Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. $12 for 12 weeks.

Lake County's dark woods hide scourge of meth

They are some of the tiniest towns in rural Lake County, yet outposts such as Paisley, Lake Mack and Altoona — towns that rim the Ocala National Forest — are ground zero for a deepening problem.

Slowly but surely, Lake County has become Central Florida's king of meth.

Rarely does a week go by when the Lake County Sheriff's Office does not break up a meth lab: 45 have been dismantled so far this year, nearly double the number broken up by any nearby county.

By contrast, Lake deputies dealt with 24 such makeshift drug operations in 2008.

Dealing with methamphetamine and its makers has not merely fallen to law enforcement but also to substance-abuse services, to churches, to 12-step programs and, more directly, to families.

"I don't believe anybody wants to be a junkie," said Angela Ferguson, a recovering meth addict who experienced the perils of the easy-to-find drug and the dark nature of the meth community's underbelly in Lake.

"I became everything that I didn't want to be."

Ferguson, 38, got caught up with a meth-using crowd in Ocala National Forest. She has been a drug user most of her adult life, abusing everything from pain pills to crack cocaine. But it was after she moved to one of Central Florida's most remote and rural pockets — Ocklawaha — that she found no shortage of her drug of choice.

There and in other remote parts of Lake and Marion counties, Ferguson found a group of people whose lives were consumed by meth. She used the drug and later learned how to make it to feed her addiction.

Controlling meth has become such a priority in Lake that Sheriff's Office Capt. Gerry Montalvo has appointed a sergeant and four detectives to full-time assignments on a Methamphetamine Enforcement Team.

The powdery, injectable drug "seems to be what crack was once upon a time," said Derek Williams, a probation officer with the state Department of Corrections, who works in Lake. "I'm seeing young people, old people, people with lots of money, people with no money. It seems so pervasive at this point."

From crack to methMeth's appeal is easy to understand. It's cheap. It's easy to make. And avoiding detection can be easy.

Those factors plus the relative availability of its ingredients have contributed to the drug's escalating popularity in Central Florida as well as sections of Tennessee, Georgia and Missouri, Montalvo said.

Meth is usually homemade rather than imported, so meth users often avoid getting caught by police or ripped off by dealers, experts say.

The drug is manufactured with legal, over-the-counter products.

"They can just make a drug that is as potent — maybe more potent — than crack cocaine in the privacy of their homes, motel rooms, et cetera," Montalvo said. "Some of the addicts that were typically hooked on crack are now switching to meth."

Once they start using the drug, it's extremely hard to kick the habit.

Methamphetamine causes a release of dopamine in the brain, creating an intense euphoric sensation. But a "crash" often follows this rush, prompting more meth use and eventually "difficulty feeling any pleasure at all, especially from natural rewards," according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Beyond addiction, NIDA lists violent behavior, anxiety, psychotic episodes and cardiovascular problems as some of the drug's physical and psychiatric effects.

"The intensity of the pleasure and the effect of the drug on the reward system of the brain is more than five times that of cocaine," said Karen Rogers, the Substance Abuse and Outpatient Services Director at Lifestream Behavioral Center in Leesburg.

Rogers said one counselor at Lifestream could recall only two users during a five-year period who were able to stay clean of meth while they were in treatment.

"Repeated use is the way the abuser seeks to re-experience the rush and the high, but because the brain chemicals are being depleted, they have difficulty getting that experience," Rogers said. "This then leads to more use."

'Success story'Meth's addictive properties have created a demand, especially in Lake County.

Out of about 57 people arrested in Lake on meth-related charges this year, 40 were men and 17 were women. Their average age was a bit older than 34. More than half had no employment listed on their arrest reports. All were white.

Other counties, such as Polk and Volusia, have seen dramatic year-over-year increases in meth-lab seizures, while some, such as Seminole, have seen virtually no activity.

Locally, treatment experts say meth is not the kind of drug wealthy suburban kids or inner-city folks find appealing. It is much more prevalent in places far removed from Orlando's club scene and South Orange Blossom Trail.

Ferguson said she used and made meth with others primarily in and around the national forest, where she said she felt "trapped," with little else to do. She last used meth the day she checked into the Women's Care Center at First Baptist Church Leesburg in early January.

Since then she has used prayer, the church's outreach services and the support of friends to stay clean. Williams, her probation officer, says she is a "success story" so far.

Ferguson cannot say whether she will remain drug-free, but she hopes that sharing her story might help others better understand a drug that can devastate the body and rob its ability to experience pleasure after the euphoric early use.

"There's so many times I should have been dead," she said. "God just kept me going."

Baby born addictedShe was brought up in suburban Chicago in a middle-class family plagued by substance abuse. Three close relatives have died of overdoses. And it was one of her mother's friends who introduced Ferguson to meth for the first time when she was 22.

"It made me feel like superwoman," she said. "I loved it."

Ferguson started shooting meth directly into her veins about eight years ago. She has faded track marks as a reminder.

As Ferguson's drug use grew through the years, she lost people and bits of herself along the way. She was once a Sunday school teacher and married to a "good Christian boy" in Kansas, she said. Despite years of substance abuse and several violent episodes, she describes herself as a "sucker for the white-picket-fence thing."

But that husband cheated. She used drugs again. And she lost custody of three of her children.

By 2002, years of lousy waitress jobs, bad relationships and too much partying led Ferguson to Florida and Ocklawaha, where her stepfather, Ronald Webb, lives. About that time she met a man she liked and a nearby neighbor who made meth.

During that first year in Florida, she said, "for the most part, I was partying."

She later became pregnant and developed a methadone dependency.

"My daughter was addicted to methadone when she was born," Ferguson said.

Later on, Ferguson said, she and a friend once cooked meth while her daughter Chloe was asleep in the house.

Scared of the forestToday the happy 5-year-old is afraid to go to the Ocala forest and the woods — even to visit Webb — because she associates it with bad memories of her mother, Ferguson said. "She hates the woods. She never wants to go back there."

And neither does Ferguson, who considers the forest a dark, dangerous place.

"Anywhere where there's woods and you can hide out, people are making dope in it," she said.

On Aug. 13, 2008, Ferguson and two men were arrested in Marion County and charged with felony drug possession. She spent the next couple of months in jail, where she had nightmares, dreamed of losing her daughter and resolved to get help. She was released on Halloween and quickly began using again.

By January, a space became available at the First Baptist women's facility in Leesburg. Ferguson says she used meth the day she entered but since then has stayed clean.

Wanda Kohn, director of the Pregnancy & Family Resource Center at First Baptist, where Ferguson spends much of her time doing required community service, is encouraged by her progress.

"She is now doing better than she has ever done in her whole adult life," Kohn said.

Eventually Ferguson wants to help other women with addiction. But for now, she's just trying to stay clean. And she has several people betting that she will kick meth for good.

"She's my daughter. I'm not going to give up on her," Webb said.

Ferguson, who lives in Bushnell with her child, says she is trying as hard as she can to stay clean — for herself and for Chloe.

"I promised God I would do whatever it takes to keep my daughter," she said.

Anthony Colarossi can be reached at acolarossi@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5931.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Comments
Loading