Meth labs put public at risk

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Methamphetamine users pose a danger not only to themselves, butthe makeshift laboratories used by the amateur chemists are toxicand volatile.

The production of meth was once limited to chemists working inactual laboratories, but the popularity of the illegal drug hasprompted many amateur chemists to establish makeshift labs in theirhomes, in the woods and even in the trunks of their cars.

“People often assume it takes a room, but it doesn’t,” saidLawrence County Sheriff Joel Thames. “A lab can actually be set upin the trunks of cars or the bed of a truck.”

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Thames should know. Deputies recently pulled over a pick up on aroutine traffic stop and discovered a meth lab in its bed.

“The way they have it set up now, they can cook here and besomewhere else tomorrow,” said Lincoln County Sheriff’s DepartmentNarcotics Officer Chris Picou.

Thames agreed.

“They’re portable. It doesn’t take a bunch of beakers andhoses,” he said. “It used to be only a handful of people in thestate knew how to make it, but now it’s all over the Internet, andanyone who wants to learn can.”

The chemicals used in the process of “cooking” the drug are whatmake meth labs dangerous, according to Mississippi Bureau ofNarcotics Agents Conner Magee and Chad Griffin.

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

“Can you believe people shoot this poison into their veins?”said Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department Narcotics Agent JimmyBarton.

When anhydrous ammonia reacts with water, it produces a toxicgas that can be lethal, Magee said, and water reacting with lithiumcan cause an explosion.

Most cooks steal their anhydrous ammonia from farmers’ tanks,but Barton said the situation in Lawrence County is much moredire.

“We are unique here, and it’s scary,” he said. “In othercounties, they are stealing anhydrous ammonia. In Lawrence County,we have only one tank so they’re making their own.”

And the number of dangerous labs is increasing. Magee andGriffin, who are dedicated full-time to meth investigations, haveworked on more than 100 meth lab cases in the past two years.

“That’s just in our area, in Southwest Mississippi,” Mageesaid.

There were no recorded meth lab seizures in Lawrence Countybefore Thames took office in January 2000, Barton said. Since then,approximately 35 labs have been taken down.

Fortunately, however, the limited availability of precursors hasprevented a “superlab” from being established here. A superlab isone capable of producing 10 or more pounds of methamphetamine inone production cycle. Most labs only produce a few ounces.

In addition to the dangers posed during the cooking process,meth labs also present a lingering danger with its wasteproducts.

“It’s such a safety hazard to everyone because of the chemicalsinvolved. It’s an extreme hazard,” Barton said.

The toxic and corrosive chemicals produced during the processcan cause irreparable harm to the environment when casuallydisposed, Griffin said.

Although meth dumps are not encountered frequently here, as inother states, Magee and Griffin said that is not because they arenot there. The MBN agents believe much of the waste is dumped inponds or creeks where they are not easily found.

“We don’t see a lot of dumps, and they’ve got to get rid of itsomehow,” Griffin said.

One way the agents know the cooks dispose of their waste is byburning it. In many of the labs they’ve investigated, they havefound the burnt remains of battery cases, cold medicine blisterpacks and ether cans. A normal fire will not destroy those itemsbecause it does not generate enough heat.

“Burnt battery casings and ether cans with holes punched intothe bottom of it are a dead giveaway that the ether was used forsomething other than its intended use,” Magee said. “There’s noother reason to do that than to drain the pressurization to get tothe ether.”

Once a lab is located and investigated, Griffin said, the agentscall the Department of Environmental Quality to come in andclean-up the site. The clean up is dangerous and veryexpensive.

Barton estimated the cost of a basic clean-up effort at $1,800,but added those costs can quickly spiral upwards at a contaminatedsite.

Fortunately, Griffin said, a state and federal DEQ fund has beenset up for meth lab clean-ups and they are done at no cost to thelocal agencies or government.

“They’ll transport the chemicals for destruction,” Griffin said.”We get rid of anything contaminated, from curtains and carpet tofurniture and appliances.”

Barton said the state legislature has recognized the need forstricter enforcement on meth laws.

Last year, the legislature passed a law increasing the penaltiesof manufacturing, possessing, distributing or usingmethamphetamines in the presence of minors. Those charges all carrya maximum penalty of 30 years. In the presence of a minor, however,the sentence can be doubled to 60 years. Other reasons that wouldallow prosecutors to seek the 60-year sentence includemanufacturing meth in a hotel or apartment building.

Law enforcement officers agree, however, that until ephedrineand pseudoephedrine are listed as a controlled substance, methabuse will continue to be a dangerous problem that can onlygrow.