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Beware Illegal Drug Labs in Woods

Discoveries of illegal drug labs have increased in some regions of the country.

By Tim Cox
Date Posted: 6/1/2005

Beware Illegal Drug Labs in Woods

        Discoveries of illegal drug labs have increased in some regions of the country. For example, virtually no labs were discovered or seized in the Midwest and central Appalachian states in the mid-1990s, but in 2003 several thousand were seized. Like marijuana patches, these drug labs endanger anyone who discovers them.

        Seeking the cover of deep woods, drug producers can quickly set up an illegal lab to create methamphetamine, a powerful, addictive stimulant that can cause violent or paranoid behavior. Labs usually produce five pounds or more of this drug per batch; it is worth thousands of dollars.

        Known as ‘meth,’ ‘crank’ or ‘speed,’ methamphetamine is produced and refined in a series of fairly simple, fast manufacturing steps. The process uses inexpensive chemicals that are readily available. The chemicals are highly toxic, as are the by-products of the process. This means added danger to forest products industry workers who may accidentally discover them.

        Meth labs may be set up in many kinds of sheltering structures — old cabins, barns, outbuildings, chicken houses, trailers, buses, etc. Drug cooking equipment typically includes glass bottles, tubes, and a gas burner fueled by a propane tank.

        The people operating these illegal drug labs should be considered extremely dangerous since they are fearful of
being caught, and they may be prone to violence.

        Another danger is the waste material that is left behind once the lab has been dismantled or abandoned. Meth manufacturers discard toxic chemical containers and dump plastic bags of waste in the woods, abandoning hazardous substances such as sulfuric acid, lead acetate, and lithium aluminum hydride — a chemical so dangerous that even the moisture on a person’s hands can cause it to explode.

        Be aware of the following indicators of possible drug labs in operation:

• ‘Posted’ or ‘No Trespassing’ signs on land that should not be posted.

• Travel trailers, tents or small mobile homes in remote locations.

• An unusual amount of vehicle traffic, especially at night, in an isolated area.

• Signs that people are frequently using an unusual area.

• Distinctive, obnoxious odor.

• Trash in the surrounding area — plastic garbage bags, plastic or glass bottles (clear or brown), 20- or 30-gallon drums, boxes, and cardboard cylinders with metal ends and a large plug for access.

        Pseudoephedrine is the main precursor used in meth labs. Its source is cold medication. The area around an abandoned drug lab may have numerous empty boxes of cold medications and the blister packages in which they were contained.

        Depending on the cooking method, numerous matchbooks may be at the scene. (Drug manufacturers may extract the red phosphorous off the striker plates.) Other debris may include cans or containers of starting fluid (ether), Drano or Red Devil lye (sulfuric acid), iodine tincture, hydrogen peroxide, and other acids.

        Another common meth cooking method uses a combination of anhydrous ammonia and lithium batteries. Anhydrous ammonia is used as a farm fertilizer, and the cooks will place the ammonia in 20-pound propane tanks that are used for gas grills. Anhydrous ammonia reacts with the brass fittings on the propane tanks and will turn the fitting blue — look for this indicator. The lithium typically is obtained from camera batteries. The cook will break the batteries open and remove the small strip of lithium inside. The last step in the cooking process usually involves the use of home-made acid gas generators. These often are made by using one-gallon gas cans or 2-liter soda bottles with plastic tubing taped to the opening. These home-made gas generators are very dangerous and can let off gas for long periods of time.

        Law enforcement officials advise taking extreme caution when approaching old cabins in the woods or trailers parked along forest roads since these structures may house meth labs. Do not risk a confrontation with a drug manufacturer. Remember that drug labs can explode at any time if an error is made in the mixing or the cooking. Leave immediately if any suspicious operation or waste material is discovered in the woods. Do not investigate or touch the waste containers. Report the discovery to your supervisor or woodlands manager and, if it is your responsibility, to local law enforcement officials.

        Although drug labs primarily threaten the safety of persons who discover them, they pose yet another problem for the forest products industry: disposal of waste. Landowners may be legally responsible for disposing of hazardous material found on their land, and the disposing of it acceptably can be both expensive and time consuming. Fortunately, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is taking responsibility for meth lab clean-up and associated costs in most cases.
(Source: Forest Resources Association)


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