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Methamphetamine use has been around for decades. Amphetamines were given to German and Japanese factory workers in WWII to increase their productivity. West Coast cooks used ephedrine to make a potent version of the drug crystal meth in the 1980s, and it went from small shops set up to take care of supplying biker gangs to the extensive use of home labs.
DEA efforts in the late-1980s curtailed raw materials, such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, and meth makers simply started buying readily available over-the-counter cold relief pills, and changed their process to extract the ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. The only constant is that meth makers are constantly changing their process based on what is available.
Clan Meth Labs Now Smaller
Sheriff Rick Walter of Scott County, Mo., pointed out that the same people have been using meth for years. One jail inmate told him that as long as wheels turn on the highway meth will still come in. His earlier enforcement efforts centered on interdiction of drugs trafficked in, and then a few years ago his department’s efforts were required to combat the explosion of “mom and pop” meth labs.
Precursor legislation curtailed much of that activity in Missouri as in other states and their efforts again centered on interdiction programs. Scott County began having a lot of meth coming in from Mexico, although that was not readily apparent. Sheriff Walter was interviewing a Mexican Mafia inmate regarding a cold case homicide investigation. This inmate pointed to his own skin and said he stood up too well trying to distribute drugs in Missouri and therefore used local Caucasian males to traffic the meth.
During the past two years, Scott County has returned its attention to local meth labs, this time combating “shake and bake” or “one-pot” labs. Sheriff Walter stated, “This type of meth making has taken hold because it is much quicker, taking one to two hours, and with about $20 to $30 meth makers can make a batch of about 2 grams of meth, which sells for $100 a gram. They continue using the mixture although it gets weaker with each batch, but they can get 6 to 8 grams off the same batch of ingredients, each batch getting less potent. For that initial $20 to $30 investment, they can sell as much as $800 to $900 worth of meth. Often part of it is for personal use and they sell the remaining batches.
Tom McNamara, special operations coordinator for the Southern Illinois Enforcement Group, stated its unit initially encountered “one-pot” or “shake and bake” labs in 2004. McNamara said, “when legislation limited access to large amounts of pills, meth makers went to the one-pot method, which involves combining all four steps at once using the same basic recipe in glass jars or plastic freezer bags. They can use a gallon freezer bag and burp it in the same method they would a bottle.”
He pointed out that meth makers have taken another very dangerous step. They are making their own anhydrous ammonia using ammonium sulfate or ammonium nitrate. They use lye or sodium hydrochloride which reacts and creates anhydrous ammonia using a device that resembles a still. They use liquid propane which is very cold and as the gas goes through it condenses to a liquid form of anhydrous ammonia. This process is very dangerous and builds up tremendous pressure.
McNamara said the large number of labs has caused people to be more tolerant of meth labs just as they become with other police issues. The news media shows less interest about it as the prolonged exposure to meth makers makes it a less sexy topic. This tolerance is dangerous to combating meth because there has been another upward surge in meth making as people come out of prison and get back into the business. Economic factors in rural areas and lack of other interests may also foster it.
Sheriff Larry Mills of Poinsett County, Ark., said they ran across the one-pot method in 2008 for the first time and have since then seen more of it. He said, “It is more popular with the meth makers because they can use whatever they have available to make a batch of meth. With the Nazi method, they had to have a large amount of pseudoephedrine and it has become harder for them to get it with legislation limiting the amount sold of any product containing ephedrine through the use of electronic record keeping.” He said the meth makers get groups of 6 to 8 people, which is called “smurfing,” and each buys the full amount legally permissible and combines it to make a batch of meth.
Shake and Bake Labs
Sheriff Walter stressed that, “When you think you’ve got them figured out, they come out with another recipe and they start over again. The shake and bake method generates a lot of heat. They mix up the ingredients and shake them up and have to know when to release the pressure by turning the cap.”
He interviewed a meth maker who explained to him that if you release the pressure either too early or too late, it will likely explode. The man explained to him that he did not usually make meth when he was high, but did one time and his impairment led him to releasing the pressure at the wrong time and it exploded. He was one of the more careful meth cookers and had the mixture in a bath tub in case it blew and had wet towels ready which he used to extinguish the flashover.
Because the pressure is simply regulated by releasing the cap, it is extremely volatile. When the Sheriff asked him how he knew when to release the pressure, he told him that you gain experience through time and one way is that the meth maker can feel the bottle swell if you use plastic bottles instead of glass.
Sheriff Mills also had a jail prisoner who explained the one-pot method. The prisoner had had a bottle explode once and it burned him. He told Sheriff Mills that you use what you have, whether you have a handful or a bag of pseudoephedrine. It is less time consuming and they can skip steps in between, depending on what ingredients are available. They just put everything in the bottle and shake it up and let it sit. His informant told him that you simply check on it occasionally and loosen the lid to keep it from exploding.
Meth Labs Remain Dangerous
Sheriff Walter stressed on the innovation of meth cookers. He said they found an anhydrous lab in 2008 with a valve coming out of the top of the bottle in an unusual manner. They found that the maker was using ammonium nitrate and propane to make their own anhydrous ammonia. They have also found meth labs using the “ice blue packs” along with propane to make anhydrous ammonia. Anhydrous ammonia weakens the valve on propane tanks and is very dangerous.
Sheriff Walter said that usually when they serve warrants on a meth lab there are children living in the home, in what is basically a hazardous waste site. His department has its own Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team group and its tactical team probably looks like a group of ninjas to the frightened children. Once the scene is secure, he has a chaplain with the department who accompanies the deputies take over the handling of the children.
