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Thu June 9, 2011
Around the Nation

How Do You Dismantle A Meth Lab?

Originally published on Mon July 4, 2011 10:01 pm

Methamphetamine seizures are on the rise, and a crackdown on the drug during the last decade has led to some dramatic drops in manufacturing across the U.S.

But in some states, the numbers are edging back up to where they were before. Addicts have found easier ways to make the illegal drug, despite stricter laws regulating one of its key ingredients, pseudoephedrine.

Tennessee led the nation with more than 2,000 meth lab busts last year. But new federal cleanup rules and the reluctance of state legislators to pass stiffer anti-meth laws are hampering police.

Officers face numerous perils anywhere dealers have cooked homemade methamphetamine: noxious gases, chemical burns and potential fireballs. Jesse Reynolds of the Drug Task Force in Clarksville, Tenn., says once police raid a meth lab, his team goes to work. Members wear hooded suits with masks and two layers of gloves.

"Phosphine gas will kill you. All the flammable materials that you've got to handle — if there's a spark or something, it could go high-order," he says. "There's just so many hazards in dealing with it, trying to make the area safe, and you can't leave them there. What if a little kid gets hold of it?"

In Tennessee, police used to call in certified contractors to neutralize those poisons and haul them away. It cost about $2,000 each time, which the federal government used to pay until budget cuts this spring.

Now, Tennessee authorities are turning to people like Kentucky State Police Sgt. Gerald Wilson, to learn how to do it themselves. Wilson is teaching a class of about 30 officers from across Tennessee how to use pH strips to help figure out what they're dealing with. Wilson's role here is like teaching a person to fish: teach a police officer to clean up a meth lab, and he'll save his agency thousands.

"Last year the state of Kentucky spent approximately $440,000 on cleanup using the container system that we have now, where the state of Tennessee spent approximately $4.5 million having contractors respond to the sites and cleaning them up that way," Wilson says.

Kentucky had only about half as many labs as Tennessee, but it still saved a lot of money with that container system — lockers where police take all the hazards they find in meth labs.

Agent Kyle Darnell shows off one the Drug Task Force recently set up in Clarksville.

"There's not a whole lot to them; you've got vents, top and bottom, blowout panel in the back, and this grate that sits on top of a big catch pan, and that's pretty much it," he says.

Even as this new system comes online, Tennessee's meth busts are way down. They've fallen by more than half since the federal cleanup funds evaporated. Steve Burns, the sheriff in Greene County, doubts dealers are suddenly cooking less.

"The concern is that you have smaller counties that absolutely can't spend $2,000 or $3,000 every time they see a lab, and they just end up not reporting them," Burns says. "They end up, if [the meth is] in a jar, just busting it or pouring it out and letting it go."

Officials in North Carolina and Michigan have voiced similar worries. In Tennessee, lawmakers just approved a computerized database to track and limit sale of pseudoephedrine; other states have done this with varying degrees of success.

"This is a feel-good piece of legislation," says state Rep. Kent Williams. "This same legislation was passed in Kentucky. It's done absolutely nothing to control meth use. Meth labs have gone up in Kentucky over the last two years."

Mississippi and Oregon have gone the furthest: They require a doctor's prescription for pseudoephedrine. As a result, those states have seen dramatic declines in meth lab busts. One reason Tennessee didn't pass stricter laws is because pharmaceutical companies have fought to keep their cold medicines accessible.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And let's turn now to another story on methamphetamine. Yesterday, we went to Oregon and focused on that state's success curbing the homemade drug. Oregon now requires a prescription to get one of meth's key ingredients.

Today we go to Tennessee. Lawmakers there considered following Oregon's example, but they backed down to the dismay of police. Last year, Tennessee led the nation with more than 2,000 meth lab busts. It costs money to dispose of all those labs, and the federal money used for those cleanup operations has run out.

From member station WPLN in Nashville, Daniel Potter reports.

DANIEL POTTER: Noxious gases, chemical burns and potential fireballs. These are the perils officers face anywhere dealers have cooked meth.

Mr. JESSE REYNOLDS (Director, Drug Task Force, Clarksville): Phosphine gas will kill you.

POTTER: That's Jesse Reynolds of the Drug Task Force in Clarksville, Tennessee. He says once police raid a meth lab, his team goes to work. They wear hooded suits with masks and two layers of gloves.

Mr. REYNOLDS: For all the flammable materials that you've got to handle if there's a spark or something, it could go high-order. I mean, it's just so many hazards in dealing with it, trying to make the area safe, and you can't leave them there. What if a little kid gets a hold of it?

POTTER: In Tennessee, police used to call in certified contractors to neutralize those poisons and haul them away. It costs about $2,000 each time, money the federal government used to pay until budget cuts this past spring. Now, Tennessee authorities are turning to people like Kentucky State Police Sergeant Gerald Wilson, to learn how to do it themselves.

Sergeant GERALD WILSON (Kentucky State Police Department): So if I had a mason jar, say this bottle of water here, and I wanted to pH it...

POTTER: Wilson is teaching a class of about 30 officers from across Tennessee how to use pH strips, to help figure out what chemicals they're dealing with. Wilson's role here is like teaching a man to fish. Teach a policeman to clean up a meth lab, and he'll save his agency thousands.

Sgt. WILSON: Last year, the State of Kentucky spent approximately $440,000 on cleanup using the container system that we have now, where the State of Tennessee spent approximately $4.5 million having contractors respond to the sites and clean them up that way.

POTTER: Kentucky only had about half as many labs as Tennessee, but it still saved a lot of money with that container system lockers where police take all the hazards they find in meth labs.

(Soundbite of a door)

POTTER: Agent Kyle Darnell shows me one the Drug Task Force recently set up in Clarksville.

Mr. KYLE DARNELL (Agent, Drug Task Force): This is pretty much it, there's not a whole lot to them. And you've got vents, top and bottom, blowout panel in the back, and this grate that sits on top of a big catch pan. And that's pretty much it.

POTTER: Darnell says the state can store several labs here until a contractor picks them up all at once, saving the state a bundle on individual trips.

Even as this new system comes online, Tennessee's meth busts are way down. They fell by more than half after the federal cleanup money evaporated. Steve Burns, the sheriff in Greene County, Tennessee, doubts dealers are suddenly cooking less.

Sheriff STEVE BURNS (Sheriff's Department, Greene County): The concern is you have smaller counties that absolutely can't spend $2,000 or $3,000 every time they see a lab, and they just end up not reporting them. They end up, if it's in a jar, just busting it or pouring it out and letting it go.

POTTER: Officials in North Carolina and Michigan have voiced similar worries that police will no longer actively seek out labs, and let the specter of meth slip underground again.

For NPR News, I'm Daniel Potter in Nashville.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.