CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – Dr. Mary Holley has witnessed the ravages of methamphetamine.
As an obstetrician in Albertville, Ala., she estimates about 10 percent of her pregnant patients are addicted.
One was “high as a kite. Comes in dilated 9 centimeters. She is pushing out her baby. I am trying to get the clothes off this woman so I can deliver this baby and a gun falls out of her bra,” Holley said.
But the methamphetamine epidemic in Appalachia has now become a personal crusade for Holley: Four years ago, her brother Jim shot and killed himself after a struggle with meth addiction.
“After he died, I started looking into it as a physician, as a scientist,” Holley wrote on her Web site. “What is this drug that destroyed his life in just two years?”
A photo of her brother appears on the Web site for Mothers Against Methamphetamine, or MAMa, a Christian ministry that Holley founded last year to fight the drug.
The group already has chapters in Tennessee, Georgia, Oklahoma, Missouri and Ohio, and Holley said the Web site gets about 6,000 hits a month, including about 25 a day from “parents wanting to know what to do with their kid.”
Mothers Against Meth has worked with churches to start addiction support groups, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. And the MAMa Web site offers pamphlets that detail the dangers of meth.
“People don’t realize what this drug is doing,” Holley said. “One look at the brain scan in my pamphlets will change that attitude.”
Meth targets the central nervous system. People who use the stimulant tend to hallucinate and become aggressive, in some cases violent. Their children are often neglected or abused.
Meth can be cooked using cheap, over-the-counter ingredients: ephedrine and pseudoephedrine from cold tablets, red phosphorous from matchbook strike plates, ether from engine starter, iodine and sulfuric acid from drain cleaner.
The epidemic is spreading quickly across the country, particularly in rural, mountainous areas. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates Tennessee accounts for 75 percent of meth lab seizures in the Southeast.
Holley, who is a Christian, believes drug addiction is “primarily a spiritual disease, not a social disease.”
“When I talk to these kids, about 20 percent (of meth users) are basically healthy kids who made a bad decision. About 75 percent are broken, hurting people, abused and battered as kids,” she said.
“They use this drug because it works. It makes them feel better. They have been rejected and humiliated and miserable people all their lives. It just makes everything better. This stuff works.”
She said a religious approach to treating addiction is the only solution.
“Law enforcement is helpless. They can’t possibly bust every lab. They can’t keep them in jail long enough for them to heal,” Holley said. “Education is helpless. They lack the resources and the moral authority to change the situation.”
Tennessee is among 14 states picked by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to receive grants for expanded drug-abuse treatment. Gov. Phil Bredesen, who plans to propose meth-battling initiatives in 2005, said much of the $17.8 million will be used for treatment.
Bredesen’s meth task force has recommended using “faith-based and community-based treatment options.”
“I don’t see a lot of success with the secular programs,” Holley said. “They have diluted God out of it. As they have diluted God out of it, they have diluted their effectiveness. Christian rehab centers that keep them for a full year have about 80 percent rate keeping them clean long term. Secular is 20 to 30 percent.”
Dr. Sullivan Smith, a member of Bredesen’s meth task force, said the panel is “looking at some options to expand existing drug and alcohol programs.”
He said the federal grant would hopefully be spent with “an emphasis on treating methamphetamine-addicted people.”
“I think there is hope, but not in the system we are currently working with,” Smith said. “What we are doing now isn’t working. It’s a revolving door.”