Firefighters and drug agents work at the scene of a confirmed methamphetamine lab in Oakfield in April, one of a record-breaking 19 found in Maine so far this year. Police charged Crystal Hitchcock, 29, with trafficking in meth and endangering the welfare of a child.
Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s Clandestine Drug Laboratory Enforcement Team processes a confirmed meth lab in Owls Head in November. A 40-year-old woman and three men in their 20s were arrested and charged with manufacturing and trafficking in methamphetamine
She doesn’t get far.
Still more people are discovered allegedly cooking meth in their cars, while others are catching themselves on fire.
The state has seen it all this year.
A special unit called the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency’s Clandestine Drug Laboratory Enforcement Team has responded to 19 confirmed methamphetamine labs so far in 2013, more than the past two years combined.
In 2009, the special team responded to one meth lab.
Police point to the recent ease of setting up a lab as a major reason — the “one-pot” method takes only a plastic soda bottle and over-the-counter finds such as lithium batteries and lye.
The trend in one-pots is making the drug for personal use, not so much for sale, but there’s still a steep cost for taxpayers: The MDEA has spent up to $15,000 to respond and clean up each lab.
Police say it’s also very easy for something to go wrong for “cookers” or bystanders.
So far, none of the 2013 labs has been found in the Twin Cities or western Maine, but Lewiston MDEA supervisor Matt Cashman has responded to each one in other parts of the state. He’s the lab team’s site safety officer.
“Different chemicals are used in making these things, none of which are good,” Cashman said. “We’ve got multiple concerns. With these one-pots, a lot of the time the disposal (method) is throwing it in a dumpster somewhere, which could potentially light off. You could throw it in a ditch, a fire could start there. Or potentially you could have some bottle-picker pick up a meth lab.”
Out in the field
The state started tracking the team’s meth lab responses in 2005. Up until 2011, the figures bobbed between one and six per year. That seemed to correlate with the era of the multi-step meth-making process, said lab team supervisor Sgt. Lowell “Chip” Woodman.
“We call it the red phosphorus method, the red P method. Then you have the Birch method or the Nazi method,” he said.
Under any name, it took several steps, more material and a several-hour “cooking” commitment to make one large batch.
The trend across the country over the past two years, he said, has been for a leaner process: one bottle to contain the reaction and 15 to 20 minutes of “cook” time. The result is enough for one or two doses.
“Today’s meth cooker/chemist is nothing more than a person who’s making enough to use,” Woodman said. “We’re not seeing a person who is manufacturing it to sell. The flip side of that is it doesn’t make any difference; the hazardous waste is still the hazardous waste, whether it’s from a person who just manufactured three grams of meth versus a person who manufactured an ounce of meth.”
Ingredients, or “precursors,” are readily available at hardware stores and pharmacies.
“They put all the precursors into one container and start the reactions going,” Woodman said. “It’s the simplest thing in the world to make; the problem is, they’re highly volatile.”
Two years ago, Tulsa, Okla., police attempted to film that chemical reaction in progress. In the 17-second clip, two officers are demonstrating how dangerous mixing the materials can be when the bottle accidentally blows up in their hands. Woodman uses the video in presentations.
“It’s pretty impressive,” he said. “It can go very wrong. We’re hearing more and more often that people are getting burned or they’re having one burn up on them or catch fire.”
For police this year, that’s frequently been a tip-off. Word is out to fire departments and hospital emergency rooms to pass along inexplicable fires or burns.
Woodman said they’ve also discovered the labs through informants, surveillance and checks on a statewide database that tracks individuals’ cold-medicine buys.
By law, Maine consumers are limited to purchasing no more than three grams in a day of the specific drugs labeled “precursor” ingredients, like the decongestant pseudoephedrine, and no more than nine grams in a month. Pharmacists flag attempts to purchase more.
“We don’t just go in and start pulling people’s names randomly,” Woodman said. “We have to have a reason.”
