Tucked deep in the Florida Panhandle backwoods, Holmes County has a history of residents who dabbled in making moonshine or growing marijuana.

Now, some of those same people and their descendants have moved on to a new enterprise -- cooking methamphetamine -- and law enforcement officials warn it could be a dangerous preview of what is in store elsewhere across Florida.

"Meth will kill you," warned Holmes County Sheriff Dennis Lee, who has declared war on what is known in the Bible Belt community as the "devil's drug." His slogan: "Don't meth with the devil."

Although Florida's meth problem is considered to be in its infancy, it is making its biggest inroads in this part of the state.

South and central Florida have larger quantities of the drug than other areas of the state because those areas are supplied from California, Mexico and other out-of-state sources, but the homemade variety is expected to spread there once local users learn the recipe.

"Our state is experiencing the same thing that our nation has," said Ed Hudson, special agent supervisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. "The methamphetamine problem started in the west and it has worked its way east."

In the year and a half since Lee declared war on the drug in this small Panhandle county -- population 18,628 -- more than 700 people have been arrested. Fifty-nine meth labs were raided last year, about half big enough to require the federal cleanup.

The Drug Enforcement Administration spent more than $600,000 cleaning clandestine Florida meth labs in 2003. Each is a small toxic waste site that can include anhydrous ammonia, red phosphorous and various solvents used to process meth from ephedrine or pseudoephedrine in over-the-counter cold remedies.

Those and most other materials used in cooking meth are household items readily available at retail stores, yet some are explosive or toxic, and may cause lung, kidney, liver and brain damage, blindness, burns and death.

The finished product is highly addictive and can cause hallucinations, insomnia, anorexia, stroke, brain damage and death.

"Out of all the drugs that I've used . . . it is the one that would have ended up putting me in my grave," said Jeana Griffin, a recovering addict who counsels others hooked on meth in Holmes County. "Had I not been stopped, I would not have been able to stop myself."

She was stopped at the point of a gun April 17, 2003, when her lab was raided.

"She was lying on the floor," Chief Deputy Eddie Ingram recalled. "I had my machine gun literally to the back of her head."

The costs of Holmes's meth war have included buying or bartering for military-style weapons, bulletproof vests and helmets, because most meth cooks are heavily armed and the drug can make them violent. The right side of Ingram's face was reconstructed after he was hit with a railroad spike during one lab raid.

Lee, who began with 15 officers including himself, has hired five more deputies to deal with meth, creating a narcotics unit and SWAT team to raid the labs.

Ingram was among those new hires. He was a narcotics captain with the Metro Atlanta police but he is from nearby Dothan, Ala., and took a pay cut to come home. Meth is a personal issue for him. His ex-wife was killed in 1998 when she crashed her car while on meth.

"I raised my children without a mother on account of this stuff," Ingram said. "So what I used to see as everybody else's problem became my own."

The meth war filled Holmes County's new 120-bed jail to capacity last year, double the old jail's population. The costs of feeding and caring for twice as many inmates, most with meth-related health problems, and providing defense lawyers in many cases strained the poor county's limited resources.

County commissioners had to sell some road equipment to make ends meet. They supplemented the jail's medical budget by $25,000 last year and then increased the sheriff's spending by $224,000 -- 15 percent -- to $1.7 million.

Lee and his deputies speak at schools and churches and to civic groups. A faith-based coalition called Countywide Anti-Substance Abuse Efforts, or CASE, offers a 12-step rehabilitation program.

Griffin, on probation after serving jail time, is a CASE facilitator. She speaks from experience. She blames drugs for her failed marriage and for causing her to desert her disabled mother. She was raped, had an abortion and was beaten by an ex-boyfriend, a meth cook now serving 15 years on drug and other charges. She wasted away, weighing about 85 pounds at her arrest.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of meth is how it affects children. Seventy-four children have been taken from parents arrested on meth charges in Holmes since February 2003.

They have been placed in foster care at a cost of $11 a day plus medical expenses, Ingram said. Many need medical care because of neglect or being exposed to toxic substances in the labs. Some are meth babies born to addicted mothers.

Ingram credited the meth crackdown for a dramatic decline in burglaries and other crime. Meth arrests also are starting to drop.

"I think we're over the hump," Lee said. "I've had a lot of people that we've put in jail . . . who have thanked us for saving their lives."

"Meth will kill you," Holmes County Sheriff Dennis Lee says. Jeana Griffin is a recovering addict who counsels others hooked on the drug.