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April 24, 2014

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Meth labs raise cost of fighting crime, patching broken lives

It's a caustic brew these cooks concoct.

And dangerous. They'll pocket guns or keep them nearby as they work behind a hot plate or stove top.

The sophisticates use beakers to heat their recipes; the desperate use glass jars or coffee pots. And most any place will do -- a house, a motel room, a trailer, a tent.

The culinary skill being honed by these few hundred cooks on the fringe of Las Vegas society? Perfecting the recipe for methamphetamine -- an illegal stimulant that is destroying lives, escalating crime and eating millions of dollars out of taxpayers' pockets every year.

Acetone, methanol racing fuel, red phosphorous, iodine, lye -- "methmaticians," as these cooks have come to be known, need them all to make this highly addictive drug.

But it won't be meth without one key ingredient -- the single chemical that produces 85 percent of the brain-wasting mixture's kick, a chemical that police say these cooks will steal from store shelves rather than buy. That chemical is ephedrine, or pseudoephedrine, as its synthetic form is called.

Cold medicine has it. So do diet pills and allergy tablets. Meth makers extract it by cooking the pills, then employ their own techniques to blend large amounts of it with the other toxic ingredients that come cheap and are readily available in grocery and hardware stores.

"Not a single thing meth is made from is illegal," Metro Police narcotics Sgt. Jeff Hammack said. "Yet the ingredients combine to make the worst drug this country has ever seen."

Meth addicts number in the millions across the nation and account for ever-increasing enrollees in Las Vegas drug rehabilitation facilities.

The kitchens where it's made -- "meth labs" -- are also bumping up statistics. Metro Police expanded over the past year to include a squad of narcotics detectives who work exclusively on combating meth labs. The number of meth labs busted by Metro has increased 324 percent since 1995.

The drug has firefighters and emergency-room doctors scrambling: About 10 percent of the highly volatile meth labs explode, often burning and killing anyone within feet of the bubbling brew and reducing homes to charred rubble.

Meth, literally, is a recipe of death.

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Not so long ago, meth labs existed as rarities run by biker gangs in drug pockets around town -- off Boulder Highway, around Meadows Village, in rundown trailer parks and bars.

"It's not concentrated anymore. Meth is everywhere," narcotics Lt. Steve Gammell said.

"They cook in their own residences, hotel-motels off Boulder Highway, the (Las Vegas) Boulevard North, the Strip, downtown, mobile homes -- anywhere they can find a clandestine location where they are least likely to be detected or arrested."

Metro recently found one lab inside a $300,000 home in The Lakes.

And the users today vary as much as the locations.

"Ten years ago," Gammell said, "the typical meth user had a Harley-Davidson, he was a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang, and that's it.

"Today, we're getting people at every stratum of life. We have arrested family members where we've got a teenage boy who learned to cook from his father, who learned to cook from his father."

The high is what the user chases, but it's curiosity that typically makes a person start.

"They think, 'I'm different. I can handle it -- I can try it once or twice,' " said Larry Espadero, director of the addictive-disease program at Charter Behavioral Health System's Las Vegas office.

"They continue because they like it. It gets them to a point where they feel good, and they don't have to do much to get there. They don't have to be an A student, a football player, or make a lot of money to feel good about themselves."

Espadero has seen a cross-section of Las Vegas come in for treatment. A "Type A" personality is what addicts most often share -- active people, high achievers seeking to achieve more.

Patients have included construction workers who got started because they needed the energy to work overtime for more cash, single moms hustling to stay ahead of rent and day-care bills, doctors, salesman, casino workers.

Eight adolescents in Charter's program for kids between 13 and 17 include two who admit to experimenting with meth and two who have regularly used the drug, Espadero said.

It may be the second time they try it; maybe the sixth, or seventh. But at some point, the user loses control and the drug takes over.

Methamphetamine seduces its victim with a high that lasts eight hours on average. It floods the brain with intense euphoria, leaving the person feeling alive, alert and bursting with energy without food or sleep.

But when the person "crashes" and the high burns out, radical mood swings replace the euphoria. Paranoia and hallucinations can trigger violence.

Police often catch meth makers wearing guns and keeping vicious dogs to guard their homes. "They've told us they're afraid another doper will come and get their stuff," Metro's Hammack said.

Repeated use eventually causes malnutrition and weight loss. Teeth can weaken and crack. Histamines released in the body cause itchy sores to form on the skin.

"Stereotyped compulsive behaviors can occur," said Dr. Cardwell C. Nuckols of Care Group in Florida.

"The addict may pace back and forth, compulsively open and close objects. ... Reality is shattered, and the addict lives in a bizarre world of illusion."

Such was the case with the household on which Metro served a narcotics search warrant in northeast Las Vegas not too long ago. Among piles of clothes, rotten food, feces and junk were living 37 ringneck doves, a 150-pound pot-bellied pig and an iguana.

"The birds had lived there so long, they actually had nests with eggs in them on any shelf they could find," Hammack said. "On a bed in a front room we found a hard little pillow sewn shut. We opened it up and found $20,000 cash inside."

A team of researchers in California discovered that methamphetamine suppresses the brain's level of serotonin, the neurotransmitter chemical believed to control a person's impulsive behavior. Decreased amounts of serotonin, experts say, can trigger violent, aggressive behavior.

