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For those of us who deal with courts, we know the wheels of justice move slowly. It usually takes a year-and-a-half for resolution on most cases because courts have an overwhelming case load.
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There aren't enough prosecutors or judges and the public defenders office in most counties in Missouri are burdened with a case load so large that they have taken the drastic step of turning cases down. That move is being challenged in court by Christian County.

Criminals who are "frequent fliers" have learned that when they break the law it will take forever for a case to make it to court and they break the law repeatedly. It's a turnstile for those who cover courts and see the same people charged over and over.

Most of the time we see these people placed on probation only to break the law again and the cycle starts all over. I hear people say, "well if judges and prosecutors would give stiff sentences they wouldn't break the law." But the same people who say that don't want to pay additional taxes that would fund the building of new jails, additional staff for prosecutor's and public defender's offices and place additional judges on the bench.
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Recently, Paul Toohey, a journalist with the The Telegraph in Australia, visited Stone County to write a story on the methamphetamine epidemic that has plagued the county, and placed an overwhelming case load on the court system.
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Judge Alan Blankenship and Prosecutor Matt Selby have done an amazing job with the drug court in the county that gives substance abusers a last chance to turn their lives around. 
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Most of the people that enter drug court successfully complete the stringent requirements.
"It's not an easy or cheap program," said Blankenship. "It's an 18 month long program and costs participants about $1,800. They must check in with an 800# everyday and are subjected to random drug and alcohol testing. By the time they graduate from the program each person will have probably been tested at least 150 times."

There was "little to no treatment" available in Stone County to those truly seeking help when the program was implemented in September of 2004, according to Blankenship. 

Selby's office is very involved with the program, "The drug court staff is made up of teams from the court, the prosecutor's office, probation and parole, law enforcement, a treatment team and counselors from Larry Simmering Recovery Center and Alliance Counseling," said Selby.

Not everyone who applies to the program or who looks good on paper is accepted in to the program. Blankenship says 90% of graduates go on to never be charged with a crime again.
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The article that follows was written Toohey following his walk through the valley of meth with Richard "Tony" Ford.

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Inside Missouri's meth belt - by Paul Toohey

When police from Stone County in southwest Missouri raid a meth home, they always find something curious along with the drug paraphernalia - the shell-shocked children and the filth. Shoved into drawers will be toasters, remote controls and cell phones, all torn into bits. And almost always, rock collections.

Something in the fixated mind of a methamphetamine addict drives them to examine the inner working of electronics, or to fascinate over rocks.

"I had buckets of rocks," says Savella Elmore, 30, a former meth addict of Joplin, Missouri. "I thought they were Indian arrowheads. It turned out they were just rocks."

Missouri, in America's mid-south, is known as the world's home-cooked meth capital. This is the Ozarks, a mountain plateau that stretches through Missouri down to Arkansas. The population is white and poor.

The Ozarks is rugged and beautiful and people live on small farms or on heavily wooded rural blocks. "Hillbilly" is a term people once fought off as an insult, but have finally embraced as a point of pride. It is Hillbilly central. They are isolated and, ever since the Civil War, when Confederates escaped here to avoid authorities or to nurse terrible memories, people are known to mind their own business. A remote cabin or trailer home is the perfect place to cook up a chemical stink of meth. And some of these shacks have produced generations of meth addicts.
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"The people here are just as smart as anywhere else, but they're laid back, speak slow and don't trust the government," says Tim Carpenter, an Ozarks drug task force cop. "But they're smart."

Chris Yates, a former meth cook, gives his explanation as to why meth is so prevalent here. "This is the Bible belt," he says. "I really believe Satan works his hardest in the places where God is the strongest."

All meth addicts tell of encountering hallucinatory "tree demons" in the woods, but there may be more earthly explanations why meth has bit so hard here. People once made moonshine whisky, but when that became too hard, locals - and Johnny Cash, from south Arkansas, was one of them - bought mail-order speed pills in bulk.

