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An Investigator’s Guide to the Methamphetamine Lab

Arm yourself with the facts to systematically, safely and successfully investigate, process and prosecute these dangerous operations.

December 01, 2000  |  by Detective David Street

Recipe for disaster? Cold tablets, containing pseudoephedrine, and common household lye are among the ingredients used to make methamphetamine.

The young children watched cartoons in the living room, while in the kitchen their mother dissolved cold tablets in a jar of denatured alcohol. She had closed up the house to keep the odors inside so her neighbors wouldn't call the police. The fumes became so concentrated they exploded when the refrigerator motor kicked on, causing a raging fire.

The young mother was engulfed in flames and ran outside, leaving her children inside the burning house. Fortunately, the 7-year-old boy was able to get his 3-year-old sister out, but the mother died from third-degree burns two weeks later.

Death by fire is never pleasant and the image of their mother rolling on the ground in agony is something these children will live with for the rest of their lives. What was their mother doing? She was extracting pseudoephedrine to make methamphetamine.

There's a growing crime trend across the United States. It's the small clandestine methamphetamine lab. Often called the kitchen lab, the ma and pa or Beavis and Butthead lab, these are typically small labs producing mere grams to ounces of methamphetamine. The most common recipe, at least here in California, is the red phosphorus/hydriodic acid/ephedrine process. Just like the Mexican national drug labs that produce large quantities of methamphetamine, these small labs are extremely dangerous, not only during the cooking process, but afterward, from the contamination left behind.


Drug labs are discovered in a variety of ways. The most obvious is when they explode and catch fire. Responding fire departments are getting more savvy when they find chemicals, such as red phosphorus, iodine crystals, bi-phase liquids, piles of empty pseudoephedrine blister packs, acetone, denatured alcohol, Coleman fuel, lye, charcoal lighter, muriatic acid, contaminated coffee filters, jars and tubing. They're now backing off and calling law enforcement.

Drug lab investigators collaborate with other professionals, such as Hazmat units and the health department, when processing methamphetamine labs.

Another typical manner of detection is through citizens reporting strange odors. Sometimes the citizens complain of headaches, nausea or feeling lightheaded.

Responding officers making contact at the suspicious location often find a drug lab. This can be particularly hazardous for the officers because they don't know what they are walking into and can easily be exposed to hazardous chemicals. On many occasions, I've had to have officers, as well as suspects, decontaminated by the Hazmat team on the scene.

It is important for the initial officer discovering a drug lab to contain the scene, detain all occupants and call the unit responsible for investigating and dismantling these types of operations. It's the investigator who will have the training and equipment to handle these dangerous Hazmat scenes.

Of course, narcotic officers' use of confidential informants is yet a common means of finding drug labs. Relatives and friends frequently turn in drug cookers because they're endangering their children or the neighborhood.

Investigator on Scene

Stabilizing the scene should be the first concern of the investigator when he or she arrives. Officers don't generally have the training to examine a drug lab, and they should not expose themselves to any more hazards than necessary.  At this stage of the investigation, the investigator is operating on an exigent circumstance basis and has open access to the property for evaluation of the potential hazards.

The investigator needs to coordinate with other emergency response units, such as the fire department Hazmat unit and the health department. As a team, they must ensure the hazards are contained and neutralized. Establishing danger zones, setting up decontamination equipment and taking other precautions are critical for site safety.

As long as exigent circumstances exist, access to the premises is lawful. I usually don protective clothing and examine the premises with Hazmat personnel to determine if there are any immediate hazards. I also take notes to articulate probable cause in case a search warrant is needed. If there are any immediate hazards, such as a bubbling drug lab, fuming chemicals or a toxic spill, we act to neutralize them. The particulars on handling a Hazmat scene (outside the parameters of this article) are taught in the Drug Enforcement Administration's "basic lab safety certification" course.

Once the scene is stabilized, it's time for the investigator to establish legal grounds for a search of the property and processing of the drug lab. While fire and health officials respond to stabilize a hazardous situation, the investigator is responsible for collecting evidence and building a criminal case. Thus, once the scene is stabilized, it falls under the investigator's control.

The search warrant is always the best foundation for a search, but not always necessary. Getting a written "consent to search" form, signed by the person in control of the property, is an alternative. Another route, at least in California, is available if exigent circumstances exist. Under California case law, People vs. Messina (165 Cal. App. 3d 937), officers may make entry and disassemble the drug lab if there's danger of an explosion or fire in a residential neighborhood.

When establishing these legal grounds for a search, I first talk to the initial officers and the suspect(s). It's necessary to identify the residents and what parts of the property they have dominion over. An example of this is a case where the initial officer had been dispatched to a residence on a suspicious odors call. He contacted the resident and asked about the odors. The resident denied there was a drug lab on the property and gave the officer verbal consent to search. The officer located a partial drug lab in the residence and a boxed drug lab in a motor home parked in the front yard. The officer did everything right. He froze the scene for a narcotics investigation, evacuated and detained all occupants, and called for assistance.

