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 meth

Meth'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.