Meth Mess

Editor's note: Paul Rubin and David Holthouse reported extensively on crystal methamphetamine in the December 18 issue in a 16-page special section, "Methology."

Valley drug cops busted 11 crystal methamphetamine labs during the first three weeks of January. One of them was a three-bedroom apartment in the 1700 block of East Campbell Avenue.

The living-room walls of the apartment are decorated with a ram's horns and a plaque honoring someone's "Outstanding Sales and Service" in 1993.

The pamphlet "A Woman's Guide to Achieving Personal Power" is on a bedside stand, near a used syringe and the Cliffs Notes for George Orwell's 1984.

Hard-core porn magazines and videotapes sit in a pile on the floor, near a variety of sex toys and a pair of handcuffs. A diary contains two consecutive entries that read, "Forgot to sleep last night."

More than three weeks have passed since the tenants cooked their last batch of meth here, but the drug's scent, chemical and sickly sweet, lingers.

Phoenix police officer Michael Strong sits on a folding chair just inside the apartment's open front door. His assignment is to make sure no one enters the cluttered abode until detectives get a search warrant from a judge.

The landlord evicted the couple on December 18 for not paying rent, and they're nowhere to be found. It wasn't until a few hours ago that a cleaning crew discovered the meth lab in a back bedroom.

"This place is so full of chemicals, it's ridiculous," says Strong, a rookie cop. "It smells lousy in here. What makes people get into this crap?"

A cheap, potent stimulant, methamphetamine is Arizona's most popular hard drug--more popular than crack or heroin. Much of the meth in the Valley comes from "superlabs" operated by Mexican drug cartels, capable of producing up to 50 pounds of meth a day, at obscene profits.

But the Valley also is home to hundreds of small meth labs that produce a few ounces or grams per batch. The growth of these generally crude operations--dubbed "Beavis and Butt-head labs" by narcs--is reflected in federal Drug Enforcement Agency statistics.

In 1995, police statewide busted 56 meth labs, or about one a week. Last year, an Arizona lab went down about every three days--in hotel rooms, storage spaces, apartments, houses, trailers, vans and semis.

If 1998's pace--a lab bust every other day in the Valley alone--continues, all records will be shattered this year.

"The normal lab we come across is in a messy, cramped room," says veteran narcotics sergeant Dave Minson, gesturing inside at the East Campbell apartment to prove his point.

"Quality control is a joke. Usually, we'll go in there, find jugs with very toxic, flammable chemicals sitting around, with tubes and contraptions rigged up to make the stuff. And then I'll get my headache right after we go inside--the meth headache."

There are dozens of ways to make methamphetamine, but the most popular recipes have three factors in common:

* Poisonous, unstable, extremely flammable ingredients.
* Vapors that escape during the cooking process.
* Five or six pounds of toxic waste for every pound of methamphetamine cooked.

Lawmen like Minson know how to deal with meth users and cooks--find them, read them their rights, take them to jail. But he and other front-line officers admit they are just starting to realize that the drug presents significant but little-known dangers to themselves and other non-users:

* People move into homes or motel rooms unaware that meth once was cooked there, and of lingering toxic residues that may pose severe health dangers.

* Though police and related personnel are spending more and more time amid the toxic stews associated with meth labs, they often don't protect themselves accordingly.

"We have to be careful and still do our job," Minson says. "This is a juggling process that we're still figuring out."

That process apparently includes confusion about when to wear a protective breathing mask. No one at the East Campbell lab dons a mask despite the array of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals around them. In fact, they don't even have masks on hand.

Actually, local cops have been fortunate--so far. No officers have been blown up in a meth lab. And, on a more subtle level, the meth headaches and scratchy throats disappear with time, the sinuses clear up, the achy feelings go away.

But the drug cops suspect they are deluding themselves.
"We do a good job of protecting ourselves as best we can from bullets," Minson says, "but we've got to do that when it comes to chemicals, too. I hate to say it, but it's just a matter of time before someone gets hurt because we're not paying close enough attention to the chemical part of all this."

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin