The stories — true stories — Jimmy Nichols tells are not happy ones: They are stories of lives ruined, physical and mental destruction, unspeakable degradation, violence, potential squandered, prison, communities impacted, and death — the latter, in some cases, preferable to living with the horrors of drug addiction.

His up-close-and-and-personal stories are the gruesome reality show he has dealt with in his 26 years with the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, coordinating drug roundups and undercover operations for state and federal agencies, tracking illicit drug trends, overseeing training for various state/county/local law enforcement agencies and civilian operations, and coordinating operations with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, U.S. Customs, etc.

Nichols, now training director for the bureau, spoke at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation.

“I enjoy my work,” he says, “but after you see this kind of stuff for years, it gets to you. The drug culture has changed so much since I was in high school and college

“Today, most seventh and eighth graders can tell you what are most of the drugs in circulation, and unfortunately, some speak from personal experience. I know several instances of eighth graders being jailed on drug charges.

“One had 417 rocks of crack in his backpack at school — a street value of $6,000 to $7,000. Another recently told me he knew several kids in his school who were taking as many as 60 pills a day while in class. It’s not shocking any more to find school kids involved in serious drugs.

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“The average person never hears about a lot of the stuff we see on an almost daily basis. And I hear things from schoolkids that are completely new to me. Recently, a student told me about Triple C — a cocktail mix of over-the-counter medications that kids are using to get high.”

Today, he says, illegal sale and use of prescription medications is a major problem in Mississippi. “We’re working more cases on prescription meds than anything else.”

SEE PHOTOS of most commonly-abused prescription drugs

Drugstore break-ins have become almost routine, he says. “This morning, we caught a crew that has been involved in upward of 30 drugstore burglaries in Mississippi and Alabama. They can take $20,000 worth of pharmacy inventory and on the streets it becomes worth about $300,000.”

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In a medication-oriented society, the problem isn’t just kids, Nichols says. “A while back, we caught a nurse who was taking up to 35 to 40 hydrocodone tablets per day — she was stealing them from the hospital. Would you want someone in a critical position like that caring for you or your loved ones? Would you want your farm employee taking a lot of pills and driving one of your grain trucks on the highway, or operating a $250,000 combine?”

Marijuana a major problem

While prescription drugs are a growing problem in the state, he says, other drugs continue to demand attention of law enforcement — and take a toll on the state’s citizens, economy, and resources.

Marijuana sill is a major day-to-day problem, Nichols says.

“There’s just so much of it out there, and it’s a much different product than when I was in school. Back then, the average THC [the chemical that produces a high] level in marijuana was 3 percent to 7 percent; today, most of the marijuana we test has THC levels of 27 percent to 37 percent.

“Unfortunately, kids think it’s not that big a deal — it’s just a plant, one that’s been around a long time, one that’s been a part of the culture in movies, on TV, etc. ‘It’s not gonna hurt me,’ they say. They don’t realize that, with the higher THC levels, it’s much more dangerous today than it once was.”

It is “one of most abused drugs in entire world,” he says, “and it is a major gateway drug — the one where most people’s serious drug problems start. Probably 99 percent of all the drug users I’ve ever interviewed said their problems started from sitting around smoking a joint. Next thing, they’d moved on to meth, cocaine, or selling drugs to feed their habit.”

The sheer volume of marijuana traffic in Mississippi is “mind boggling, even for those of us in law enforcement,” Nichols says. “With Interstate highways criss-crossing the state, it’s an open door for Mexico and Canada, where most of the marijuana comes from — although we’re seeing more from California. Much of it is on the way to other states, but a lot of it stops here. At one used car lot in Jackson, Miss., we followed the money trail and ended up confiscating 4,000 pounds in just a short period.”

READ HERE: Mississippi drug threat assessment

Amounts vary from just a few pounds to several tons. “A Mississippi trooper stopped a car that had 2,000 pounds hidden in various places. We stopped a Corvette that had 100 pounds sitting on the floorboard. We confiscated the car and recently sold it for $44,000.

“In another operation, we caught a trucker who was hauling marijuana from Texas, through Mississippi, to Georgia. We got him to cooperate with us and worked with Georgia authorities to bring down that end of the operation. We ended up getting a lot of dope, $280,000 in cash, and arrested 14-15 Hispanic males who were in the country illegally.”

Marijuana out of northern California, Nichols says, can bring as much as $3,800 a pound in Mississippi. “There is one gram of marijuana in a typical cigarette; 454 grams in a pound. That’s a lot of joints. With tons of it coming in, you can’t help but wonder who’s smoking all this stuff? The Drug Enforcement Administration says that for every arrest we make, 19 others aren’t caught.

 “We knock off UPS, FedEx, and Postal Service packages almost every day. It’s not their fault — they cooperate fully and allow us to come in with dogs and check their facilities. We’ll usually then pose as delivery persons to make arrests."

Crime and violence increase

With drugs, he says, there is the inevitable increase in crime, and violence. “A lot of the people involved in the distribution of marijuana are incredibly violent. We’ve seen people put through wood chippers, decapitated, or otherwise gruesomely murdered. Even in my military tours, I’d never seen anything like it.