Eleven of the 19 labs this year have been in Aroostook County. The rest are spread throughout the state, in cities including Bath, Bangor and Saco. Four of the 19 labs have been in vehicles: in essence, mobile meth labs. Three were in open fields. Eight have been single-family homes, three multi-unit apartment buildings and one site a hotel and parking lot.
Though there is some overlap, pockets of the state seem to have drugs of choice, either stimulants or opioids, according to MDEA Director Roy McKinney. That partly explains all of the activity in The County.
Methamphetamine, a highly addictive stimulant, is stepping in as a “bath-salts” substitute as that becomes harder to get. The Foundation for a Drug-Free World says meth, which is commonly smoked, “creates a false sense of happiness and well-being . . . then begins to systematically destroy the body.” A user can become dependent after the first try.
Dozens of people may respond to the scene of a confirmed meth lab: local police, fire and ambulance services, MDEA lab team members, a Department of Health and Human Services chemist and, often, two specially trained Department of Environmental Protection staffers.
“This isn’t a case of, ‘OK, we can send two officers to handle it,'” McKinney said.
For every MDEA officer in the lab’s “hot zone,” there’s one other person suited up and ready to come to his or her aid. Costs rack up through overtime and equipment. Each protective thermal suit, for example, costs $1,000.
“We can usually get three wears out of it,” he said. Then, the suit’s no good.
McKinney doesn’t have a budget for meth lab responses; it comes out of other projects. “At some point, that money is going to run out.”
On scene, each agent has a role, Cashman said. Some specialize in decontamination; others take samples that help in the prosecution.
“These things are so unpredictable,” he said. “We worry about explosive gases, explosive chemicals. We’re constantly checking and monitoring air quality and explosive levels in the labs.”
DEP workers pack the material for transit and eventual disposal, often out of state.
“It’s not super toxic, but some of the corrosive materials are reactive materials such as lithium,” said Peter Blanchard, director of the DEP’s Division of Response Services. “You just want to make sure you’re not going to cause a fire hazard or an exposure hazard for a burn.
“Down the road, if these materials were left in an uncontrolled manner, you could have an exposure from an unwitting child,” he said. Or, improperly dumped, “that could have an adverse impact on surface water or pets outside.”
Between staff time, equipment and disposal fees, the DEP has spent between $700 and $2,000 per response.
None of the men could guess what 2014 will bring. Given 2013’s numbers, they’re worried.
“Nineteen. In some states, they’re going to laugh at you; they’re responding to hundreds,” McKinney said. “(But) we’re concerned that the numbers will continue to rise and with that is the cost.”
Cashman said they’ve been busy trying to educate first responders on what to look for during a call, for safety’s sake.
“I don’t want them to go in for somebody with a medical call for an ambulance service and step on a one-pot and touch that one-pot off,” he said.
New Hampshire is averaging one confirmed meth lab per week, Cashman said. Given that number, Maine and its western counties bordering New Hampshire likely have more going on than they’re uncovering, he said.
“It’s easily done in small groups of people,” he said. “You teach a friend who teaches a friend who teaches a friend. All the items you need are extremely accessible without having to stand on a street corner and do some shady deal.”
History of meth
- 1919: A Japanese pharmacologist develops methamphetamine to treat fatigue.
- World World II: The drug is tested on Allied pilots, hoping to keep them alert on long flights. It doesn’t work; they get irritable and aggressive.
- 1950s: Meth is sold in pill form under nicknames like “pep pills” and “bennies,” purported to treat weight loss, narcolepsy and sinus inflammation.
- 1960s: San Francisco doctors prescribe meth to heroin addicts.
- 1970: Congress passes the Controlled Substances Act, regulates meth and starts talking about its dangers.
- 1990s: Advances in cooking make meth four to six times more potent. Pockets of the U.S. start to see use rise, particularly in rural locations.
- 1996: Congress passes the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act. Anyone buying large supplies of precursor chemicals used to produce meth must prove the purchase is legitimate. Sellers can also be held responsible.
- 2000: Meth is more popular than crack, cocaine and heroin in the Northwest and West. Doctors still occasionally prescribe it.
SOURCE: Vermont Department of Health