Meth can be deadly when it's first inhaled, smoked or injected. The intensity of the rush can get the heart beating so fast it goes into arrest.

A meth lab's fumes alone can kill. A match lit or a bullet fired while a lab is cooking can trigger an explosion.

Kacey Kimball, 28, remained hospitalized at University Medical Center this week after losing a hand, leg and part of a foot Oct. 19 in an explosion on Cinderella Avenue that authorities say was meth-related.

"Some of them have been minor burns, kitchen cabinets, things like that," Gammell said. "Some have burned whole houses to the ground. We've had hotel rooms that have caught on fire and we've had to evacuate other guests.

"On one occasion, when we got in there, (the suspects) shut the (cooking lab) down. The fumes were heavier than air and fell back onto the hot stove. It burst into flames as the officers went in."

Metro Police photos of set-ups they've dismantled include an image of a tattooed man in his 20s lying dead, his mouth full of blood, on the bed of a Las Vegas motel room. The chemicals he cooked, detectives said, had eaten away his lungs.

"A while back in Riverside County (Calif.), they got a lab that had been in operation for so long that the trees and foliage around this house were dead -- killed simply by the fumes," Gammell said.

"These guys would then go out and spray-paint the trees green so that, from the air (when law enforcement would fly over), it looked like everything was normal."

For addicts, counseling is the typical route back to health. That, and changing peer groups.

"When you take a chemical away from an individual, it leaves a void," Charter's Espadero said. "These are A-type personalities -- they need challenges. Boredom is a killer for them. They need to fill that void somehow, through spirituality, education, something."

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Most "labs" that Metro comes across in Las Vegas can fill the size of a box of computer paper. Throw out the notion of a college-style laboratory set-up -- the average meth maker's rig is made up of a heating element, such as a hot plate; glassware to cook in; tubes to funnel the gases; Tupperware; and a dozen or so plastic bottles discarded after their pill and liquid contents have been dumped into the brew.

There are more than 35 recipes for making meth.

The drug -- also called crank, speed and crystal -- has been labeled "the poor man's cocaine." Where a $20 rock of cocaine might bring a 20-minute high, the same price could buy enough methamphetamine to keep a person up for days.

Yet it's tough to create an operational meth lab that can produce large-enough quantities on a regular basis to make the average dealer a millionaire.

For starters, there's the smell. The chemicals that go into making meth produce a pungent odor unmistakable to law enforcement. It starts out with a heavy solvent smell, and as it cooks gives off an odor Hammack likened to cat urine or garlic.

It's almost odorless once the liquid dries into its sellable powder form, which users then snort, smoke or inject.

Strict federal regulations entered into the law books in recent years limit companies from selling in large quantities what the government calls "listed" or "precursor" chemicals -- chemicals, such as ephedrine, known to be used in the manufacture of illegal drugs.

Whenever Metro uncovers large quantities of methamphetamine -- meaning a pound or more -- the case has roots south of the border, Gammell says.

"Mexico does not have the controls on the chemicals and precursors that the U.S. does, so they manufacture it down there and smuggle it across the border in large quantities," said the lieutenant, who has worked narcotics in Las Vegas for more than 15 years.

The international border also accounts for the slower spread of meth throughout the country, authorities say. States in the Southwest were initially hit the hardest because they were the closest destination points.

"The methamphetamine problem is a West Coast problem moving east," Gammell said. "Two years ago, we had officers from the Cleveland Police Department riding with us, narcotics officers who had never seen methamphetamine. Now, the Midwest is getting hit hard."

Metro uncovered 50 meth labs in 1995. So far in 1998, police have found 212 here in the valley.

About 40 percent of those labs are found each year in hotels and motels, especially the daily and weekly rental outfits that offer kitchenette cooking facilities.

Metro, in turn, has started training hotel and motel security, along with housekeeping personnel, in meth detection.

"They can't control every person that goes in and out of a room or what they take in and out of a room," Gammell said. "It's very easy for a person to bring a small lab into a hotel room -- they can carry in all they need in a fanny pack."

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Meth's biggest impact economically is in the dollars that taxpayers fork out to take care of the destruction.

Each meth lab that Metro finds is deemed by the government to be a hazardous-waste site, requiring a qualified disposal company's assistance in cleaning up the mess as prescribed by Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards.

The chemicals and utensils must be sealed in barrels and shipped to waste facilities out of state, authorities say.

A simple lab that could fit in the size of a small box might cost as much as $1,500 to clean up. It also may take more than five to seven hours for police to document, process and break down.

Just this week, narcotics officers worked a full shift, got off at midnight and were called back on overtime after patrol officers found a lab at 2 a.m. By the time they were done, it was practically time to start the next shift.

Cleanup doesn't stop at the door. Cooks have been known to toss garbage bags full of waste and chemical sludge in nearby Dumpsters or in washes. Some even bury it in the ground.

"We had a lab last year we located off Blue Diamond Road where they had 16 separate dump sites," Gammell said. "They'd been cooking out there a long period of time and then would go out and dump chemicals on the ground.

"We had to take a front-end loader and a dump truck out there and actually scoop up the dirt 2 feet deep. That's all hazardous waste. That lab cost thousands of dollars in cleanup costs."

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