Moonshine Culture May Have Given Way to a Preference for Small-Batch Meth

By Lovey Cooper

All photos by Patrick Anderson

On the North Carolina/Tennessee border, a history of bootlegging in its many forms has become somewhat endearingly engrained in the pop cultural perception of the region. Since the age of prohibition-era feuds, illicit producers in the region have proven themselves outstandingly resilient against state and federal regulation. A romanticized sense of backwards wiliness like that of the mountaineers has earned a place in America’s heritage.  

In the reality of modern Appalachia, poor folks who are decidedly isolated—physically and mentally—from the commercial draws of the big city stay buried deep in historical tradition. The mindset of the region often spurs innovative businessmen to become self-sufficient—using the land, resources and other people around for profit in the face of otherwise stagnant local economies.

Bootlegging, as such, begins with moonshine.

“You made it and sold it because you didn’t have a job but you had a little bit of corn and the knowledge,” said Deputy Patrick Anderson of the Watauga County Sheriff’s office located in the small mountain town of Boone, in western North Carolina. Anderson grew up in neighboring Wilkes County, the birthplace of NASCAR, with friends who bragged about daddies who drove ‘shine with Junior Johnson back in the day.

“I know people in Wilkes 40 or 50 years ago that would have starved to death if it hadn’t been for moonshine,” Anderson said.

Today, however, as outside commercial influence still slowly permeates the region (Boone opened its first Wal-Mart Supercenter less than five years ago, to much local uproar), the illicit liquor trade has gradually lost its place as an economic necessity. In his eight years with the narcotics office, Anderson has personally seen only one distillery busted—a couple of college kids with no idea what they were doing.

The heritage behind ‘white lightning’, and the sense of family pride once carried with it, has since been assimilated into the mainstream. Tourists can buy legally distilled white whiskey in state-regulated ABC stores, touting mason jars sporting the licensed likenesses of Popcorn Sutton and other characters of local bootlegging legend. 

Bootlegging as a trade, meanwhile, still carries on in other forms as a necessity, a product of the cultural landscape of the region itself. Instead of liquor, though, seven of Anderson’ years on the force have been dedicated to one of the top crimes in the county for the last twelve years: meth lab busts. Meth and moonshine have drawn comparisons before, but in an area where moonshine once reigned, the local culture and customs may have helped the meth trade thrive.

Meth lab seizures in North Carolina overall rose from 196 incidents in 2008 to 395 in 2011, according to a North Carolina Drug Control update issued by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. That’s an increase of 102 percent, nearly twice as much as the national average rose in that same time. Of those incidents in North Carolina, many spawn from along the Tennessee border, in the often-overlooked nooks and crannies of sleepy mountain towns.

Last November, Boone law enforcement picked up one of the largest methamphetamine production cleanup jobs in state history—in a shack in the woods behind Watauga High School. Watauga Sheriff Len Hagaman told local news sources that police located and seized a total of 181 individual labs in a single search that day, accounting for nearly half of the entire state’s total busted labs that year.

The high rate of occurrences is only possible as meth labs in the region have shifted over time from more clandestine red phosphorus setups—full house projects, à la “Breaking Bad”—to portable “shake and bake” labs like those seized in November. One-pot methods like these can be produced in empty soda bottles, using less than $30 of legally obtained ingredients.

Smaller, quicker batches mean that instead of a house or a hotel room, cooks can now make meth in cars, outhouses and even backpacks, to cite a few recent arrests in Watauga County.

This kind of independence, especially to notoriously independent mountain people, is appealing, said Brittany Means, an Appalachian Studies graduate student at Appalachian State University in Boone.

“Mountain people have a long history of multiple lifestyle living—selling a number of things, working a number of jobs and combining many sources of income to make ends meet,” Means said. When this meets a cultural need for escapism, a common malady of mountain culture due to its isolation, a cycle of addiction is inescapable. In the modern economy, this manifests as a meth-addled workforce funneled into mountain tourism gigs, a dying culture escaping the present while upholding an ideal of the past, for show.

