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Responses to the Problem of Clandestine Methamphetamine Labs

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. (To date, there are no known evaluation studies of responses to the clandestine drug-lab problem; there are only practitioner experiences and impressions.) Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: carefully consider who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

Dealing with clandestine methamphetamine labs requires an extraordinarily high level of technical expertise. Responders must understand illicit drug chemistry; how to neutralize the risks of explosions, fires, chemical burns, and toxic fumes; how to handle, store, and dispose of hazardous materials; and how to treat medical conditions caused by chemical exposure. They must also have a detailed knowledge of the numerous federal, state, and local laws governing chemical manufacturing and distribution, hazardous materials, occupational safety, and environmental and child protection. Police agencies cannot be expected to have all this expertise in-house. They must collaborate with fire officials, hazardous materials experts, chemists, public health officials, social service providers, and environmental protection officials.

Because methamphetamine production, trafficking, use, and incidental exposure potentially affect so many dimensions of community life, multiagency task forces are recommended for addressing community-wide methamphetamine problems. See the "Stakeholders" section above for a listing of agencies that should be considered for inclusion, in addition to criminal justice agencies. Developing and following multiagency protocols for responding to reports of clandestine meth labs helps ensure that all the dimensions of the problem are addressed appropriately.[57], §

§ The Bureau of Justice Assistance (1998) [Full text] has published a guide to establishing clandestine drug-lab enforcement programs that addresses many organizational, planning and resource issues.

Specific Responses to Clandestine Methamphetamine Labs

Monitoring Chemicals

1.  Controlling the sale and distribution of essential and precursor chemicals used in clandestine methamphetamine labs. Controlling the sale and distribution of essential and precursor chemicals is widely considered one of the most effective responses to clandestine methamphetamine labs and drug trafficking.[58] Doing so requires effort at the local, state, national, and international levels.§§ Because the chemicals also have many legal uses, government regulators must balance the need to thwart their diversion for illicit use with the need to permit legitimate trade in them.

§§ See International Narcotics Control Board (2006) [PDF] for a description of some international efforts to control chemical sales and distribution. In the United States, the Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act of 1988, the Chemical Diversion Control Act of 1993, the Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996, the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, and the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 all govern chemical transactions.

Distribution Controls

Educating police, chemical manufacturers and distributors, deliverers, and other regulators about the potential for and methods of chemical diversion can help prevent it, as can improved recordkeeping, container labeling, and customer identification practices.[59]

Federal and parallel state laws play an important role in controlling chemical diversion.[60] States with weak chemical diversion laws are susceptible to trafficking in illicit synthetic drugs.[61], § Targeting rogue chemical companies for investigation and prosecution for diverting chemicals for illicit drug production is a key component of the federal law enforcement strategy.[62], §§ Police and prosecutors might develop criminal conspiracy cases against chemical and lab equipment companies that have knowingly supplied clandestine drug lab operators.[63] Federal law now provides for civil fines up to $250,000 for illegal chemical diversion or lab equipment sales for illicit drug production.[64], §§§ First responders to labs are well advised to save all chemical packages and containers to help investigators identify the chemical manufacturers and suppliers.

§ The National Institute of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration developed the Model State Chemical Control Act, which includes provisions for the following: state authority to regulate chemicals, registration and permitting systems, reporting requirements, purchaser identification requirements, permit suspension and revocation and applicant screening, investigative and enforcement powers, and legitimate commerce protection (Sevick 1993) [PDF]. The National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws (www.natlalliance.org/publications.asp) frequently updates a roster of legislation in each state designed to control the distribution of precursor chemicals.

§§ Some chemical companies reportedly derive up to half their revenue from diverting chemicals for illicit drug production (Saleem 1996).

§§§ The Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996 establishes a "reckless disregard" standard of proof for a civil action, which is easier to meet than the more stringent intent standard for a criminal prosecution.

