Clandestine Meth Labs

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.

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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.


Intel Assets

The small and mobile nature of clandestine methamphetamine laboratories make it almost impossible for any department to track every lab. But with knowledge of the necessary precursor items and a well-trained community, you can focus on certain individuals who accumulate or attempt to obtain suspicious articles.

If there is no legislation in place restricting sales of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine products, you can request that pharmacists keep these medicines in locked display cases and keep records of anyone who buys an excessive amount of these products. Be aware that cold remedies are often sold in some locations, including tobacco stores, arcades, teen clothing stores, and music stores—that don't normally cater to cold sufferers.

Pharmacists are not the only members of the community who can help you locate suspicious persons, suspicious purchases, or suspicious circumstances. Identify members of the community who may have incidental dealings with meth lab workers, including:

Postal carriers may notice large bulk deliveries of medicines to a household. These deliveries may come from source countries of meth precursor drugs (Germany is the largest producer of ephedrine; India and China are major exporters of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine; phenylpropanolamine is imported from Taiwan and Japan).

Postal workers may also notice a household that receives a lot of mail but does not appear to be "lived in." They can note that there are no cars present; there's a build up of circulars on the front lawn; the lawn is poorly maintained; and there are no curtains on the windows. Carriers may also see people who come outside of the structure to smoke cigarettes.

Sanitation workers may notice a large amount of garbage generated from a smaller residence or a large amount of empty over-the-counter cold remedy containers being discarded.

Utility workers may notice unusual energy demands from a structure. A seemingly vacant residence with a large, continuous demand for energy may indicate a meth lab.

Resident managers and rental property managers should be suspicious of anyone who rents a property with cash payments but cannot provide any references.

These workers have limited legal access to properties that could be used for meth labs and should be trained to identify suspicious odors associated with the clandestine production of methamphetamine, including:

  • Garlic, a possible indicator of phosphine
  • Rotten eggs, which may indicate sulfur
  • Cat urine, which may indicate ammonia
  • Nail polish remover, which may indicate acetone
  • Hospital smell, which may indicate ether

Other non-police personnel who should be trained in meth lab indicators include hotel and motel workers, health care workers, and emergency medical personnel. All of the above should be able to recognize the physical deterioration caused by methamphetamine use: rotting teeth, open sores, and a chemical odor emanating from the body.

Once a meth user or cooker is located or arrested, ask specific questions designed to measure the size of the clandestine laboratory and how much meth is produced. How often does the lab run a production cycle? Is the lab producing for personal use or for distribution? Are the drugs sold from the point of production or are they shipped to a street distribution location?

Raiding the Lab

Prior to approaching any meth lab, ascertain as much information as possible about the people in the lab and their behaviors. How many people are usually present in the lab and what are their roles? Are there always the same people in the lab or do people come and go? Does the cook consume his product? How sophisticated is the lab? Is it booby trapped? Are weapons present? Are children present?

Children pose a special set of problems. Very often these children are unsupervised and in poor health. In one study, 66 percent of all children located at meth lab sites tested positive for toxic levels of chemicals in their bodies. When you plan a raid on a clandestine meth lab, expect to encounter children who are going to need medical attention. It is usually best to bring a representative of a social service agency along on the raid.

Proper coordination with other agencies greatly enhances the success of any clandestine meth lab raid. All responders must be properly trained and equipped to enter the toxic atmosphere of a meth lab. Work with representatives of the health department or Environmental Protection Agency prior to conducting a raid.

Hitting the target and securing the occupants does not end the threat when dealing with a clandestine laboratory. Be acutely aware of the volatile and dangerous nature of the chemicals in the lab. To this end, every member of the raid team must be advised not to touch or smell any containers. Chemical containers should not be moved or opened. Do not plug in or unplug any electric devices. And absolutely no smoking.

Clandestine methamphetamine laboratories are becoming a common law enforcement problem throughout the country. It is a widespread problem that requires you to train and mobilize citizens in your jurisdiction. Once a meth lab is located, you are confronted with a dangerous crime scene that poses both short and long term threats to first responders. To mitigate these threats, develop a multi-agency response plan for dealing with and investigating clandestine methamphetamine laboratories.

Det. Joseph Petrocelli is a 20-year veteran of New Jersey law enforcement. He can be contacted through

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Detective (Ret.)
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