An Investigator’s Guide to the Methamphetamine Lab

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 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.

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.

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.[PAGEBREAK]


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.

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.

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.


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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