An unintended consequence of restricting sales of large amounts of chemicals is that it promotes the operation of smaller clandestine drug labs that require smaller amounts of chemicals to produce small batches of drugs.[65] As chemicals for methamphetamine production become harder to obtain, some lab operators may shift production to other drugs, like amphetamines.[66]

Retail Controls

Controlling pseudoephedrine diversion from over-thecounter sales, wholesale and mail-order sales, and internet-based sales is also an important objective.§ The retail sale of precursor chemicals can be restricted in a number of ways:§§

  • Placing limits on the quantity of products containing pseudoephedrine that can be purchased. Some jurisdictions limit the amount that can be purchased in a single transaction (for example, sixty 30mg tablets) or over a period of time (for example, 9 grams in a 30-day period).[67],§§§ Responses involving purchase limits require retailers to implement a system to track the purchases of individual customers. In most states, customers must show identification and sign a log when purchasing regulated products. To be effective, regulating agencies must be able to cross-reference sales across retail venues to prevent lab operators from simply patronizing multiple stores.
  • Programming cash registers to detect suspicious purchases and alert sales clerks.
  • Reducing the available chemical stock (employees sometimes steal products for diversion).[68]
  • Requiring products containing pseudoephedrine to be placed behind sales counters, in locked display cases, or behind pharmacy counters. Making products containing pseudoephedrine more difficult for lab operators to obtain must be balanced with the legitimate consumer needs of cold-sufferers. Further, requiring these products to be displayed behind pharmacy counters can cause convenience stores and some grocery stores to lose sales revenue.[69]
  • Requiring consumers to have a prescription to obtain products containing pseudoephedrine. Although it may indeed reduce the illicit use of these products, it may also reduce their legitimate use among those without prescription coverage or health insurance.[70]
  • Preventing the theft of anhydrous ammonia from farms.†

§ In 2005, the online auction, portal eBay, banned the sale of pseudoephedrine and ephedrine in all transactions between users. Using filtering tools to search for keywords and encouraging registered users to report violations allowed eBay to prevent some pseudoephedrine sales (Herzog, 2005).

§§ State legislation to combat methamphetamine production is constantly changing and therefore is not discussed specifically in this guide. Refer to Arledge (2005) [PDF] and Sanchez and Harrison (2004) [PDF] for the most recent summary of state legislation.

§§§ Thousands of common pseudoephedrine or ephedrine tablets are required to produce a single pound of methamphetamine. Among others, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Oregon have reported reductions in lab seizures after enacting various retail-level controls (Interagency Working Group on Synthetic Drugs 2005; Glover 2005) [PDF].

† See King (n.d.) [PDF] for detailed recommendations on preventing anhydrous ammonia theft.

Controlling chemical sales and distribution requires vigilance because clandestine drug lab operators are constantly looking to circumvent and exploit loopholes in the various laws and regulations, and adapt by using alternative supply sources, chemicals, or production processes.[71]

2. Altering the chemical composition of products used to produce methamphetamine. The DEA and other federal agencies have been working with manufacturers to reformulate pharmaceutical products that are used to produce methamphetamine.[72], ‡ Such efforts would make key precursor chemicals ineffective for the production of methamphetamine. However, the decreasing availability of precursor chemicals may cause lab operators to experiment with substitute materials that may be even more hazardous.

Researchers are also exploring ways to render certain precursor chemicals, such as anhydrous ammonia, useless for methamphetamine production; the chemicals would still be useful for their lawful purposes.[73] Much of the anhydrous ammonia used in methamphetamine production is stolen from farmers' storage tanks; mechanical devices can be installed on storage tanks to make theft more difficult, and some jurisdictions have enacted laws requiring that anhydrous ammonia be stored and transported only in approved containers.[74], ¶

‡ Pharmaceutical companies are developing new lines of over-the-counter decongestants that contain phenylephrine instead of pseudoephedrine (Leinwand, 2005).

¶ The transfer of anhydrous ammonia from one storage container to another leaves a telltale blue coloring on the valves.

