Press-Republican

March 2, 2014

Meth labs go under the radar

By LOHR McKINSTRY
Press-Republican

---- — ELIZABETHTOWN — Methamphetamine labs are easy to find if you know what to look for.

To teach public officials and first responders what those signs are, police and emergency-services representatives have been holding meetings to discuss the situation and show PowerPoint presentations of the steps that go into making the illegal drug.

State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services Fire Protection Specialist Victor Graves has been speaking to fire companies and emergency-medical personnel, while State Police Sgt. Chad Niles has been briefing public officials and highway workers on how to recognize a clandestine drug lab.

“Chad has been very helpful to many public officials, including myself,” Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague told the County Board of Supervisors and others gathered for a recent session. “(Meth production is) a very dangerous situation for the people within your community.”

VOLATILE COMBINATION

People acting strangely and buying or disposing of certain items — like Sudafed packs and Coleman Fuel containers — are now very conspicuous, Niles said.

“I think we’ve had an impact. It’s more difficult for these people to engage in that kind of behavior. They have to do it a lot farther under the radar.”

In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, two meth labs were found in Essex County, five in Clinton and one in Hamilton.

But police believe there are many more methamphetamine-making operations underway, Niles said.

And drug users need only assemble a volatile combination of household items to get started.

“You can’t make meth without this: The base product is pseudoephedrine or ephedrine,” Niles said.

RESTRICTED BY LAW

Pseudoephedrine is simply another configuration of ephedrine.

The products are sold under different brand names as oral nasal decongestants and have a valid use in relief from cold or flu symptoms. 

In 2005, federal legislation was passed limiting ephedrine and pseudoephedrine sales per person to 3.6 grams a day (two boxes) or nine grams a month, and requiring buyers to show a photo ID, and stores to keep a record of sales.

The products are kept behind the counter at pharmacies and dispensed on request.

SHAKE AND BAKE

The substance is chemically similar to methamphetamine, Niles said.

“Knock off the oxygen-hydrogen (molecule), you have methamphetamine. That’s the whole process where you mix the chemicals together. You synthesize methamphetamine.”

Users call it the “shake and bake” or “one pot” method, and the small amount produced is usually for personal use, he said.

The pseudoephedrine is usually ground up finely in a coffee grinder, he said, and mixed with ammonium nitrate from instant cold packs, sodium hydroxide from Red Devil Lye or Drano, lithium from lithium AA batteries and camp fuel sold by Coleman and other companies.

“When water mixes with ammonium nitrate, there’s an instant exothermic reaction,” Niles said. “That’s another thing to look for, a bunch of ice pack wrappers.”

CREATES POISON GAS

The sodium hydroxide is very dangerous, he said.

“It causes severe chemical burns. It’s not unusual to have it in your house, but it’s unusual to have six of them.”

Users add a small amount of water to a plastic bottle with the chemicals inside, shake it, and the reaction takes an hour, he said.

Niles said he wasn’t revealing anything potential meth makers couldn’t get in a quick Internet search.

Besides meth, the reaction produces poisonous hydrogen chloride gas, he said.

The liquid in the bottle is siphoned out with plastic tubing and directed through a coffee filter, leaving the methamphetamine in the filter.

“They use a lot of coffee filters, more than you or I would ever use in a lifetime,” Niles said. “This is something to look out for.”

SUPER STIMULANT

The whole process produces about two grams of methamphetamine and costs around $70.

The resulting white crystalline substance is then smoked in a glass pipe or injected.

“It’s a super stimulant,” Niles said. “You may see extreme weight loss in a short time, sweating, body odor, bad teeth, open sores.”

Meth addicts may dump the trash from their labs in ditches or the woods, he said, and he advises people not to pick through bags of trash they see, because there may be hazardous chemicals inside.

“If you have a suspected lab, what do you do? Say you see a bag in the ditch, contact your local State Police. If you have intelligence information ... contact State Police. Let us know.”

ALERTS TRASH HAULERS

Moriah Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava said solid-waste transfer station workers should also be aware of what to look for.

“We get a lot of garbage from outside Moriah,” he said. “Young people have died (from using meth).”

As well, he observed, “it seems like it takes forever (to make an arrest) if you call in to say so-and-so is selling this stuff.”

Niles said they need to have a substantial case to make an arrest.

“It is frustrating for us. You wish you could just march in. We need to bring charges, good, serious felony charges to put them away for a while.”

Niles said he already speaks with trash haulers, so they know what to look for.

Newcomb Deputy Supervisor Wester Miga said town highway crews doing spring cleanup should also be aware of what to look for.

“This should be a topic for all of us to take into consideration.”

Niles said he does go around to highway departments and advises them about potential meth trash.

‘QUICK ADDICTION’

Meth, Niles said, is a “very, very detrimental drug. They (users) tend to be irritable or anxious, have extreme paranoia. 

“They have a wild look. These folks can be very dangerous.”

He said that once hooked on meth, users often return to its use even after prison time and rehabilitation.

“One or two recreational uses will get you hooked. The high is so euphoric. 

“They can’t get out of it.”

Email Lohr McKinstry:lmckinstry@pressrepublican.com