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Meth Mecca Illustration by Jeannie Phan.

Meth Mecca

When methamphetamine arrived in a Maritime county, small-town trust allowed the drug to take root.

A LONE FLOOR LAMP illuminates the tattoos—skulls, knives and flames—that streak across Mark Craig’s skin. The thirty-four-year-old youth pastor sits heavily on a sagging floral-print love seat in the small office of the Abundant Life Church, in Carleton County, New Brunswick. His fingers worry the backs of his hands, rubbing away at the ink that spells out “STAY DOWN” on one, “ALL IN” on the other.

Craig’s mind is stuck under the church’s kitchen counter, evaluating the ingredients inside the cupboards. “We could look under the sink and you could probably go online and find a recipe to get high,” he says. The majority of the chemicals used to synthesize methamphetamine—including acetone, hydrogen peroxide, iodine and chloroform—are easily obtained and relatively inexpensive. These chemicals, when combined properly, create pills being sold in schools—and church parking lots.

Florenceville-Bristol, Carleton County’s most important community, is a mess of dirt roads and potato fields. Barely 1,600 people occupy the town’s more than fifteen-square-kilometre acreage. When dusk falls, the surging waters of the St. John are the only barrier between the town and total silence.

Like a storm system carried off the river as it moves east, methamphetamine reached Florenceville-Bristol long after it had affected the majority of the country. Documented as early as the 1960s in Western Canada, it was only a decade ago that the drug came to the attention of the local police force. A truck driver, one of hundreds who drive through Florenceville-Bristol every day on the Trans-Canada Highway, was addicted to a stimulant being called “On-Star.” When his addiction ran deeper than his pockets, the man began to fear for his life. He turned to Andy Munro of the RCMP for guidance, making Munro one of the first law-enforcement officers to be aware of the drug’s growing presence in the province.

In just a few years, Florenceville-Bristol’s small-town mentality allowed the insidious substance to take root. Front doors, always left unlocked for family and friends, became opportunities for local addicts looking to feed their next fix, and mom-and-pop businesses were burglarized. The community was and is an ideal trafficking base. New Brunswick is the gateway to the Maritimes; it is impossible to access the coast without first passing through the province. Methamphetamine pills destined for the Atlantic coast must first make their way through New Brunswick on the Trans-Canada. Florenceville-Bristol is close to Quebec and the United States, making it an ideal hub for large shipments destined for multiple destinations. “It’s easy, easy money, it’s too lucrative,” says Munro. He estimates, conservatively, that the average dealer brings fifteen thousand methamphetamine pills through the Florenceville-Bristol area each week. That’s ten pills for every citizen. Big money attracts big business, and Florenceville-Bristol, where potatoes outnumber people, has become a full-blown meth Mecca.

Drug paraphernalia is now confiscated from high-school students during school hours almost as regularly as cell phones. Local law enforcement first established a police presence in the school in 2009, when they integrated with the RCMP to address the drug problem. Units were dispatched to educate staff and students on the dangers of methamphetamine. Munro, a court-appointed expert on the drug, spent a year focused solely on the community’s tweak trade. Throughout 2010 and into 2011, he was acting as a liaison for sources contributing to hundreds of drug-related search warrants. Munro, the picture of paternal authority with his salt-and- pepper hair and grandfatherly glasses, was pounding the pavement and making dates with meth addicts. He established an extensive web of sources that resulted in successful raids and arrests. Law-enforcement authorities in Florenceville-Bristol and surrounding areas were churning out more drug-related search warrants than the rest of the province combined, performing a half-dozen raids on a weekly basis.

But, in early 2011, one of the officers spearheading the integration project transferred out of the area, and another retired. The methamphetamine trade was no longer deemed a critical issue, and Munro returned to his regular duties. The RCMP and local police forces are technically still integrated, but resources are no longer specifically targeted at seeking out sources to contribute to search warrants and systematically arrest individual dealers in the area.

“Resources” are usually a foreign concept in rural New Brunswick, the land of dirt roads and duct-tape fixes. With little funding for mental-health programs, the emotional needs of residents are often neglected. While urban centres like Toronto and Montreal clock in well below the national average when it comes to the percentage of the population struggling with substance abuse, provinces like New Brunswick, essentially a patchwork of small towns, face rates of addiction significantly higher than the norm. Local drug dealers take advantage, helping to create a cyclical drug culture of self-medication that has turned students into slingers. High-school and even middle-school students are selling methamphetamine to afford the escape the pills provide. Florenceville-Bristol continues to function as a prime site for both local dealers and traffickers moving product across borders. “It’s bad, around here. These pills ... it’s poison,” Craig, the pastor, says. He would know better than most.

Raised in one of Florenceville-Bristol’s neighbouring communities, Pastor Craig found his true religion in a gravel pit riding dirt bikes. Battling depression, anxiety and anger, he began to self-medicate in his early teens. After high school, he graduated from marijuana and alcohol to cocaine, ecstasy, prescription drugs, MDMA and, eventually, methamphetamine as a means of coping. On one of his benders, Craig sold his dirt bikes to buy meth. His drug use offered him sanctuary not only from his personal demons but from the claustrophobic nature of rural communities and the judgements of a small town that knew all of his secrets.

Craig has been sober for almost two years, and his experiences allow him to help young people who are dealing with similar struggles. It wasn’t until he got clean that he addressed the emotional and mental-health issues that led to his addiction. Unfortunately for the addicts Craig now mentors, the future of funding for mental-health and addictions programs in isolated communities like Florenceville-Bristol looks bleak. Local addictions counsellors are overwhelmed with the number of referrals they receive each week, and only a fraction of cases are reported. Rehabilitation programs in the province are expensive and difficult for rural addicts to access. They have long waiting lists and lack the resources to help addicts through the detox process, forcing many to attempt to quit on their own at home.

Even when help is available, community stigma means seeking treatment is seen as a sign of weakness. Despite the overwhelming demand for services, the waiting room of the local mental-health and addictions facility is permanently, almost comically, empty. Patients smoke outside or walk around the block before they march, briskly, with heads down, into their sessions. In a small town where everyone knows everyone’s business, being labelled an addict will follow you for the rest of your life.

Craig presses clenched fists into his eyes, thinking about the strange place he sobered up to discover had replaced his hometown. Everything here looks the same, he says, but couldn’t feel more different. A sense of community was lost when residents realized they could no longer leave their doors unlocked.

For Munro, the toughest pill to swallow is knowing that sense of community could be rebuilt. When the integration between the RCMP and local police was in full swing, Munro began to see the residents of Florenceville-Bristol not as potential sources but, once again, as the neighbours he had known all his life. Now, as methamphetamine becomes even more entrenched in the community, he cannot help but wonder how many houses on his street play host to the drug when he bolts his door at night.