Providing Training

3. Training citizens to report suspected clandestine methamphetamine labs. Many citizens are unfamiliar with the indicators of clandestine methamphetamine labs, yet with some training, can learn these indicators and be encouraged to report suspected labs to authorities.§ Some jurisdictions have initiated billboard, poster, hotline, website, and other publicity campaigns to encourage reporting.[75] Workers who routinely approach private residences, such as postal carriers, garbage collectors, and utility personnel, are well positioned to notice suspicious odors,§§ items or activity indicative of labs.[76] Hotel and motel employees, especially desk attendants and maids, can be trained to look for suspicious indicators of labs set up in rooms.§§§ Rental property managers are also a key group to target for training.[77] Others who routinely enter people's homes, such as maintenance and repair workers, might also benefit from training.
§ A neighborhood-based effort, www.Leadonamerica.org, developed pamphlets with instructions for citizens to collect information police need to obtain search warrants for suspected methamphetamine labs (for example, license plate numbers, vehicle descriptions.) and includes a neighborhood activity log (ABC News 2005). Hanson (2005) discusses the outward signs of clandestine labs in detail.

§§ Various chemicals that are used in or are by-products of methamphetamine production, such as phosphine, ether, ammonia, battery acid, and acetone, have distinctive smells. For example, phosphine smells like garlic, sulfur smells like rotten eggs, ammonia smells like cat urine, and acetone smells like nail polish remover.

§§§ The Portland (Oregon) Police Bureau, in collaboration with Campbell Resources Inc., produced tip booklets for hotel and motel operators, rental property owners, and ministorage unit managers on preventing their properties from being used as clandestine drug labs, and decontaminating property used as such (Campbell Resources Inc. n.d.; Oregon Drug Lab Cleanup Program 2004). Sandy City, Utah, police similarly trained hotel and motel managers and employees in the common suspicious indicators that people may be using rooms as labs (Thompson 1999). 

Posters and billboards with specific contact information can encourage residents to report suspected clandestine labs. Credit: Washington County (Oregon) Sheriff's Office

4. Training sales clerks to detect and report suspicious chemical and equipment purchases. Clerks at certain types of wholesale and retail businesses (for example, chemical supply companies, pharmacies, and home supply stores) can be trained to detect and report purchases of unusual amounts of materials commonly used to manufacture methamphetamine, such as cold and allergy medications containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine.§ In some jurisdictions, printed information is posted at cash registers to remind clerks what to look for.[78] Customers with the appearance of a methamphetamine addict (with rotting teeth and open sores, emitting chemical odors) might also raise suspicions.

§ A Missouri-based organization, Companies Helping Eliminate Meth, developed training kits for retail stores that include both video and printed materials (Pruneau 2005). Similarly, the Florida Retail Federation developed a sales training program for retailers who sell products containing pseudoephedrine. The program discusses key facts about methamphetamine, the applicable laws, retailers' responsibility to deny sales, and penalties for failing to follow the law (Florida Retail Federation n.d.)[PDF].

5. Training police and other responders to identify potential clandestine methamphetamine labs. Police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, probation and parole officers, and other personnel who routinely enter private property should be trained to recognize indicators of clandestine methamphetamine labs so enforcement action can be initiated.[79] This response is especially important in communities not currently experiencing a high number of labs, as early recognition of and response to the problem is critical to preventing it from becoming entrenched. You should not assume that all police officers and other responders will recognize lab indicators without some specialized education.

Protecting Those Exposed to Clandestine Methamphetamine Labs

6. Providing protective services to children exposed to clandestine methamphetamine labs. Police often find children at clandestine methamphetamine lab sites, but because their resources are consumed seizing and processing the lab, they may not attend to the children's long-term needs, especially if child protection workers cannot respond immediately. Placing the children with the arrestees' friends, family or neighbors usually just results in the children's returning to the hazardous environment. The family reunification rates for children of parents addicted to methamphetamine are low.[80]

Several jurisdictions have created special protocols and programs to address the needs of children exposed to clandestine methamphetamine labs.[81] Child endangerment protocols and programs require cooperation and collaboration among police, prosecutors, and social workers.§ These protocols and programs typically involve medical screening of the children for toxicity and malnourishment, emergency and long-term foster care, and psychological treatment. Parents are prosecuted for child endangerment, if appropriate. Some states have enacted penalty enhancements for operating the labs with children present. (Similar protocols might be warranted for treating elderly or infirm people, or pets exposed to the labs).