The Sheriff has four people certified to take down meth labs. Missouri has a central location in Cape County, Jackson, Mo., to receive the hazardous materials. They take care of tearing down the labs its county. They can’t afford to tie up the bomb squads with tearing down the meth labs found in its county. They have been pretty successful in deactivating meth labs, but it is very dangerous. Sheriff
Walter acknowledged that anyone can run into a dangerous situation even with trained officers. He said that a couple years ago, his deputies were looking for a meth lab and the smell was so strong they couldn’t tell the exact location on the property. One deputy was checking a building to recover stolen property while the deputies in protective gear were getting the children out of a trailer, the likely location of the lab. The deputy opened a shed and found the actual meth lab and was nearly overtaken by the fumes. Another deputy responded to a burglary call at a vacant house and saw a man through a window. Giving chase, he ran across a “shake and bake” lab in the vacant house.
Sheriff Mills reported that no matter how the meth is made, it is dangerous for his officers. He recalled an incident where one of the deputies had just set a tank down and entered a safe area when the tank blew to pieces. The meth makers steal anhydrous from farmers and store it in scuba or butane tanks. He said when deputies transported these back to the department during hot weather, the heat combined with the containers being shaken in transport caused explosions on two occasions. The relief valves on the tanks did not function and blew the tanks apart.
His deputies also have had minor burns to their lungs from the anhydrous ammonia. They now have instituted safety guidelines and procedures and wear protective clothing and have officers who are certified in cleaning up meth labs.
Geographic Meth Lab Variations
The methods used to produce methamphetamine depend on the availability of ingredients and the method generally used in that geographical area. Each method has its own inherent dangers, and when law enforcement made their earliest encounters with meth labs the dangers were even greater.
Lieutenant Jack Luikart of the Metropolitan Drug Enforcement Network of Putnam County, West Virginia, said, “There has been a steady increase in red P (phosphorous) labs, mostly small- to medium-sized, but sometimes you find even large labs. This has happened despite 2005 legislation limiting the sales of pseudoephedrine and iodine. The legislation outlawed the sale of 7% iodine, which was used in making red P meth. The meth cookers just started using larger quantities of 1% iodine, which is still sold.”
Luikart stated that when meth makers could no longer buy quantities of pseudoephedrine, they went to Ohio and Kentucky where it was more easily accessible. Now they load up as many people as they can in a car and go from town to town and buy the allowed amount. After the West Virginia precursor legislation passed, the number of labs dropped below half of what it had been at the peak, but has now risen back up. Luikart said, “We are seeing some reoffenders, but many of them are previously uninvolved younger adults who get involved through older adults or who just want to try meth. These new offenders are more brazen and more refined. They work to get a better quality of meth by combining different chemicals in different ways.”
Luikart’s unit has only encountered one anhydrous ammonia lab and their efforts are focused on the red phosphorous manufacturing method or red P labs. They are not finding one-pot labs such as those found in the Midwest at this time. Luikart has led his drug unit through the meth era, making arrests and “knocking down” meth labs.
He stressed that his unit’s greatest fear initially was the unknown, the concern about what continually entering homes with meth labs would do to their health. That need for protection from chemical hazards prompted his unit early on to acquire protective clothing and breathing apparatus systems, with a requirement for a yearly physical examination, including a lung capacity test to determine any deficiencies. He said that other West Virginia departments had officers permanently disabled with chemical pneumonia.
Safety Requires Being Observant
Dangers lie in officers encountering meth labs unexpectedly, serving warrants or performing routine traffic stops when they run into someone cooking methamphetamine. Residences, outbuildings and vehicles are meth lab locations and there are different things to look for depending on where an officer is searching.
Propane tanks with blue around the valve may indicate they contain anhydrous ammonia. Residences or outbuildings with foil covered windows, pit bulls at entrance doors or debris outside that contain starter fluid cans, discarded cold pill blister packs or plastic bottles with dirty looking contents may all be clues that a meth lab has been operating.
Officers need training to recognize these signs because sometimes there simply is so much clutter at a residence that it is easy to overlook what might be signs of a meth lab in the rubble. Neighbors reporting strange smells, or residences with extraordinary security, such as surveillance cameras where there is nothing of apparent value, can suggest illicit activities.
When asked what officers should be looking for with the red P labs they encounter, Luikart said that glass jars and beakers are often found at meth lab sites. They find both mobile and residential red P labs. There may often be an unusual smell, but he cautioned about telling someone what kind of smell to question.
Luikart noted, “There are different smells depending on the step in the meth making process. To begin with, there may be a smell of solvents, then a mixture of chemical smells and then with the HCO, an acidic smell, very harsh, because it is hydrochloric acid gas. This is very dangerous because if the iodine, red P and pseudoephedrine are overheated, it creates deadly phosgene or mustard gas.”
Rolling meth labs are nothing out of the ordinary, with both anhydrous labs and red P labs. Officers may encounter labs during routine traffic stops when they see a driver driving erratically or throwing things out of the car. Officers need training in the type of meth labs in their areas, and must be aware that they change all the time, requiring officers to be even more careful, especially when labs are reported. Knowing what to look for is very important due to the constantly changing methods used by meth makers.
Kathy Marks has been a child abuse investigator for nearly 30 years. She contributes to law enforcement magazines and teaches law enforcement classes on domestic terrorism.
Published in Law and Order, Jun 2011
Rating : 7.9
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