After stabilizing the scene, I interviewed the initial officer and the resident. The officer told me how he had obtained consent to search and where he had found the drug labs. The resident confirmed this, but added that he forgot to tell the officer that the motor home was not his. He was storing it for a friend who was out of town. The resident signed a "consent to search" form for his residence, but a search warrant was needed for the motor home. I obtained the necessary warrant and processed the drug labs.

Processing the Lab

Once the scene is stabilized and a legal foundation has been established for the search, these are the steps I follow in documenting a drug lab for criminal prosecution:

1. Interview the Suspects

Under Miranda, the interview helps establish who is in control of the property, who was involved in the drug cook, where it took place and when it last occurred. Establishing that the suspects had knowledge of this illegal activity is important in proving their guilt. Sometimes suspects will even share their recipes with you.

In addition to taking the suspect's statement, I always examine their hands and clothing closely. On many occasions, I have found staining and burns, which directly implicate suspects in the cooking process, even if they verbally deny it.

I also always conduct a drug influence evaluation on the suspect. Drug cookers will almost always be under the influence of methamphetamine, and a positive result on a blood or urine sample goes a long way toward implicating their involvement with the drug lab.

2. Document By Taking Photographs

As in any crime scene, before anything is moved, it's necessary to photograph it. This process of documenting where evidence was located should be completed from several points of view. One consideration is to prove that the suspect(s) had knowledge and access to the drug lab. Photograph any drug-lab-related items found in the suspect's bedroom or a common living area of the house, along with dominion, showing that the suspect had standing there. Lab-stained clothing, drug paraphernalia, used red phosphorus being saved for the next cook, scales, packaging, pay-owe sheets, pagers and indicia of sales are all common items I've used to link a suspect to the crime.

A second consideration is if child endangerment charges are being pursued. Photographs of how the drug lab components were accessible and a danger to the children will aid in establishing this charge. For example, show that these components were low enough to be in reach of toddlers; that they were in common living areas of the house to which the children had access; and that the hazardous chemicals, spilled on the floor or kitchen counter, could easily contaminate the children or their food. Finding the children's toys, clothing or diapers in a drug lab site is good evidence that the children had access to it. Even if the drug lab was locked away from the children, the potential for fires and toxic fumes endangers anyone living in the house or immediate area where a lab is located.

I once found a jar of caustic bi-phase liquid in a lower dresser drawer of a parent's bedroom. The parent's attorney argued in court that this room was not accessible to the children. I had taken a picture of the door to the parent's bedroom. It showed that the door had no lock. Each lab will be different, but if you can document any situation where children were endangered, juries will convict.

A third consideration is to establish that the drug cook took place on the property. Rarely do we find drug labs actually cooking. Often, they are boxed up or scattered around the property between cooks. To show that this was the actual site of the cook, it's helpful to photograph any contamination present. Amber and yellow liquid spills on the counter or floors, maroon or purple stains from fumes on the walls or ceiling, contaminated kitty litter dumped outside and suspicious chemicals in the garage are all good indicators that the drug cook occurred at this location. Lab-related trash, such as empty cold medication boxes, chemical containers, contaminated tubing and filters, contaminated glassware, used pH strips, contaminated clothing, acid-stained gloves and numerous other items are often found in the trash. Once you establish that a drug cook actually took place on the property, it's easier to hold the residents responsible for this lab.

The methamphetamine cooking process is extremely dangerous due to fumes and volatility of ingredients.

3. Document the Drug Lab

Having donned proper protective clothing, established escape routes and a chemical decontamination zone, you can now remove the drug lab components for documentation and sampling. In my agency, we remove all lab-related items onto a large plastic sheet, keeping track of where each item came from. For documentation purposes, each item is assigned a number. A close-up photo is taken of each item since we now have better light and can closely examine the contents.

After numbering and photographs, many of the items are "hazcatted," meaning their hazardous properties identified. This is done by measuring their pH, flammability and chemical nature (such as chlorination). It's a good idea to keep chemicals that may react with one another separate on the plastic sheet.

Samples are then extracted from some of the items and subsequently submitted to a crime lab. A chemical analysis will generally prove this is in fact a drug lab. Dominion, guns, scales, packaging, pay-owe sheets, drug recipes, chemical-supply catalogs and other relevant evidence should also be photographed and documented on this plastic sheet. Write out a description of each item, noting volume and suspected function in the drug-cooking process. A receipt for all items taken or destroyed must be left on the property.

All drug lab components that could hold a latent impression and are not too contaminated should be fingerprinted. This is an important form of proof as to who actually operated or was involved with this particular drug lab.

4. Arrange for Proper Disposal

Finally, the majority of the drug lab components will be destroyed by a hazardous waste company. Some of the larger cities and counties may have their own hazardous waste facilities and will perform this function. Many other cities and counties rely on private hazardous waste companies. Any item that was in a lab will have been exposed to hazardous fumes and chemicals. None of these items can be safely stored in a police evidence locker and must be destroyed. This is why it's necessary to obtain specific photographs and written documentation describing each item associated with the drug lab.

Note that only personnel certified to disassemble drug labs should be involved in this potentially dangerous process and everyone must strictly adhere to all safety precautions. This process is regulated by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on both the state and federal levels.

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