Meth production falls neatly into that work pattern, and for some residents of Watauga, this pattern is now all they know, said Sgt. Daniel Duckworth, who heads narcotics investigation at the Boone Police Department.

For many repeat offenders, drugs are now simply the family business.

“Most of them, they’re good people with addictions,” Duckworth said.

Local Forrest Yerman has spent his entire life in Watauga County. When he was 17 years old, working at a fast food joint in Boone, the drug started circulating among his coworkers under the name “fast” or “crank”. Meth seemed harmless until the night his manager stole a deposit and went on the run for two months before turning himself in to the police. 

In another incident at the same location, two employees almost died from a drug overdose in the manager's office, while on the clock.

Especially in Boone, where employment opportunities are slim, Yerman said that “a drug that makes you feel invincible” offers one way out of reality—an easy way out.

“Making moonshine was hard,” Anderson said. “You have to find a place to hide, you have to build your still, you have to slip out in the middle of the night. You’re carrying 50 pounds of corn into the woods.”

Meth can be manufactured and sold in mere hours from its inception.

“There’s no hard work in it,” Anderson said. “There’s no pride.”

As with moonshine, ritual still plays its role, in some sense. Meth can speed up time spent in isolation and shorten the half-life of tradition, so instead of cherished family mash recipes passed down for generations, you get a few years of cooks who learn from each other and insist on using an empty grape Fanta bottle every time to ensure quality, Duckworth said.

Another part of why these small batch operations have been on the rise in recent years is due to larger scale busts further south, in cities such as Atlanta and Jefferson City, where most of this region’s pure crystal meth originates.

That’s the other problem of being isolated in the mountains: the further the drug has to travel, the more likely someone is to get busted along the way. In the face of week-or-month-long dry spells after the drug was first introduced to the region, addicts were forced find ways to get their fix at home.

That said, like liquor, some users actually prefer the homemade for its quality. Due to the process of crystallization, most crystal meth that's imported from Mexico and driven up north can only reach about 80 percent purity, Anderson said, while theoretically a home batch could reach anywhere from 86 to 92 percent, if made well.

“They’re only limited by their imagination, and when you stay up for 23 hours out of the day, imagination runs wild,” Duckworth said.

The meth trade is by its very nature a modern issue flourishing on these fringes where the “outside world” meets the still-undiscovered corners of the mountains where production can occur. It cannot wholly escape to the edges of town, under cover of moonlight. The ingredients required for production are more than conspicuous when purchased or stolen together, and in Boone, drug store owners usually recognize local cooks and their accomplices by face anyway.

When legal options run out, the trade then also manifests itself in increased property crimes. Criminal investigator Sgt. Matt Stevens said that he has never seen a violent home invasion in Boone that was not drug related. Most of these robberies occur when newbie dealers, often students, get too loose with their pot, pills and heroin, more often the drugs of choice for the annually fleeting college crowd, he said. For “smurfs,” the groups of runners who obtain supplies and money for meth cooks, laid back dealers are easy money.

“We would have less work to do if people were not so drug addicted in general,” Stevens said.

In 2011, a North Carolina House bill placed strict limits on the legally purchased quantities of pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient found in the decongestant medicines used to make meth. Additionally, since last year, all pseudoephedrine buyers’ information is now logged in the state’s NPLEX registry system for police surveillance. At one point Anderson himself was the top user in the state of the system, which alerts authorities when any suspicious pseudo purchase is made.

While NPLEX makes it easier for police to track and spot purchasing trends, it’s not perfect. More often than not, the only difference for established cooks is the need for more “smurfs” to space out purchases and avoid suspicion.

For otherwise good people with addictions, that can be more bad news.

Those with any meth charges on their record are not eligible for subsidized housing or food stamps, said Sonya Hamby, lead service coordinator at Boone homeless shelter The Hospitality House. This cycle of Appalachian poverty is infinitely harder to escape when these programs don’t have it within their legal capacity to help. 

Officers don’t see an immediate solution to Boone’s situational problem outside of more government regulation either. Duckworh said that even if he sees the potential for improvement in offenders, his arrests are just protocol.

“I don’t have any other authority. It’s not an option. The only place I can put you is jail.”

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