Pubdate: Sat, 13 Nov 2004
Source: Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC)
Copyright: 2004 Evening Post Publishing Co.
Author: Glenn Smith, and Nita Birmingham
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


Authorities Finding More Meth Labs In Lowcountry

On a brisk December day, residents huddled outside their tidy Mount
Pleasant townhouses, watching incredulously as men ensconced in white
protective suits and gas masks hustled tubs of equipment from a
neighboring home. Word spread that police had discovered a drug lab
brewing a powerful stimulant called methamphetamine inside the
tasteful wood-and-brick home. The incident led local newscasts, and
those familiar with the drug marveled at the find. Didn't outlaw
bikers make meth out in the desert somewhere? The drug was mainly a
West Coast problem, wasn't it?

Not anymore. The discovery of clandestine labs has become almost
commonplace in the Lowcountry. Since January, police in Charleston,
Berkeley and Dorchester counties have arrested more than 30 people in
connection with at least 21 meth labs operating in those areas.
Dorchester County deputies most recently found three clandestine labs
in one day.

Authorities warn that the problem is going to get worse, driven by
demand for a highly addictive drug that can be produced quickly almost
anywhere with minimal investment and sold at a hefty profit. Locally,
clandestine labs have been discovered on stovetops, in hotel rooms, on
a 30-foot power boat and in the bed of a pickup truck, the product
"cooking" as the driver motored along.Law enforcement agencies, taxed
by the hours of manpower needed to dismantle a lab, are struggling to
fight back. Patrol officers who make traffic stops are looking for
signs of meth use or production. Authorities alert local retailers
about items that could indicate a meth operation when purchased
together or in bulk.

Dorchester County Sheriff's Cpl. Randy Botten, a narcotics agent, gave
one of the office's first public presentations on meth to Crimewatch
coordinators Thursday night. Sheriff Ray Nash is talking about holding
a town hall meeting. The sheriff's office hopes to launch an education
project called "Meth Watch" by next year, Botten said. He'd even like
to shoot an educational commercial.

"Methamphetamine, I think, will be the root of all evil if it gets a
stronghold," Botten said.

John Ozaluk, agent in charge of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration
offices in South Carolina, said the state is "ahead of the curve" in
recognizing the methamphetamine menace and moving to address it. Later
this month, the DEA and other agencies are sponsoring a four-day
conference in Myrtle Beach on the meth problem and ways to attack it.

"Already this year, we are averaging a lab every couple days," Ozaluk
said. Lab seizures statewide increased from 10 in fiscal year 2000-01
to 254 in the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, according to
the DEA, which spent more than $406,000 last year cleaning up meth
labs in South Carolina. Five pounds of waste is generated for every
one pound of meth produced, Botten said.

Methamphetamine is made from common household items such as denatured
alcohol, boxes of matches, ammonia, lye, tincture of iodine, lithium
strips from batteries and over-the-counter medications containing
pseudoephedrine. Some of the ingredients are highly volatile and may
ignite or explode if mixed or stored improperly. Fires and explosions
are common when meth "cooking" goes wrong.

Last year, an investigator was injured in a meth lab explosion in
Greenville that sent shards of glass into his face, Ozaluk said.
Authorities suspect the blast was sparked when the officer's sweat
interacted with a moisture-sensitive chemical in the lab, he said.

In October, a former North Charleston resident twice arrested during
police raids at methamphetamine labs died after an explosion occurred
while he was cooking a batch of the drug in a trailer in the Tennessee
woods. Just breathing certain chemicals can be hazardous. Inhaling
phosphine gas, chlorine gas and anhydrous ammonia can cause
irreparable damage to a person's lungs or central nervous system.
Deputies from Charleston and Berkeley counties have been overcome by
fumes in lab raids. A Berkeley narcotics agent picked up a jar of
meth, "and the bad guy knocked it out of his hand, and it just missed
his face. Had it hit his face, it would have frozen his lungs and he
would have been dead," Maj. Ricky Driggers said. In most cases,
unprotected uniformed officers are the ones to stumble across meth
labs while investigating unrelated calls, Ozaluk said. "It's very
dangerous for the first responders who go into these meth labs not
knowing what they have," he said.

The Berkeley County Sheriff's Office is adopting a new standard
operating procedure for deputies because of the growth of meth. "We're
educating our deputies on what to look for because it's so dangerous
and so deadly," Driggers said.

These are not your high school science labs stocked with tubes,
beakers and burners. Local narcotics agents frequently find coolers,
Mason jars, Pyrex dishware and Coleman gas canisters, what Botten
calls "single-cook" labs. They are makeshift operations that produce
enough meth for personal use and enough to sell so the individual can
continue to make the drug. Botten estimates an average expenditure of
$289 yields about $2,000 worth of meth. Cooks often steal many of the
ingredients, which further increases the profit margin, Botten said.

"The first time is the best high they'll ever get on this drug, so
what they'll do is continue to chase it," Botten said.

"It's a nasty drug," said Sgt. David Robertson, a narcotics unit
supervisor for the Charleston County Sheriff's Office. "If you've ever
seen anybody on crystal meth, they are very paranoid, very hyper, they
don't sleep, and it's very addicting. And like anything else, when the
money runs out, they start doing other things to get it."

Recipes are passed from cook to cook and are found on the Internet.
The DEA found a recipe scribbled on a phone bill.

Some states have discussed enacting stiffer penalties for meth makers,
and others are trying to make it more difficult to obtain ingredients
for the drug. In Oklahoma, for instance, officials say the
availability of meth has dropped significantly by placing
over-the-counter medications that contain pseudoephedrine behind
pharmacy counters and requiring purchasers to show photo
identification. Driggers supports requiring a signature to buy the

"If we adopt this nationwide, you'll see a big decrease in meth labs,"
Driggers said.

He'd also like legislators to pass a law enabling police to charge
individuals for having the items used to make meth. Botten said
Georgia and Tennessee have enacted these "precursor laws," and he
hopes South Carolina will do the same.

SIGNS OF A METH LAB -- Unusual odors (ether, ammonia, acetone or other
chemicals) -- Excessive amounts of trash, particularly chemical
containers (alcohol, lye, drain cleaner), coffee filters or pieces of
cloth that are stained red and duct tape rolls -- Curtains always
drawn or windows covered with aluminum foil or blackened on
residences, garages, sheds or other structures -- Evidence of chemical
waste or dumping -- Frequent visitors, particularly at unusual times
- -- Extensive security measures or attempts to ensure privacy (no
trespassing or beware of dog signs, fences, large trees or shrubs) --
Secretive or unfriendly occupants.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin