Meth Mess

Methamphetamine labs are springing up all over--in homes, apartments, motels. Who's making sure the toxins left behind are cleaned up? Nobody.

"That shit can't be good to breathe in or be around," says Officer Strong. "It's got to mess you up really good."

Police stumble upon most meth labs like they did on East Campbell--after evictions, while responding to family fights--not from snitches or defendants eager to make deals.

Armed with a search warrant, a five-man narcotics team enters the apartment about 9:30 p.m. The detectives are experienced, and it shows in the careful manner in which each approaches the gathering of evidence.

A full-fledged meth lab is rigged up in a back bedroom, with the requisite chemicals in milk jugs, coffee cans and glass bottles. Sure enough, Minson's "meth" headache soon kicks in, though it's not a bad one.

The couple who once lived here have left behind more than a mass of chemicals, tubing, heaters, beakers and flasks. Their photographs hang in the living room and on the refrigerator. The portrait in the living room depicts a hale, well-dressed, middle-aged couple. The one on the refrigerator shows the pair more recently, haggard and vacant-eyed.

One detective notes the couple's deterioration and mutters, "Scarier than 'This is your brain on drugs.'"

The police computer reveals the couple have felony records for drug crimes.
A detective peruses paperwork on a desk in the apartment, including documents from Maricopa County's drug court, reminding the woman of a January 9 hearing. (A later check of the court docket indicates that she failed to show, and a commissioner issued a bench warrant for her arrest.)

In this instance, the police don't think it necessary to request assistance from the state Department of Public Safety's (DPS) meth-lab squad. That team wears protective breathing apparatus like that of firefighters, testing the air for chemicals as it enters a site.

But two chemists from DPS' crime lab are on hand. They take samples and photographs of 30 or 40 containers of chemicals, all of which may be used in methamphetamine production.

One of the chemists gets a chuckle from a hand-marked inscription on one jug filled with an ominous dark liquid.

"Don't drink!" it warns.
"As compared to the other bottles, I guess," he says drolly, to no one in particular.

The chemist opens another container, then waves a hand atop the lid to raise some fumes. He sticks his nose close to the opening, sniffs briefly, and says it's sodium hydroxide--a poisonous, corrosive chemical found in drain cleaner.

At the DEA's meth-lab school, they teach that such a practice may lead to dire consequences. (A California cop suffered a collapsed lung in a similar situation a few years ago.) But police admit it's the norm among crime-lab types and, at times, themselves.

"Anybody got a match?" a detective jokes, knowing the place could blow sky-high if someone lighted up.

Detective Tim Taylor takes a moment to compare his own safety awareness regarding meth with an earlier assignment, vice.

"We didn't think about it much when AIDS came to the forefront and we were dealing with hookers with open sores," says Taylor, another veteran of the drug wars. "Now, we're hearing about people getting sick at meth labs. But it takes a long time to sink in. With AIDS, we were lucky. With the labs, we're still learning."

The police learning curve, however, doesn't seem to have the same trajectory as area fire departments'.

Phoenix fire division chief Bob Khan groans when informed about the casual manner in which police routinely process meth labs. He points to his own department's policy, in place since 1990, concerning the use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). It says in part:

"The intent of the SCBA policy is to avoid any respiratory contact with products of combustion, superheated gases, toxic products or other hazardous contaminants. . . . SCBAs shall be used by all personnel operating in a contaminated atmosphere, [and] in an atmosphere which may suddenly become contaminated. This includes all personnel operating where toxic products are present, suspected to be present, or may be present."

Khan explains that the high incidence of cancer in firefighters (in Phoenix and nationwide) led to the policy.

"This is an element of the '90s that we've had to adapt to," Khan says. "We think it's best to err on the side of caution in all instances, and I do mean all. Some of those chemicals are just plain dangerous, and they're not stable."

Phoenix narcotics sergeant Kevin Pray and other officers convinced department higher-ups just last month to provide "chemical exposure" incident forms--something the Phoenix Fire Department has had in place for years.

As the police process the East Campbell site, it becomes obvious that it's going to be a long night.

About 10:30 p.m., two employees of Enviro Solve show up. The small, privately owned New Mexico firm--whose bread and butter is meth-lab cleanups--contracts with DEA to dispose of toxic chemicals found during raids in Arizona.

No one from DEA is at the apartment, but detective Taylor is certified by the feds as a meth-lab expert, so that covers it.

The detectives call it a night about 3:30 a.m. They've recovered about a pound of liquid methamphetamine, technically one step from the "rock" meth known as crystal. On the street, this amount of the drug could bring $4,000 or more.

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