By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
A Convict's Warning
What I do find appalling is that there are a lot of people in here simply for having big mouths and a lack of common sense. I estimate that only 25 percent of the crimes of manufacturing and conspiracy to manufacture meth were actually directly involved in cooking dope. And, there are literally thousands of us in here. The other 75 percent are fringe tweaker wanna-bes, like a lot of the idiots I'm seeing online, who were stupid or unlucky enough to get snared by the DEA.
Think of this: Tim McVeigh comes online a few months ago and says, "Fuck the feds. They burned up those kids in Waco. Now I want to blow up a federal building. Please E-mail me the formula for a 5,000-pound fertilizer bomb." If you sent him the formula, you would now be his cellmate in El Reno, Oklahoma, facing the death penalty for conspiracy to commit murder.
--an October 1995 message to an America Online "chat room" from an ex-meth cook serving time in a Tucson federal prison
These days, if you can make a batch of peanut brittle, you can make a batch of meth.
All you need, to quote a popular recipe, is a few hundred cold tablets, road flares, iodine, Drano and a bucket of Red Devil lye.
"It's a logistical nightmare to get a substance from a coca leaf in the Andes ridge to the streets of Phoenix," explains meth czar Alex Mahon. "However, Joe Schmo taps into the Internet or goes to a bookstore and finds a recipe, then makes a couple of stops at a Circle K and a hardware store for the ingredients, then cooks himself up an ounce. It's a no-brainer."
Adds longtime DPS drug cop Otis Thrasher: "More and more of these jackasses are learning to cook it. It doesn't take a Rhodes scholar to follow a recipe."
One popular tome, Secrets of Methamphetamine Production, by "Uncle Fester," is available in at least one Valley bookstore. It's in its fourth edition.
Underground manufacture of methamphetamine hasn't always been so easy, or widespread.
Thrasher says the first lab bust in which he was involved, in 1988, happened at the home of an Arizona State University chemistry professor.
"This guy had systematically raided ASU's chemistry department for everything he needed," Thrasher recalls. "He had exotic chemicals, triple neck flasks, you name it. He really knew what he was doing. It's rare to see that anymore."
That's because the process of making meth then was far more complex than it is today. For years, cooking meth centered on a chemical used legally to make perfume and cosmetics. Called P2P for short, the chemical was the key ingredient in the production methods favored by biker gangs--and, incidentally, by the ASU chemist.
You didn't need to be a chemistry professor to cook meth with P2P, but it helped. Compared to the crude methods used by most domestic cooks today, P2P cooks were Einsteins.
But P2P is old school, replaced by a cheaper, faster and far simpler cooking process known as ephedrine reduction.
Minus one oxygen-hydrogen molecule, ephedrine's molecular structure is a carbon copy of methamphetamine's. Put ephedrine through a chemical process that deletes that molecule, and poof--you've got meth.
Police lab tests show the methamphetamine yielded from the ephedrine reduction process as twice as strong as its predecessor. It's also at least twice as toxic, because of the different chemicals used.
Ephedrine reduction meth is harder to detect by smell than P2P, which produces an awful cat-piss stench. Because of that, meth production during the P2P era was concentrated in rural areas.
Now, almost anywhere will do.
"Cheap hotel rooms are popular," says DEA special agent Duncan Lingle, who leads a statewide meth lab task force. "Storage spaces, apartments, houses, trailers, junkyards, farms, shacks, you name it."
DEA, which compiles statewide statistics, reports that 103 meth labs were seized in Arizona during fiscal 1996, and 136 in fiscal 1997, which ended September 30. Since then, Lingle says, 27 more labs have been shut down.
Almost all of them used ephedrine reduction, Lingle says, and two thirds were in urban areas, mostly the Valley.
But the term "meth lab," Lingle cautions, can be deceptive. Most of the setups used by today's meth cooks are as close to scientific laboratories as moonshine stills are to microbreweries.
Lingle estimates that only about 30 percent of the meth labs are run by people who possess even a basic understanding of what they're doing. He puts the vast majority of cooks in the "Beavis and Butt-head" category.
Dozens of meth-recipe variations are available for the looking, but all have two things in common: They contain highly toxic ingredients and their chemical waste byproduct is substantial. Many of the cooks dump that waste wherever they are, which poses a health hazard to those around the labs.
The first generation of ephedrine reduction recipes called for three main chemicals other than ephedrine: hydriodic acid--a dairy disinfectant---highly flammable red phosphorous, and sodium hydroxide, which will dissolve almost anything.
Combining ephedrine with hydriodic acid and red phosphorous removes that molecule that marks the difference between ephedrine and methamphetamine. The introduction of sodium hydroxide to the chemical stew completes its conversion to methamphetamine.