the state, but no pharmacy data to support it. During lab seizures, boxes of pseudoephedrine were always found in the area. But when referencing the suspects to the tracking system, little to no information was provided.

A new type of criminal emerging. The most common name: smurf.

“We found that our suspects were picking up random people, often homeless off the street,” Farmer said. “They’d drop them off to different pharmacies to buy the pseudo for them.”

“Keep the change” was the smurf’s motivation. Their only job was to buy as much pseudoephedrine as they could with the money that was provided. If there was change left over, their services were paid from that.

A pharmacist in East Tennessee, who has been in the industry for nearly two decades, has had their share of suspicious customers. To protect their identity, the pharmacist chose to speak under the condition of anonymity. We’ll call this pharmacist Miller.

Miller recalls the sales of pseudoephedrine products a “battle between job and ethics.”

When a person suspected of drug abuse seeks to purchase the product, they are met with the same process as any other customer. However, Miller’s moral judgment has provided different tactics.

“There’s been times that I’ve hidden the medicine,” Miller said. “If I see the same people come in to buy Sudafed, I’ll just tell them we’re out of stock.”

Though admirable, these morals do not coincide with standard business practices. Company executives require their pharmacists to sell the product that the customer requests, in accordance with current laws.

“If they have a valid ID and are not over their sale limit, we’re required to provide the product,” Miller said. “Professional judgement is allowed, but not beyond the scope of the law.”

Following current law, pharmacies across the state continue to sell pseudoephedrine to individuals meeting their legal limit. As new entries are put into the system, tracking becomes more difficult than ever.

Smurfing was the new enemy.

“This changed everything,” Farmer said. “How could we possibly track a system like this?”

Determined to kill the root of the meth epidemic, Farmer’s theory of sale prevention never left his mind. It was more apparent that current regulations were not enough. Farmer has since shifted his focus to lobbyists in Washington D.C., hoping to enact the legislation that was struck down in 1986.

The battle has moved from meth labs, drug abusers and smurfs, to federal buildings, legislators and lawyers. However, several attempts by Farmer’s agency to require pseudoephedrine to be labeled as a scheduled narcotic have failed.

“The benefit outweighs the harm” of pseudoephedrine, legislators argue. After all, 50 million people are suspected of suffering from nasal allergies.

Farmer argues that, while he does not deny the need for pseudoephedrine, multiple alternatives are designed to be just as effective.

“There’s no cure for the common cold,” Farmer said. “But pseudo is not the only relief. There are safer options out there, but those won’t line the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies.”

One of these options is a form of pseudoephedrine that cannot produce meth. A brand titled, “Nexefed” claims to produce the same results as Sudafed, without the chemical properties that allow meth production.

Miller has used this brand as an additional tactic to curb drug abusers. However, price tends to be the deciding factor.

“I wish Nexefed was the only option,” Miller said. “But when you compare the price to regular Sudafed, there’s no contest. Sudafed is always the better deal.”

As the war against methamphetamine continues to grow across Tennessee, soldiers like Farmer and Miller are left only with the powers they are granted. Met with opposition, they find their efforts against meth hindered by powers beyond their control.

Those powers revolve around pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists in Washington D.C. with a common goal expected of all businesses: money. However, this goal is gripping the state of Tennessee, as well as the nation, in an epidemic that’s losing the grip from those trying to combat it.

Farmer vows to not give up. Now facing imports of methamphetamine from other countries, his efforts grow more challenging every day.

“I will keep making the calls, taking the trips, writing the letters, until I’m relieved of my duties or dead,” Farmer said. “I took my oath many years ago to protect and serve and I’m not about to slow down now.”

After 31 years of combative efforts, Farmer’s progressive nature will be put to the test. As the United States faces threats and challenges across the globe, an internal war has been waging over three decades.

“I don’t know where it will all go from here,” Famer said, “but I hope I live to see the end of it.”

Don’t we all.