An underground epidemic

A seminar explores the proliferation of methamphetamine even in rural areas such as Moffat County

Ill-constructed laboratories with the potential to cause explosions, chemical burns, respiratory failure and mountains of toxic waste began cropping up in Colorado in the mid-1990s.

By 2001, when more than 450 methamphetamine labs were uncovered, the entire state was coming to realize the extent of the problem.

This week, a group of more \than 50 Craig residents glimpsed at the horrors of the drug epidemic that appears to have quite a footing in Craig.

"Any time we start a case, nine times out of 10 the source comes back to Craig," said Jen Kenney, a task force officer with the Grand Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team (GRAMNET).

Kenney spent four hours speaking about her first-hand knowledge of the underground methamphetamine trade while she presented a program developed by the Colorado Regional Community Policing Institute meant to educate residents about the dangers of the clandestine labs where methamphetamine is produced.

Landlords, public health workers, hotel managers, realtors, daycare providers and others huddled in groups -- during breaks in the seminar -- discussing the shocking facts of which Kenney spoke.

Essentially, it's the complete opposite of "best practices" in chemistry. Solvents such as acetone and methyl alcohol (Heet) are boiled off over open flames or electric burners, deadly gasses are vented through makeshift apparatuses or not at all, and the whole procedure normally is performed in a disorganized, haphazard fashion on work surfaces such as beds or precariously balanced makeshift countertops.

Hazardous chemicals typically are stored together, without lids, in unlabeled containers ranging from plastic Gatorade bottles to Pyrex cooking vessels.

Recipes for the drug are widely available in books, on the Internet and through the grapevine. The precursor materials are legal and they're stocked on the shelves of grocery and hardware stores everywhere. A determined user with a modest investment could become a "meth cook" in hours, the seminar revealed.

The drug isn't new. Methamphetamine is a type of amphetamine and amphetamine has been around since the 19th Century. It was used as a nasal spray and also to treat narcolepsy in the 1930s. During World War II, both sides used it to keep troops alert and motivated. Kenney said kamikaze pilots took the drug prior to their deadly flights. It was popular among bikers and truck drivers since the 1960s, but new production techniques resulted in its rapid rise to mainstream in the 1990s. Colorado law enforcement began seizing large amounts and locating labs on a regular basis in the late 1990s.

Although the best yields are obtained in a process of eight hours or longer, Kenney said meth can be manufactured in as little as one to two hours.

Normally smoked, snorted or injected intravenously, the drug entices users with feelings of euphoria, increased energy and alertness, as well as feelings of invincibility. On the other hand, it damages body organs, contributes to tooth decay and can lead to psychotic episodes and permanent brain damage such as "amphetamine psychosis," similar to paranoid schizophrenia.

Affidavits from recent busts describe methamphetamine as a crystal, powdery substance white or off-white in color. It is commonly sold in the small baggies jewelers use, bindles (pieces of folded paper), and torn-off corners of plastic sandwich bags. Gram quantities of the substance, about the same size as a single-serving sugar packet, usually cost $70 to $100.

Kenney said 94 percent of first-time users return to the drug, which often grips them for life. Withdrawal symptoms include sweating, craving, exhaustion, mental confusion, restlessness and insomnia.

One former addict who attended the seminar said she used meth for nearly 20 years. After her arrest, she said her withdrawal from the drug was so intense she blacked out for a 2-week period.

Kenney touched on the effects the drug has on users, but she focused on the dangers to the community posed by its manufacture. Even if a lab is busted and the hazardous materials removed, Kenney said harmful residues and off-gasses can remain in residences for years.

"You could buy a home we busted a meth lab in," Kenney said.

She noted that current laws do not specify how much cleanup a landlord must perform before re-renting or selling a residence previously used as a meth lab.

The chemicals seep into carpets, sub-flooring and drywall. The poisonous gasses permeate furniture, drapes, insulation and other surfaces.

Painting covers stains from gasses and chemicals, but it doesn't make it clean, Kenney stressed.

Law enforcement is so wary of the dangers that officers and suspects involved in meth busts undergo "decontamination" procedures before they leave the scene.

But Kenney said she was concerned about public workers who make home visits and may not even know they entered a house where meth was produced, not knowing what to look for. These unwitting workers can collect the poisons on their shoes, in their hair or on their clothes, endangering families and co-workers.

Kenney said she hoped to bring awareness to anyone who might encounter a lab. She suggested that a person who has entered a suspected meth lab should, at minimum, wash exposed skin surfaces with soap and water. They should also clean the soles of their shoes. Kenney said she changes clothes once following decontamination, and again before entering her home. Then she washes her clothes and runs an empty load of hot water through the machine to clean it.

"If you have been in a lab, you will be contaminated in one way or another," Kenney said.

Labs in Moffat County have been busted in trailers and $200,000 homes alike. Across the state, meth production operations have been discovered in sheds and outbuildings, warehouses, mobile homes and even boxes in the trunks of cars. Denver police found a couple dead in a motel room after they were overcome by poisonous phosphine gases produced during a cook. The gas is so dangerous that the concentration level for fatal inhalation is lower than the level at which a person can smell the gas. If you smell it, you're already dead, Kenney said.

"These people cook meth in hotel rooms you and your family may use the next weekend," Kenney said.

After the meth is produced, the cooks have to dispose of the leftover chemicals, sludge and other materials. Five to six pounds of hazardous waste are produced for every pound of manufactured methamphetamine.

Much of it goes down the drain, Kenney said. But the waste has been found dumped along jogging paths, in parks and along roadsides.

One man who attended the seminar said he will discontinue his practice of picking up trash he sees along roads. He used to think of it as his duty as a citizen, but out of fear that the contents may contain hazardous materials, he said he doesn't want to take the chance.

While total eradication of the drug seems less likely than a scenario in which meth will be replaced by the next popular street drug, Kenney said agencies and communities in Colorado have made great strides to educate citizens and involve them in noticing and reporting crimes in their neighborhoods.

Stores are reacting by limiting purchases of medicines such as Sudafed, which contain pseudoephedrine, the starting point for today's meth production techniques. GRAMNET initiated a bust of an alleged meth lab earlier this year after employees of a grocery store reported suspicious purchases of pseudoephedrine and other materials commonly used for manufacturing the drug.

"Any time we bust a meth lab or a meth user or improve children's lives by getting them removed from (homes where meth is produced), I think that's a success," Kenney said.

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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