Tony Ford, 51, a meth cook and addict now before the courts, said the pills made better sense than whisky.

"With those pills, you could row crops with a rope and you wouldn't need a mule," he says. When the mail-order supply was cut, people started making their own crude amphetamines. Meth took a chokehold here 40 years ago.

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"Around here, it's crazy how many people use," says Tony. "I've known addicts 90 years old. They still take it, just to get high, just to keep going."

People are comfortable in these woods. They hunt and they fish. And they cook meth. The drug cartels still shift high-quality meth up from Mexico, but the reality of the Ozarks is that there are no Mr Bigs working in super labs, as portrayed in the Breaking Bad series.

Addicts cook for themselves and make small profits on the side.

Meth cooking involves heat and pressure and is high-risk. But the ingredients, which always include pseudoephedrine cold tablets as the main precursor, are easily obtained.
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They make three kinds of meth around here: "Red Black", which uses phosphorous, iodine and lye (drain cleaner); "Annie", a white meth that uses anhydrous ammonium; and Shake and Bake.

Shake and Bake, a relatively new method, is simple and dangerous. It is low-yield but keeps a meth addict going. All that's needed is a two-litre soft drink bottle and the key ingredients. The clear bottle is imperative. The liquid mix is so volatile it actually flames and needs to be "burped" by opening the lid now and then to ease the pressure. The word "burped" has connotations of nursing a baby, which is fitting. People have been arrested in shopping centres carrying mobile Shake and Bake labs.

Tony Ford is one of the many who blew himself up with Shake. He is attending Judge Alan Blankenship's drug court in the tiny town of Galena, in southwest Missouri.

He says it's his last chance for deliverance. A long-time meth cook and user who's spent 17 years of his life in prison for meth crimes, Tony says jail became too easy for him - "I could do it standing on my head" - and he decided to give himself one last shot by attending drug court.

The police have mixed feelings about guys like Tony being diverted from prison to drug court.

There is a view that anyone known as a meth cook, rather than just a user, ought not get the benefits of attending a drug court program, which allows a person to live at home, work, attend intensive counselling and be subject to constant urine tests.

The problem is that Tony Ford is not just an accomplished meth cook. He's also an addict. He's coming out of 30 years of meth abuse in surprisingly good shape, though his wife, Teresa, who has lost some of her bottom teeth, has done it hard and is still battling addiction.


Richard Anthony "Tony" Ford (mug shot SCSO)

Looking at the people in Judge Blankenship's drug court, it is the women who appear most damaged from the physical ravages of meth. So many of them are toothless and have distorted, twisting, sunken geriatric mouths. Many of them have had their children removed and are here, fighting their addiction, to win back their kids.

In 2009, Teresa was just home from prison on a meth stint when two bottles of Shake that Tony was brewing exploded. Teresa drove him to hospital, let him out the door and fled. She was on parole and scared she'd be sent back to prison. "His skin was melting off," Teresa says.

As Tony lay in the critical ward, with burns to 30 per cent of his body, Teresa hid out for a week before she finally went to see him. Both were charged but both since returned to using. Tony last used meth on July 3 and Teresa is vague about her using status.

"Your personality changes," says Teresa. "You lie, you steal, you become scandalous. You're not the same person. You only care about yourself and your addiction."

Their adult children did not inherit their drug problems. But now Tony and Teresa have small grandchildren, they are desperate to be something more than meth addicts.

They attend the Freedom Seekers church in Blue Eye, near the Arkansas border. The preacher, Pastor Ron Hutchins, is a former cocaine and meth user. Church is important for most Missourians, but this little assembly is different.
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At the Saturday evening session, Pastor Ron asks who in the congregation of 30 or so has battled meth. Most put up their hands. Pastor Ron plays loud Christian rock and the joint turns into a mosh pit, people jumping and raising their arms.

The church is informal. No one is condemned. People stand and give their testimonies.

One of them is Chris Yates, 37, who used to drive meth for the Mexican cartels and has spent 17 years of his life in juvenile homes or prisons.

