By Tim Leeds/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Methamphetamine is the top problem facing narcotics officers in Montana and is getting all of the resources of the state Department of Justice's Narcotics Bureau, its director said Tuesday.
"The harsh reality is (meth labs) kill a lot of people," Mark Long told about 80 people at the fourth annual Women Stepping Forward for Agriculture symposium, held Tuesday in Havre.
About 12 or 13 meth labs a year are discovered because they blow up, with explosions capable of damaging nearby buildings, he said.
Long gave audience members tips on how to recognize that a meth lab is operating. For instance, look out for disgarded ingredients, like empty cold medication boxes or containers of hydrochloric acid, a substance that can cause serious injury.
"If you see some of these telltale signs, call the cops," Long said. "We'll take 50 false alarms over (a lab) blowing up."
Long described the process for making meth. The information is widely available, he said. An Internet search on methamphetamine will bring up 70,000 hits.
"Thirty-five thousand are how to cook it, 35,000 are how to get treatment for (meth addiction)," he said.
A common ingredient in meth is pseudoephedrine, which is found in many cold and asthma medicines. Meth manufacturers try to buy large quantifies of cold remedies and may leave lots of empty medicine boxes laying around, he said.
Long said some stores have started locking up the drugs, selling them only at the prescription counter or not selling them at all. To get around limits stores have put on selling cold medications, meth manufacturers will send groups of people into multiple stores, buying as many boxes as they can.
"You're using meth, so you have no life and nothing better to do," Long said.
He said meth users are not hard to spot. Signs of meth use include extreme thinness, heavy acne and strong body odor.
If a group of people like that wants to buy 50 boxes of cold medicine, he joked, "In law enforcement, that's what we call 'a clue.'"Once the medicine is purchased and crushed, the next step is to add a strong solvent, like denatured alcohol, acetone, ethanol or ether from automobile starting fluid.
Meth cooks punch holes in the bottom of starting fluid cans to drain out the aerosol before they pour out the ether, he said.
Then the mixture is cooked, sometimes over an open flame, one of the most dangerous parts of the procedure. Meth cookers often have an open quart or gallon container of ether in their labs, he said.
Holding up a sealed jar with about a cup of ether in it, he said if it evaporated and someone struck a match, "This would blow us all out of the room."
In a raid at one lab, he said, officers found a 50-gallon drum of ether in the furnace room of the trailer.
Once the crushed medicine is boiled in the solvent, the meth cooker typically runs the mixture through a coffee filter, saving the filters because they can be processed to make additional methamphetamine in the future. The filters look like they're covered with white or red dried plaster of Paris.
The next addition is iodine or red phosphorus, things not usually purchased in large quantities.
"If they want 10 gallons (of iodine) because a cat got nipped by a lawn mower, something's not right," he said.
Phosphorus is found in the strike plates of safety matchbooks.
Next, the methamphetamine is separated from the mixture.
"They are jars of two-layered crud. Not a very scientific term, but common in a meth lab," Long said.
The final step involves another container inserted by two tubes.
He said the meth cooker puts salt in the container and adds acid, like acidic toilet bowl cleaner or battery acid, to produce hydrochloric acid gas. It runs through the second tube into the first container, producing meth.
Finding the disgarded bottles of acid along the road or in a field can be hazardous, he said.
Another meth-cooking technique involves pseudoephedrine, lithium from lithium batteries and anhydrous ammonia, Long said. Anhydrous ammonia is commonly used as fertilizer by Montana farmers.