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Clandestine Meth Labs

Tracking down a lab requires you to work with non-police personnel. Raiding one requires you to work with other agencies and use finesse.

January 01, 2009  |  by Joseph Petrocelli - Also by this author

About 20 percent of all meth labs are discovered due to an explosion. Besides the obvious immediate concerns associated with any structure explosion, meth labs create a special set of problems for law enforcement. Police must be aware of these concerns and have a plan in place to mitigate them.

Many different types of illegal drugs (ecstasy, PCP, LSD, among others) are manufactured in clandestine laboratories, but methamphetamine accounts for the vast majority of drugs manufactured in such labs. These labs are found in all 50 states and in all types of settings, including rural farms, suburban homes, city apartments, and even in vehicles traveling along the roadways.

Types of Labs

There are two main types of clandestine methamphetamine laboratories. One is the super lab, a highly organized and very sophisticated lab that uses highly trained "cooks," specialized assistants, and the best equipment available. The other type of clandestine meth lab is the small scale "Mom and Pop" (or "Beavis and Butthead") lab. Such labs are generally run by the meth users and typically produce enough for personal use with a little left over to sell.

Police need to be aware of what types of labs are prevalent in their area. Smaller scale labs can be found across the country and account for about 90 percent of all labs. But the super labs produce more than 80 percent of the methamphetamine found on the street. Most super labs are concentrated in Southern California and Mexico.

Toxic Stew

The professional nature of the super labs makes them safer than the toxic smaller labs. With their haphazard production techniques, drug-addled cooks, and primitive equipment, smaller labs account for the vast majority of explosions, fires, and illegal hazardous waste disposal attributable to meth production.

The toxic nature of the smaller labs is a major concern for police. Methamphetamine laboratories produce a disproportionate amount of hazardous waste. Every pound of methamphetamine produces five to six pounds of hazardous waste. Irresponsible lab workers dispose of this waste in a number of illegal and dangerous ways, including burial or burning. Often, they will pour the toxic waste down the drain or dispose of it in household garbage, exposing sanitation workers and the community to the poison. Grounds and waters supplies may remain contaminated for years by meth waste products.

Ventilation of a clandestine meth lab is another hazard. If the lab is properly ventilated, toxic fumes are spread throughout the surrounding community. Poorly ventilated labs allow the toxic and explosive fumes to collect. These toxic fumes can be injurious to workers, innocent people in or around the lab (including children of lab workers), and responding police. The mixture of chemicals and the absence of basic lab safety precautions can cause explosions, triggered by lit cigarettes, electrical switches, or even a dynamic police entry.

Precursor Items

It is estimated that 34 different chemicals are required to make methamphetamine. Some of the most common precursor chemicals include ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, red phosphorous, iodine, hydrochloric acid, ether, and anhydrous ammonia. Some of these chemicals are relatively easy to obtain while others are somewhat difficult to obtain.

The United States does not manufacture ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, so much of the chemicals needed to produce meth are obtained from over-the-counter medicines. It takes thousands of over-the-counter ephedrine tablets to produce one pound of methamphetamine, so anyone buying bulk amounts of products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine should be viewed suspiciously.

Other materials needed to make methamphetamine are available from retail outlets. These seemingly innocuous items include cold and allergy medicines, lye, rock salt, battery acid, and pool acid. These items are illegally converted in a process using equipment such as glass jars, rubber tubing, coffee filters, and hot plates.

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