Pubdate: Fri, 27 Jul 2001
Source: Kentucky Post (KY)
Copyright: 2001 Kentucky Post
Author: Shelly Whitehead


It's caused explosions that blow homes off their foundations. Its fumes 
have permanently disabled police officers. Its residue left on a motel 
bedspread have snuffed out a 5-year-old's life.

It is methamphetamine, maybe the deadliest street drug of our time. Not to 
its users, but to those who unwittingly cross paths with the deadly 
remnants of the clandestine labs in which it's made.

The growing incidence of meth labs has sent law enforcement agencies 
scrambling to educate their officers about them, not only so police can 
find them, but so they can protect themselves against the health hazards 
the labs pose.

On Wednesday, nearly 100 Northern Kentucky law enforcement and criminal 
justice professionals gathered in Independence for the Northern Kentucky 
Drug Strike Force's three-hour course in meth lab detection and awareness.

Next month, the Kentucky Fire Commission joins the effort with a series of 
similar awareness seminars around the state for building and fire code 
inspectors. And Ohio Gov. Bob Taft announced Thursday a program to 
distribute 38,000 informational and resource cards to that state's law 
enforcement officers explaining dangers posed by methamphetamine labs.

"These labs are bombs, and we really haven't even seen them here much yet," 
said Jim Paine, executive director of the drug strike force.

"But where they've been operating, they've had case after case of fires, 
explosions, houses being literally blown off their foundations .... They 
even had a family traveling out in the western states with their 5-year-old 
with them. And he lays down on top of the (motel room) bed and goes to 
sleep, and he dies because the room was used to manufacture meth."

A lab that blew up in Highland County, Ohio, east of Cincinnati in May 
seriously injured two men.

Also known as "crank" or "speed," meth is dubbed the "poor man's cocaine" 
because of its longer lasting high at a comparable cost. But the feeling of 
elation and euphoria provided by the central nervous system stimulant 
carries harmful and potentially fatal side effects.

The Drug Enforcement Administration said it seized 195 meth labs nationwide 
in 1979, 85 in 1989 and 2,155 in 1999, the latest year for which numbers 
were available.

The increasingly common motel room meth labs present new dangers because of 
their proximity to the general public and their mobility.

Southwest Ohio leads that state in the presence of the labs, and they've 
been found in Northern Kentucky from Covington to Demossville.

Paine said Wednesday's course was designed to educate front-line law 
enforcement officers about the deadly chemical threat a working lab poses 
to those nearby. For many attending, the information was eye- opening.

"The thing that scares me about meth is the volatile materials they're 
using to make it and the people trying to manufacture it ... have no clue 
what they're messing with," said Alexandria Police Chief Mike Ward, who 
brought half of his officers to the program.

"It scares me because unless (police) really know what they're looking for, 
they're going to walk right into it. ... They showed an incident with an 
officer out west who opened a container when he stopped a car. He 
apparently inhaled the fumes, and they had to retire him because he only 
had like 30 percent of his lung capacity left."

Northern Kentucky police, probation and parole officers, as well as local 
prosecutors, learned the tell-tale signs of a working lab, whose 
ingredients can be bought at any grocery or drug store. Paine said 
vigilance to such signs on the street can save lives.

"We're talking about stuff here like Visions cookware, Liquid Heat, hot 
plates, empty ketchup bottles ... pseudophedrine bottles, coffee filters, 
lithium batteries," said Paine, ticking off a list of key items used to 
make the stimulant. "Awareness of these things is a lot of it."

The awareness has already begun in some stores. Paine said many retail 
chains now limit the number of pseudophedrine-containing products customers 
can buy, since large quantities are needed to produce methamphetamine.

Paine said some discount chains have programmed cash registers to shut down 
if large quantities of certain methamphetamine production ingredients are 
checked through.

But the public remains largely ignorant to the threat posed by meth labs. 
For instance, when the first boxed meth lab was busted in Northern Kentucky 
on May 31 at the Motel 6 on Dream Street in Florence, most motel guests 
said they either didn't notice anything unusual or didn't want to get 
involved. One elderly guest said later that he smelled the cat urine-like 
odor that meth labs typically give off, but did not advise motel management.

(Box labs are so-called because their equipment and ingredients can be 
quickly packed up into a box and moved.)

Police say that kind of hands-off attitude can kill in the presence of a 
meth lab's lethal toxins, a warning made obvious by the precautions crews 
take to clean up such operations. Hazardous material handlers wear 
protective gear and breathing apparatuses when they strip the lab rooms 
bare of all equipment, curtains, furnishings and carpeting; those 
contaminated materials have to be disposed of in a hazardous waste landfill.

Those measures can pose problems for prosecutors.

"The DEA calls in the EPA, and when they come in, they order everything 
destroyed," said Campbell County Commonwealth Attorney Jack Porter, who 
attended Wednesday's training. "The problem for prosecutors is, that's our 
evidence. So, we said, we understand that has to be, but we need to take 
pictures and document things the best we can ... to preserve the evidence 
needed to prosecute the case in court."

Many attending Wednesday's training expect the number of court cases to 
grow as officers grow more familiar with the signs of meth labs.

In the meantime, police advise the public to remain alert. Paine said the 
Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force will provide education upon request to 
citizens groups, an invitation many police agencies strongly endorse.

"The information citizens pass on to us is worth its weight in gold because 
I can drive down your street and not have a clue what's out of place. But 
you can drive down your street and know in a minute what is," said Ward.

"So people may think it's none of my business, and I don't want to get 
involved. But if it's harmful to my family, then I'm sure going to get 
involved.... The chemicals used in the process are volatile - it can kill you."
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