LEXINGTON, Neb. - Here in the heart of America's heartland, healthy corn crops, juicy steaks, amiable neighbors and winning Cornhusker football teams are the pleasures that have long kept people happy.
But recently, folks here have experimented with a different pleasure. This one's illegal.
Methamphetamine, a stimulant long prevalent on the East and West coasts, pushed by rogue motorcycle gangs, has become a new pastime. Take a population admired for rural innocence, mix in a powerful, available drug that breeds violence, and the results are stunning.
On farms, housewives are taking the drug for extra energy to finish chores, and their marriages and families are ending up destroyed. Here in Lexington, population 9,000, gang violence is on the rise as members of Mexican cartels descend to meet the drug demand.
Meth-traffickers have been arrested in tiny towns like Dannebrog, with just 320 residents. And in equally small places, police are stumbling upon makeshift labs where people have tried to combine household and agricultural chemicals - often in dangerously toxic mixtures - to manufacture methamphetamine.
"It has overwhelmed us," says Glenn Kemp, an investigator with a Nebraska drug task force. "It wasn't hard to believe when Iowa got a [methamphetamine] problem. Or Kansas or Missouri. But Nebraska? South Dakota? Here's wholesomeness. Well, come to our communities. We're no different from anywhere else, even if we're less populated. Why can't we be the meth capital of the United States?"
It may seem like the nation's most unlikely drug war, but authorities have an explanation for the rise of methamphetamine - which is also known as "meth," "crank" or "speed" and can be smoked, sniffed or injected. Over the past decade, low-skill meat-packing plants have sprouted in small towns, drawing an enormous Hispanic population seeking jobs. Police say their arrival has allowed drug-peddling gangs from Mexico and California to infiltrate farm towns where, a decade ago, they would have stood out.
Meanwhile, recipes for homemade meth have become accessible on the Internet. An important ingredient - anhydrous ammonia - is used by farmers in irrigation and is widely available. Users can steal anhydrous ammonia from farm storage tanks, pick up other ingredients (such as cold medication and lithium batteries) at a convenience store, and cook meth for themselves.
"It was curiosity that made me start," says May, a 36-year-old Nebraska native and recovering user from Lexington who asked that her last name not be used. She says she used to buy meth from a pig farmer who manufactured it himself. Friends were using meth, and May couldn't resist. "They had energy and company all the time," she says. "They were happy and always laughing."
A mother of five, May quit using in January. In February, she was served with a federal indictment on charges of drug distribution. Months earlier, she had put a relative who wanted to sell meth in touch with a buyer in Lexington, not realizing her actions opened her to charges of drug distribution. She expects to escape jail time because she has cooperated with prosecutors.
"I know I've taken a lot of drugs off the street," she says with an air of pride. "But [Lexington] is probably the meth capital of Nebraska. It's in the schools. It's everywhere."
Meth has spread to Spalding, a Greeley County community of 582 residents in the desolate Sandhills region of central Nebraska. The welcome sign says "Spalding Has It! Business and Recreation."
In October, Spalding's part-time police officer and a sheriff's deputy recovered chemicals used to make methamphetamine in a farmhouse. Excited by their discovery - and unaware that trained drug officers use bodysuits and oxygen masks when handling such materials - the officers put the chemicals in their patrol car, took them to the village hall and spread them on a table.
When a special drug enforcement team reached Spalding the next day, it shut down the hall and the town's main street for 14 hours, disposed of the contaminated table, ordered the carpeting scrubbed and told the county attorney to throw away his clothing because he had been standing in the room for too long.
"There are only three officers in our county," says Paul Asche, the sheriff in Greeley County, which includes Spalding. "We sometimes struggle to get the day-to-day stuff done. We don't have resources to spend manpower on drug investigations."
In 1997, authorities in Nebraska uncovered two meth labs in the state. In 1999, they found 38, and they discovered 35 last year. They look at neighboring states and see how the problems can multiply. Iowa officials found 85 labs in 1997, and then 500 in 1999. In Kansas, the number of discovered labs jumped from 99 to 492 in the three-year span.