EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a series regarding illegal methamphetamine activity in the Parkland and across the state.
By LEROY SIGMAN
Daily Journal Staff Writer
Just as manufacturing plants, offices and other businesses look for ways to improve production methods, the operators of methamphetamine laboratories are doing the same.
“Smaller and more mobile” are traits of more and more meth labs these days, according to an officer whose total focus is tracking down and dismantling such operations.
Bruce Momot, Missouri Sheriff Methamphetamine Relief Task Force (MoSMART) officer for St. Francois County, said increased public awareness and successful enforcement are factors in the changing scale in which meth is manufactured. Big labs are difficult to conceal and attract attention.
But the smaller size of the meth labs is not the most noticeable change that has been occurring, Momot said. That has been the transition from commercially produced anhydrous ammonia to homemade anhydrous ammonia.
“They have come up with a way to use a common lawn product to make their own anhydrous,” Momot said. Without being specific about the product, the officer said, “It is something available in every lawn and garden center and something about which a large purchase would not raise much suspicion.”
The theft of anhydrous ammonia is still a problem plaguing farmers and suppliers, but as knowledge of the new method spreads, Momot expects it to decrease. While he does not want to help spread it, the officer said the drug underworld has its own means of doing this.
“There are so many sites on the Internet where drug makers share information that it is unbelievable,” Momot said. “There are places on the Web where everything about making meth can be found, and a lot of other information, too.”
In addition to the Internet, there are books and pamphlets that investigators often find at meth lab sites they are taking down. Within loosely organized drug groups, Momot said, there are even “instructors” who are responsible for teaching others the latest methods in making meth.
Sheriff Dan Bullock said that unfortunately two of the most common sites for meth-making classes are the jails and prisons. Bring drug makers together and they are going to share their knowledge, he lamented.
Momot said the portability of smaller meth labs has become obvious in the past year. Makers are using everything from 20-ounce soft drink bottles to one gallon gasoline cans to make their illegal product. They might do each phase of production in a different location, following this procedure in an effort to escape detection.
The public has become more aware of the signs of an illegal meth lab, particularly the irritating odors it gives off. By moving the labs around for different stages of production, Momot said, the makers hope to minimize the risk of discovery by concerned and law-abiding citizens.
But moving labs during production is a risky business in more ways than one, Momot said. For the drug makers it involves the possible detection by law enforcement. Routine traffic stops have resulted in dozens if not scores of arrests for illegal labs over the past two years. Those telltale signs are very obvious when an officer finds a rolling lab.
There are also the physical risks, something Momot said is true not just for the people making meth, but for a lot of innocent people. Many of the ingredients used to make the drug are either highly toxic, flammable or even explosive. This puts a lot of people at risk.
On numerous local occasions, law enforcement, medical emergency, and firefighting personnel have been exposed to very dangerous situations at the scenes of fires and traffic accidents. In many such cases, the exposure comes without warning and can have tragic effects.
Bullock pointed out that several officers, including members of the Mineral Area Drug Task Force and the Sheriff’s Department, have suffered both respiratory problems and injuries as result of the toxic materials they have encountered when taking down a lab. There have even been instances in which road officers making routine traffic stops have inhaled fumes before they were aware what they were encountering.
Momot said that in the same line, a growing danger is the exposure innocent people are encountering when they find meth lab dump sites or abandoned labs.
In their effort to avoid detection, meth makers are using vacant buildings, abandoned mobile homes and camping trailers for lab sites. Often they will simply leave the labs, complete with the chemicals, once production is completed. Unsuspecting property owners and other innocent people then come upon the abandoned labs and are exposed to the risks.
Dump sites are being found all over the place and are also a major risk, Momot pointed out. Farmers are finding them along fence rows, workers find them in road ditches, just about anywhere out of the way has become a popular place to discard the remnants of a meth lab.
What the unsuspecting people are now aware of is they might expose themselves to dangerous components such as anhydrous ammonia. Momot urges the public to report anything of this nature to their local law enforcement rather than trying to clean it up themselves. It might appear harmless, but could cause long-lasting health problems.
The labs might be getting smaller, Momot said, but that does not mean meth production is lower. Instead, they are simply spending more time with more of the portable labs to produce methamphetamine. Most who make meth also use the highly addictive substance. They will make enough to sustain their own habit plus an amount to sell to keep their operation going.