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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

Dangers

While the recipe for making methamphetamine is easily available, I don't intend to give out a specific formula. There are many ways to make methamphetamine. In California, the small labs generally use the red phosphorus/hydriodic acid/ephedrine technique. There are four phases involved in this route.

  • The first phase is to obtain ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. These chemicals are now strictly controlled. The most common way of getting the substance is to extract the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine from over-the-counter cold, nasal decongestant and hay fever medications. The primary hazard during this first phase is occurrence of fires and explosions because alcoholic solvents are commonly heated up during this process. Drug cookers rarely understand this and in an attempt to conceal the strong odors emitted during this process, they will seal off the cook site to keep the odors in. The end result is disastrous.
  • The second phase of methamphetamine manufacture is called the conversion step. A very acidic mixture of chemicals is heated during this phase, resulting in a number of serious hazards. For one, this reaction mixture is very acidic and can cause serious chemical burns to the skin or eyes. As this mixture is heated, it gives off acid fumes, which, if inhaled, can cause serious burns to the lungs. Under certain conditions, this mixture can give off phosphine gas, which is very toxic. There are numerous documented deaths caused by these fumes. The reaction mixture fumes can also explode and catch fire.
  • The third phase involves the chemical extraction of the methamphetamine from the reaction mixture. This involves changing the pH of the reaction mixture from very acidic to very basic and mixing in an organic solvent. The dangers break down into three categories. First, the reaction mixture gives off acidic fumes. Second, changing the pH of the reaction mixture by adding a strong base will generate an exothermic reaction that produces its own chemical heat and can cause an explosion or fire. Third, because organic solvents are generally very flammable, the possibility of fire or explosion is again introduced.
  • The fourth phase is the chemical extraction of methamphetamine from the organic solvent. This involves adding an acid or acid gas to the solvent to solidify the finished methamphetamine. Both techniques again result in the cooker handling either acid gas or liquid acid with their respective hazards.

The final danger is the methamphetamine itself, which is both physically and psychologically dangerous to the user.


Document evidence both in situ and laid out on a sheet of plastic. Relevant evidence might include guns, bottles and tubing. All evidence should be numbered, photographed and many of the items “hazcatted,” meaning their chemical properties are identified. It’s a good idea to keep chemicals that may react with one another on a separate sheet.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

There are numerous other dangers associated with methamphetamine labs. For one thing, the drug cookers are almost always users of methamphetamine. Traits such as confusion, paranoia and lack of sleep magnify this already dangerous process.

These drug cookers rarely have any formal education or understanding of the use and handling of the dangerous chemicals involved. On many occasions, when drug cookers have shared their recipes with me, I've found they had no idea what the process really involved. Most of them simply follow a recipe taught to them by friends or that they worked out through trial and error.

The drug cookers rarely wear any safety equipment. I have found cookers using cloth dust masks, thinking this would stop the toxic fumes from entering their lungs. They frequently use latex gloves, thinking this will protect them from the strong acids and bases used in this process. The real tragedy is that these drug cookers also expose their wives, children and friends to these hazards since the family house, garage or shed is commonly used as the drug cook site. Cookers do not realize that the residual chemicals and waste left behind continue to contaminate anyone in the structure for weeks, months and years after the cook takes place.

Drug cookers also commonly save chemicals and lab waste for their next cook. They rarely store these dangerous chemicals in proper containers. If not properly stored, these containers leak fumes and liquids, which will contaminate anyone who enters the structure. This practice also increases the chances of spontaneous explosions or fires as the fumes build up.

After the drug cook is done, cookers will do some cleaning to avoid detection. It's not uncommon for them to pour these toxic liquids down the drain into our sewers or septic systems. They will throw the various contaminated jars, filters, tubing and waste products into a bag and dump it in a field or bury it in the back yard. Cookers rarely understand that the mixing of incompatible chemicals may result in spontaneous combustion causing a fire. They also are contaminating the land and anyone who's around.

Drug lab fires are probably one of the most dangerous Hazmat scenes the investigator will have to handle. Many of these chemicals continue to release toxic fumes even after the fire has been put out. Red phosphorus is one common chemical used in drug labs and, when exposed to fire, it can turn into white phosphorus. White phosphorus burns when exposed to air and gives off a strong acid vapor. Water just spreads the white phosphorus around, and it will continue to burn until the air is cut off. Smothering it with dry sand works, but it will re-ignite if exposed to air again. I've seen that happen several times when the hazardous waste crew is trying to package white phosphorus for disposal.

Another common hazard in fires is when chemicals leak from their containers as they burn or melt. The entire site becomes contaminated, especially when the fire department hoses the area down.

Many of the effects of drug lab chemicals on the human body are still unknown. Clearly, they impact the health of drug cookers and their families living in that environment. Families who unknowingly move into contaminated houses after the cooker has moved on may also be affected.  Even law enforcement officers who work these kinds of investigations may well be affected. There's growing documentation of drug lab investigators coming down with various types of cancer after years of exposure. The bottom line is that it's all bad and a real problem for the communities we serve.


