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Independence's rap as Meth City USA needs tweaking

It's time to rethink Independence's reputation.



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The writer, Peter Wilkinson, described how meth was at one time a "West Coast phenomenon, a made-in-the-desert buzz supplied and distributed by biker gangs." The recipe found its way to Missouri. Before long, the cookers in these parts could brag about the purity of their concoctions.

Wilkinson crowned Michael Wayne Duncan the "meth king of Jackson County." Duncan cooked in garages and out-of-the-way shacks. One of his rural labs blew up. A man died, and Duncan wound up in intensive care. Once the skin grafts took, Duncan resumed cooking and selling. A prosecutor would later call him a "guru" with an "almost religious" following. Duncan eventually pleaded guilty in federal court to manufacturing meth. Sentenced to prison, he is eligible for release in 2014.

Duncan didn't introduce Jackson County to methamphetamine. If that distinction belongs to one man, it's Willi Olsen, a Vietnam veteran who lost part of his stomach in battle. Olsen became a truck driver after the war. He lived in California and sold primarily to other long haulers before expanding his meth operation to Missouri. Wary of transporting the drug in false-bottom suitcases, he eventually asked two cooks he knew to move from San Bernardino to Independence.

One of Olsen's cooks died of heart failure. (He was 25.) The other broke with Olsen and shared his cooking recipe with the locals. In addition to word of mouth, underground books like Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture disseminated the knowledge.

Cheap and relatively easy to produce, the drug known as "redneck cocaine" found a particularly ardent following in Missouri. What was it that made this part of the country so receptive to the drug and its manufacture? Was it an outlaw sensibility? Cheap housing stock? Neighborliness? U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, then the Jackson County prosecutor, suggested to Rolling Stone that heartland meth cookers were as eager to share their recipes as members of a garden club. "In New York, no one would ever share," she said.

The Rolling Stone article painted a dramatic portrait. But it was actually not the first instance of Independence being labeled a meth capital.

In 1997, The Christian Science Monitor published a story about meth's hold on Independence. According to the Monitor's piece, authorities busted 75 meth labs in 1996 — "the largest number per capita in the nation."

"In fact," the article continued, "Guy Hargreaves, the unofficial 'meth czar' at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Washington, calls Independence the meth capital of the United States — and worries that it could be a sign of things to come."

So it wasn't a rock magazine that first branded Independence with the scarlet M. It was a cop.

If Rolling Stone readers made it past the jump, past the reviews of the latest Pearl Jam rec­ord and Mira Sorvino film, they learned that Independence and its surrounding communities were facing their demons.

"Jackson County," Wilkinson wrote in his 1998 article, "has become something of a model for its meth-eradication strategy."

The story noted that the county had an anti-drug sales-tax fund, "the first of its kind." The fund, known as COMBAT, pays for drug investigations, prosecutions, jail cells and treatment. Initiated in 1989 and reauthorized by voters in 2009, the tax raised almost $19 million last year.

One COMBAT program that has been emulated in other cities is Drug Court. The program gives nonviolent offenders the opportunity to pursue treatment in lieu of criminal prosecution. "Graduates" have their charges dismissed and even receive gift cards for gas or groceries.

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