• 73°

Easy-to-get meth ingredients make producers hard to catch

Law enforcement efforts against clandestine methamphetamineproducers is a “cat and mouse” game between cutting off the sourcesof chemical supplies and capturing the amateur chemists.

Drug enforcement officers believe if they can cut off the sourceof the drug, many of the producers would be put out of business.Unfortunately, the ingredients used in meth production are commonitems that can be found in virtually any household.

Some of the common chemicals used in meth production includelithium, extracted from batteries, acetone or ether, commonly usedin engine starting fluid; over-the-counter ephedrine orpseudoephedrine cold tablets; household lye; anhydrous ammonia, anammonia nitrate fertilizer; and dry ice.

“Everything, with the exception of anhydrous gas, is readilyavailable and legal to buy,” said Lawrence County Sheriff JoelThames.

Mississippi producers primarily make, or “cook,” meth for theirown use or for the use of their friends. These producers typicallyproduce small amounts of the drug using the Birch, or “Nazi,”method.

The principal chemicals used in this method are ephedrine orpseudoephedrine, anhydrous ammonia, and sodium or lithium metal.Ether is used during the cooking process to purify the drug.

The ephedrine is popularly obtained by purchasingover-the-counter cold and allergy medicines and then distilling theephedrine from them in the cooking process. Ether is obtained bydraining the aerosal from engine starting fluid and lithium isdrained from batteries.

The precursors are regularly purchased at pharmacies, grocerystores, convenience stores and other retail outlets.

“Ephedrine needs to be behind the counter,” said Conner Magee, aMississippi Bureau of Narcotics agent specializing in meth. “Itneeds to be a controlled substance. That would greatly decrease theamount of usage.”

His partner agreed.

“You can cut corners on just about everything but the ephedrine.Without ephedrine you don’t have any dope,” added Chad Griffin,Magee’s partner in the MBN.

Retailers are increasingly helpful to law enforcement agenciesby reporting the sale of large or consistent quantities of theseprecursors, the MBN agents said.

“Retailers should know the ingredients and notify lawenforcement of any questionable purchases, such as large amounts ofcold tablets,” Thames said. “Law enforcement agencies could thencoordinate and target the labs.”

The notification, however, needs to be immediate and not a fewdays later, added Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department NarcoticsAgent Jimmy Barton.

“More immediate reporting of large or consistent purchases ofprecursors would help us tremendously,” he said. “The retailerswork well with us, but in many cases, the information may be alittle old for us to use by the time we get it.”

Unlike the other ingredients in meth, anhydrous ammonia is arestricted product because of the dangers inherent with its use. Itmust be strictly contained to avoid chemical burns, and breathingit will suck all the water from a person’s lungs and make themunable to breath.

As a liquid fertilizer, however, it is not uncommon to findtanks of the chemical on farms in the area. Meth cooks typicallyget their anhydrous ammonia by stealing it from these farms oracquiring it illegally from farm supply stores.

One of the most effective methods of capturing meth users hasbeen to watch the anhydrous ammonia tanks for illegal activity, butit can be dangerous to attempt an arrest when they are stealing thegas.

“In nearly every situation, they’re putting the anhydrousammonia in a non-approved container,” Griffin said. “It can be adangerous, dangerous situation.”

“They’ll put the chemicals in anything,” Magee added. “Theydon’t care about the environment, and they don’t pay much attentionto safety. They’re just concerned about getting that next hit.”

Another reason law enforcement agencies concentrate on nabbingmeth users at precursor thefts is that traditional methods, such asundercover work, don’t work well with meth investigations.

“Meth users are a tight-knit group, and it is difficult to getinto a group once one is organized,” Griffin said. “They will cooktogether, steal precursors together and use it together.”

Rarely, he said, are outsiders allowed into their little circle,and this makes undercover work difficult.

A side-effect of the drug increases the paranoia already naturalto those violating the law, further limiting law enforcementefforts.

“They’re hard to find because they hide and are very paranoid.That makes it harder for us to police them,” said Lincoln CountySheriff’s Department Narcotics Officer Chris Picou.

Few meth users are also jailed on other charges, which Griffinsaid is a good case – bad case scenario. It’s good because methusers aren’t committing robberies and other violent crimes in anattempt to get money to purchase more of the drug. It’s also bad,he added, because they are not being taken off the streets forother crimes. A meth user must be pursued for being a meth user orproducer.

Editor’s Note: The fourth part of this ongoing series willexamine the physical and environmental dangers posed bymethamphetamine laboratories.