If children are at the scene, their presence should be documented.

Prosecution Pointer

Each state has its own drug lab statutes. In California, a suspect who "manufactures, compounds, converts, produces, derives, processes or prepares an illicit drug" can be found guilty of this crime. In other words, you don't have to have the entire lab at a location to prove drug manufacturing. Just part of the lab is sufficient. And this makes sense because the more savvy cookers often will only do one part of the process at a location and then move on. Fearing detection due to odors, or concerned that someone might tell, they will move to another location for the rest of the process.

In court, the question often comes up if the evidence you found was a drug lab or just lab waste. In my view, if there's evidence of manufacture, it's adequate for prosecution. For example, I once arrested a cooker who had about a pound of red phosphorus he'd used in a cook. He also had muriatic acid, Coleman fuel and lye. A lab analysis showed that the used red phosphorus contained methamphetamine. From this, I was able to testify that with the above chemicals, the cooker could extract finished methamphetamine from the used red phosphorus. He was convicted on this evidence.

If you find bi-phase liquids or precursors at a lab site, the same case can be made. A full-blown lab is not needed for a conviction. In fact, you only need to show that the cooker was involved in a step toward making methamphetamine.

Since we rarely catch a cooker in the process of making methamphetamine, it becomes our burden to prove this was his or her drug lab. To do this, show that the cooker had control of the property where the drug lab was found. Look for evidence of past manufacture, such as staining and contamination on the property. Look for lab waste and empty chemical containers in the trash. Contaminated jars, funnels and coffee pots, stained tubing and coffee filters, polluted kitty litter, used red phosphorus reaction mass in filters, acidic or basic liquids in unmarked containers, bi-phase liquids, duct tape, scientific glassware, used turkey basters, coffee bean grinders, pH strips and many other items can be very incriminating and establish this nexus.

Examine the cook's person and clothing, looking for chemical stains and burns. I frequently seize a suspect's clothing and have it analyzed for drug lab evidence. Drug-use paraphernalia is another indicator of illegal activity. Used meth pipes, pay-owe sheets, packaging, scales, chemical warehouse catalogs, cell phones, pagers, homemade videotapes of the manufacture process and chemistry books are all good evidence.

Conduct a drug influence examination on the suspect, showing that the cooker is a drug user. Drug cookers are often their own best customers. Take a detailed statement under Miranda. It's not uncommon for cookers to admit their guilt and reveal their recipes. They frequently will tell you that they are addicted to methamphetamine and just cook for their own personal use, as if this alleviates the crime. Any of these factors will help convict the cooker.

Conclusions

Although these small drug labs rarely produce even moderate amounts of methamphetamine, they are extremely hazardous. It's critical that the initial officers on scene learn to recognize drug lab components, respect lab hazards and avoid contamination. Per OSHA, only trained and certified investigators are allowed to process drug labs.

There are many unseen hazards at drug labs. One officer on my department unknowingly entered a shed where a boxed lab was stored. It was a hot day and after just minutes of exposure, the officer became dizzy and felt nauseated. After the officer was released from the hospital, she suffered severe daily and then weekly headaches for at least a year. The headaches eventually diminished, but nobody knows what long-term effects may show up later.

Narcotic investigators who are repeatedly exposed to drug labs may be unknowingly affected. Some of the investigators who worked drug labs before me are now coming down with various illnesses. I like to think that the safety equipment and procedures we now employ will protect us from these problems, but it will take years to know for certain. Our investigators have annual "medical baseline" testing to detect dangerous levels of chemicals and indicators of illness. It's critical to maintain strict control of these scenes and comply with all OSHA safety procedures.

The unseen victims of these drug labs are the children. They are exposed to second-hand smoke when their parents smoke methamphetamine. We find it in their blood. The children are exposed to the chemicals, fires and violence when their parents cook and sell drugs in their homes. We see it during the arrests and search warrants. Finally, the children are exposed to the emotional trauma of separation when their parents are arrested and they are placed in strange shelters or foster homes. Due to the methamphetamine epidemic, there's a growing trend of grandparents and adoptive parents raising the children of these addicts.

In Southern California, small drug labs are commonplace and a real menace to our communities. Explosions, fires, injuries and deaths from drug labs are the result, as well as drug overdoses and the violence associated with this most dangerous drug.

But this isn't just a Southern California problem. There's growing evidence that this epidemic is spreading eastward to both rural and urban communities. The DEA has been training agencies in drug lab investigations for years and many agencies across the country are already well versed in these techniques. As with the many new problems of the 21st century, law enforcement has a real need for new training and to be prepared.

David Street is a detective with the Riverside County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department. The 21-year law enforcement veteran has worked in the department's major narcotics unit for more than seven years, processing more than 350 clandestine drug labs. Street, who holds a B.S. in criminal justice, has also worked on two narcotics task forces with both the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. This is his first contribution to POLICE.

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Tags: Drug Enforcement, Drug Investigations, Meth Labs, Citizen Involvement, Crime Scene Investigations, Criminal Informants, Narcotics Task Forces


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