The highly addictive drug is being easily cooked thanks to a so-called “one-pot” technique, which allows users to whip up the stimulant in a single serving.
And because it doesn’t require an elaborate arrangement, covert cooks are setting up shop in cars and going undetected.
“At home, one of their buddies might rat them out,” said Joe Mazzuca, CEO of operations for Idaho-based Meth Lab Cleanup LLC. “But in a car, they’re driving around. No one knows where they’re at.”
The remains of a vehicle destroyed in a shake-and-bake meth lab accident in Clarksville, Tenn., in August 2011. A police dashboard camera caught the vehicle on fire (inset).
While federal agencies don’t specifically track the number of mobile meth labs, total meth lab incidents nearly doubled from 6,951 in 2007 to 13,530 in 2011, according to the latest U.S. Government Accountability Office report.
The drug has been especially devastating in the Midwest and South, although other states are grappling with a sharp rise. New York’s meth lab incidents, for instance, climbed from 13 in 2007 to 46 in 2011.
Law enforcement experts trace the spread to the one-pot method, also referred to as “shake and bake,” which involves mixing together meth’s toxic ingredients in a 2-liter bottle. About 2 to 6 grams of meth is produced in a couple of hours.
This RV was found stolen in Olive Branch, Miss., in December 2012. Residue inside of it tested positive for methamphetamine
“It requires very few ingredients,” said Tommy Farmer, the Meth Task Force director in Tennessee, home to the nation’s most meth lab seizures in 2011. “The majority of our lab seizures are small labs — and they get very mobile.”
The types of vehicles that are used vary from pickup trucks to tractor-trailers. RVs, such as the one used by high school chemistry teacher Walter White in the TV drama, “Breaking Bad,” are also popular choices, Mazzuca said.
“We’ve been in business 10 years, and this last year has been the majority that we’ve seen of these cases,” he added. “We get alerts all the time, so it’s shocking how many cars police bust involved in shake and bake.”
The inside of a stolen RV in Olive Branch, Miss., that tested positive for methamphetamine
It can be difficult to detect a car doubling as a meth lab, said Sgt. Niki Crawford, who heads the Indiana State Police’s meth suppression unit.
“You might get a smell of ammonia or another strong chemical smell, but that doesn’t necessarily hang around,” Crawford said. “You’d have to catch someone as they’re (manufacturing) it.”
The recipe requires pseudoephedrine, a nasal decongestant found in certain cold medicines, along with various household items, including water, first-aid cold packs and lithium batteries.
Drug paraphernalia, including spoons and needles, found in a stolen RV in in Olive Branch, Miss.
Given the criminal element attached to meth making, the cars involved are sometimes stolen, Crawford said, and cops later come across them during police work.
Authorities also find the cars when the ingredients are handled improperly — causing an explosion that can seriously injure the cook.
Cars seized in a meth bust can be impounded as evidence or, in the case of a stolen vehicle, released back to the owner.
To protect consumers, eight states have laws requiring car dealers to inform buyers whether a vehicle has possible meth residue. They are: Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Washington and West Virginia.
A map showing the number of meth lab incidents in 2012, according to the El Paso Intelligence Center. Numbers may vary from other sources
A similar mobile meth-lab bill is being considered in Indiana, where incidents jumped 76% from 2007 to 2011. If passed, sellers who fail to notify consumers could be required to pay for the car’s decontamination and up to $10,000 in damages.
Mazzuca said rehabbing a meth-tainted car could run $3,000 to $7,000, including the cost of replacing the interior upholstery.
But more action is needed to slay the meth monster nationwide, law enforcement agencies say.
A display of items used in the ‘shake-and-bake’ method of manufacturing methamphetamine. The new technique uses far less of the drug pseudoephedrine than traditional methods
Although an estimated 80% of meth sold in the United States comes from “superlabs” in Mexico, the small-time operators can be hobbled if the government turns pseudoephedrine into a prescription-only drug, said Rob Bovett, the district attorney in Lincoln County, Ore.
Oregon did so in 2005 and has seen meth lab incidents dwindle from a high of 614 in 2002 to only 11 in 2011.
Mississippi in 2010 became the second state to do so, and meth lab incidents there fell from 937 that year to 321 in 2011, federal data shows.
Most states have some type of law regulating pseudoephedrine, although not as strict as Oregon and Mississippi.
Authorities wear Hazmat suits to investigate a mobile meth lab parked outside of a Walmart Supercenter in Springfield, Tenn., last year
“Congress has spent the last 30 years putting Band-Aids on a gaping wound, and kowtowing to the pharmaceutical industry and their surrogates, who use power, influence and money at the direct expense of public health and safety,” Bovett charged. “The industry should be ashamed, but they have no shame.”
Over-the-counter cold remedies remain a lucrative market, with Americans spending an estimated $4.2 billion a year on such products.
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, an industry trade group, said that while it supports some legislation, such as blocking the sale of Sudafed to convicted meth heads, it doesn’t believe the medicine should be harder to get.
The toxic ingredients of methamphetamine require investigators to wear protective suits. Authorities had arrested a driver in connection with a mobile meth lab in Springfield, Tenn., last year
“We are looking for effective solutions that punish criminals, not law-abiding citizens,” said association spokeswoman Elizabeth Funderburk.
Farmer, the Tennessee task force official, said as meth continues ravaging American communities, lawmakers shouldn’t delay making pseudoephedrine a controlled substance.
“I’ve never seen another drug come down the pike as devastating as this,” Farmer said. “We’re already off to a gangbuster year.”