500 gather at Western summit to tackle meth problem

CULLOWHEE – Law enforcement officers from across North Carolina joined with state legislators, county and municipal officials, medical and social services professionals, and students and educators at Western Carolina University on Wednesday, Nov. 16, to examine strategies for curbing the rampant problem of methamphetamine.

More than 500 people attended a daylong summit hosted by Western’s Public Policy Institute to participate in a series of panel discussions on topics related to the growing meth scourge, to hear possible solutions from N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper, and to offer their own ideas and suggestions for dealing with the problem.

In his keynote address, Cooper called methamphetamine “the most significant law enforcement problem we have faced in a long time.” He told the crowd that, so far this year, police have broken up 289 laboratories used to create “the highly volatile synthetic drug that is more addictive than crack cocaine.”

Because the vast majority of those labs have been in Western North Carolina, Cooper called for the creation of a statewide methamphetamine task force, beginning in the western counties.

“We need to be able to work together in law enforcement – at the local, state and federal levels – to use our resources wisely and to coordinate our efforts on how we can investigate and root out the people who are bringing methamphetamine into our communities,” he said. “We should start in Western North Carolina , where the bulk of the problem is. This task force would be a tremendous help in solving the problem and catching the criminals.”

Cooper praised the law enforcement officers in attendance for their roles in battling the problem, and told them he was hearing good suggestions from the day’s discussions that will help them in their efforts on the streets.

“That’s what I’d like to see from this summit. I’d like to see ideas on how to be proactive and how to stay out in front of this problem,” he said. “I look forward to the report from this summit because we will take it and we will run with it.”

While meth is not prevalent on the Western campus, the university has a role to play in working to eradicate the conditions that have led to widespread abuse of the drug, especially in rural WNC, Chancellor John W. Bardo said in welcoming remarks.

“This summit is an example of our ongoing efforts to bring together people to try to solve a wide variety of the problems facing the region and to work together to improve the quality of life for the people of the mountains and the state,” Bardo said. “Methamphetamine is increasingly a problem in the mountains. We in the Jackson County area see the meth labs. We see the people on the streets who are clearly meth addicts. Meth is having a real impact on our mountain area, and that is why we are having this conference here today.”

Bardo acknowledged that while most of the frontline battle in the war against meth is being waged by law enforcement, health care and social services professionals, the university can help through its missions of education, engagement and economic development.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper speaks at Western's methamphetamine summit Wednesday, Nov. 16.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper speaks at Western’s methamphetamine summit Wednesday, Nov. 16.

“The majority of people who fall victim to meth have low incomes and not much hope,” he said. “That’s where we can help. We can help bring hope to the community. We can help bring economic prosperity so that these people do have hope and do have the opportunity for better incomes and a better quality of life.”

During a morning panel discussion, N.C. Sen. John Snow, Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland and Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, addressed education and community effectiveness. U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency agent John Emerson, State Bureau of Investigation agent Van Shaw, and Phil Byers, chief deputy with the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office, spoke on law enforcement effectiveness.

An afternoon panel discussion on social service, medical and media effectiveness featured Laura Elmore, coordinator of the drug endangered children program of the N.C. Division of Social Services; Dr. Cynthia Brown of the child maltreatment program at Mission Children’s Clinic in Asheville; and Joy Franklin, editorial page editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times.

The day concluded with a roundtable discussion on possible strategies to decrease the prevalence of methamphetamine in North Carolina. A policy report will be issued at a later date.