Chris thought he'd shaken his addiction in 2010, but then he "backslid". "I just went back to it - it's not hard to find another addict," he says. He says you just look for a person who twitches and exhibits high paranoia. Then Chris found Pastor Ron's church, met and last year married a beautiful woman, Melanie, who has no history of addiction.

Chris has attended Narcotics Anonymous, a 12-step program that casts a person as a lifelong addict always on the point of backsliding. He does not like this language. He says he was cured after God directly intervened to save him. "I've been set free," he says. "I believe I am delivered from addiction." Melanie is certain Chris is beyond meth. Others in this region, even those who place their lives in God's hands, worry about such claims of miraculous salvation. Meth, they say, is the Devil. And he never goes away.

All users say their first intravenous meth shot was a high point in their lives. "Everything was awesome," says Savella. "For a while."

Meth rockets the body's natural dopamine levels to give an exquisite high. But it also destroys the dopamine balance, bringing profound lows.

The classic meth addict is always on a search to feel normal. The descent follows the same pattern: people lose their jobs, steal, live in squalor and, at worst, will sell their children for sex to get meth.
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"Nobody we talk to that's honest with us says they love this," says Tim Carpenter, the cop. "They hate it."

Judge Blankenship is an elected judge of 10 years standing in Stone County. In the early days he had to fight a view in his strongly conservative area that his drug court cut users too much slack.

Judge Alan Blankenship

People choose to attend drug court to avoid prison, but the judge argues drug court is harder.

"It's harder than other alternatives because we expect people to change their lives," says the judge.

On Monday, there were about 60 Stone County locals in the judge's drug court. A certain amount of failure is expected, because these people are addicts. But the court works: the non-recidivist rate from US drug courts is 90 per cent, while prison recidivism runs at about 50 to 60 per cent.

The judge, parole officers, sheriffs and counsellors are intimately involved in the lives of the addicts. Their proudest achievement is seeing the birth of drug-free babies.

Judge Blankenship calls everyone to the bench, shakes their hand, and offers warm encouragement to those in compliance with the treatment program.

Those who have missed urine tests, tested positive or committed other breaches are sent straight into the cells for a night or two or, at worst, booted from the course and sent to prison.

Everyone attending the court has a similar tale. Caleb True, 35, with a Jesus tatt on his neck, looks like someone you might expect to meet on Death Row.

On this day, True is graduating from drug court after 18 months. The judge tells True he never thought he was going to make it.

"I'm proud of you," the judge says. When True first turned up in drug court, he was rat-skinny, wore a mohawk, and had a long history of using, making and selling meth.

True once left his own six-year-old daughter in the shower and wandered off to score meth and never came back.

When he was selling, he remembers his disgust at himself, and his customers, who would leave their small children with him, a stranger, while they went to the bathroom to shoot up. He saw an addict drop dead at his feet after one of his buddies sold him a syringe of battery acid. Another friend was so out of it she left her baby in a house after it caught alight from a meth explosion. The baby died and that woman is now serving life.

"There's not a day that goes by I don't think about it," he says. "It was a routine, a ritual. Meth meant everything to me. I would go in the woods and get high and stay up for days, walking along creeks. I wouldn't need anybody."

He's seen the flitting black shapes in the woods. The last time he was arrested, he ran from a meth house into the woods as it was raided. This phantom was a father figure, who told him to stop running and lay down his head. He remembers waking up to the county sheriff, pointing a gun at him.

True was considered an impossible case, an irreparable backwoods' meth man. With the help of the drug court, he's made it. The whole court is emotional as True thanks the judge, the sheriff, his counsellors and parole officer for saving his life.

"The real addict can't function," he says. "I can't do it. I can't. All it takes is once and I'm gone, using it every minute. Now I look forward to the best. With meth, after you first use, you feel good, but then you feel everything's f ... . . up. So you keep on using. You feel great but it tears you down."

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