As bad as today’s marijuana is, Nichols says, other commonly available drugs can be worse.

DEA Get Smart About Drugs website

“Methamphetamine is without a doubt one of the most destructive drugs I’ve seen in my career. I can’t begin to tell you how it has ravaged individuals, families, and communities. I can’t begin to recall how many kids, from babies on up, that we’ve taken out of meth labs, where their mom and dad were cooking the stuff. It turns your stomach. There’s hardly anyone today anyone who doesn’t know a family member or friend or someone in school or the community who’s been hooked on meth — one of my best friends got 15 years in the state penitentiary on a meth charge; it broke my heart.”

Meth manufacturing and the crime associated with it have been graphically depicted in the TV series “Breaking Bad,” but Nichols says, the reality of the lives ruined, or ended, by the drug is perhaps worse, because it is so easily made.

“People think you need a big laboratory or chemical operation. Not so. All you need is a large soda bottle, some cold medication, some fertilizer (ammonium nitrate), Red Devil lye, ether (starter fluid), water, lithium (from camera batteries), table salt, hydrochloric acid or other acid, and you’ve got a ‘shake-and-bake’ one-pot cooking lab.

“It is extremely dangerous, not only for those cooking, but for those cleaning up after an arrest. It requires fire-resistant suits, masks, and other protective gear. These soda bottle ‘labs’ are very volatile and can explode in a great burst of fire, causing major burns, even death.”

Farmers have not been immune from the proliferation of meth production. Anhydrous ammonia can be used as one of the ingredients, and many farmers have had their storage tanks damaged by meth cookers, who risk serious injury to themselves when stealing the caustic fertilizer.”

Many of the Mississippi farm thefts were by meth cookers from Arkansas coming across river bridges at Helena, Greenville, and Vicksburg.

Mississippi, in 2010, became only the second state to pass a law banning over-the-counter sales of cold medications containing ephedrine/pseudoephedrine. Two years after passing the landmark legislation, the number of meth-related incidents had declined more than 70 percent, and the number of drug-endangered children taken from meth labs had dropped nearly 80 percent.”

But says Nichols, when Mississippi’s law became effective, “The meth cookers started going to neighboring states to buy the cold meds. We stationed people at stores just across the state line, checking Mississippi vehicle tags, and monitoring the drivers making purchases of cold medicine.

“When they came back across the state line, they were stopped by interdiction officers. Four of first five vehicles we stopped had active cooking under way in their cars — potential explosions going down the highway. One guy who was cooking in a store parking lot was killed when his ‘lab’ exploded. Imagine if you’d been walking by the vehicle when that happened.”

Highly addictive, Nichols says meth is a physically destructive drug. “Continued use causes rapid aging, horrible sores, paranoia, infections; if smoked, it causes meth mouth — the hot vapors destroy teeth and gums.”

Other drug problems

Other drugs currently high on the problem list, particularly for young people, he says, include Molly (Ecstasy/MDA/X-tabs), bath salts, and spice/incense.

“Molly pills often have butterflies or smiley faces on them. Kids tell me, ‘Oh, Molly won’t hurt you.’ Up until couple of years ago, we’d hardly heard of it. Now, there are songs about it.

“Its true name is 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, and it is clinically proven to cause permanent, irreversible brain damage. Today, it is often mixed with other drugs or chemicals. It can be in powder form, capsules, or sometimes tablets, and is popular in clubs.”

Molly can cause rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, blood vessel constriction and sweating, and can prevent the body from regulating temperature. Some of the chemicals have been reported to cause intense, prolonged panic attacks, psychosis and seizures. After the chemicals wear off, severe depression can result, and some of the compounds have caused deaths.

Bath salts, now banned in the state, Nichols says, “for a long time were sold over the counter at virtually every convenience store in Mississippi.” They can be smoked, snorted, or injected, and are mostly synthetic, concentrated versions of the stimulant chemical methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV), mephedrone and methylone, the chemicals most often found in bath salts.

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“They cause reactions similar to the drug PCP — extremely violent behavior. The user is often immune to pain. Anyone on this stuff should be considered very dangerous, because they’re extremely difficult to control.

“Six of our agents, including a Marine Corps close combat instructor, recently had a confrontation with a 140-pound guy high on bath salts, and it took all they had to subdue him and get him in handcuffs.

“Bath salts are often packaged in pretty wrappings that appeal to kids, to make them think it’s not harmful. But it is extremely dangerous.”

Spice/incense is becoming more widely used by kids, Nichols says. “Sales just exploded through convenience stores. Leaves from the Daminia plant are soaked in acetone (fingernail polish remover) and other chemicals, then flavored with strawberry, vanilla, etc.

“Originally marketed as incense/potpourri, kids are buying it to smoke. It looks like marijuana, and on the street is called synthetic marijuana, but it’s probably 20 times worse than marijuana.

“The biggest concern is that it can cause a comatose-like condition, where you have little control of your body. All over the U.S., there are countless cases of it being used on dates to take advantage of girls. Beyond that, there are the long term physical effects of smoking the acetone and other harmful chemicals contained in the mixture.”