§ Swetlow (2003) [PDF] provides guidance for developing multidisciplinary teams for protecting the interests of children discovered at methamphetamine labs.

7. Protecting first responders and others who come into contact with contaminated lab sites. When police and other first responders enter locations where methamphetamine has been produced, they are at risk of injury from the various toxic and potentially flammable chemicals at the scene. The most common injuries are respiratory and eye irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea and shortness of breath.[82] The risk of injury can be minimized by encouraging first responders to decontaminate themselves at the scene by showering and changing their clothing, and wearing appropriate personal protective equipment.[83], § In addition, police can develop joint protocols with fire departments for responding to the scenes of suspected labs. If on scene with police, firefighters can minimize damage from inadvertent fires and explosions, monitor the air quality, and assist with identifying and handling toxic chemicals.[84]

§ Even though local Missouri police seize a large number of labs each year, very few officers are injured. Investigating officers must attend a 40-hour certification course patterned after the DEA's clandestine lab course. In a joint effort by the Missouri Highway Patrol and the Department of Natural Resources, nearly 700 officers have been certified (Schanlaub 2005).

Some jurisdictions also recognize the risks faced by prospective home buyers who may unknowingly purchase a residence previously used as a clandestine lab. Real estate laws can require the seller to disclose this information. A list of contaminated properties maintained by a state agency can connect this information to all title searches of properties for sale. Laws can restrict the sale, use, or lease of a property until it is properly decontaminated.[85]

Treating Drug Addiction

8. Providing adequate resources to treat methamphetamine addiction. Although this guide is primarily concerned with clandestine methamphetamine labs, and not with methamphetamine abuse, it is important to acknowledge that treating addiction—and thereby reducing the demand for methamphetamine—is an important aspect of a comprehensive strategy to address the problem.[86] The state of Wyoming reportedly has dramatically shifted resources toward treatment as a primary means of addressing its methamphetamine problem, of which labs are a part.[87] Specialized drug courts hold promise as a more effective means of ensuring that methamphetamine abusers receive and comply with treatment requirements.[88]

Enforcing Laws Prohibiting Clandestine Methamphetamine Lab-Operations

9. Finding and seizing clandestine methamphetamine labs. There is an obvious and understandable tendency among police agencies to focus much of their resources on finding and seizing clandestine methamphetamine labs. But it is not yet clear whether this is, in the long run, the most effective or efficient strategy for dealing with the problem. The labs, especially the smaller ones, are so easy to set up that it seems nearly impossible to find and seize all or even most of them. And because seizing the labs is so time-consuming and costly, police agencies run the risk of exhausting their resources on this single response, leaving little or no resources for other responses.[89]

Some enforcement is nonetheless necessary to maintain a credible deterrent and to monitor the conditions and prevalence of labs. A good enforcement effort requires considerable resources and planning.§ Some police agencies conduct "knock and talk" campaigns whereby officers ask for consent to search properties for evidence of labs.[90] As surprising as it might seem, this response does occasionally yield results. Police may also get tips from sanitation workers, firefighters, health care workers, or other public service workers who suspect they have discovered a lab during the course of their duties.[91]

§ The Stanislaus County (California) Sheriff s Department equipped a van with an infrared sensor that detects changes in the atmosphere caused by the vapors released from methamphetamine labs. The sensor can detect vapors in an open space from a three-mile distance. The van cost approximately $750,000 (Giblin, 2005).

10. Arresting and prosecuting clandestine methamphetamine lab operators and cooks. Federal or state organized crime and racketeering statutes can prove useful toward dismantling more-sophisticated clandestine methamphetamine lab syndicates. Many lab operators are on conditional release (either probation or parole) and, consequently, are liable to having their homes and vehicles searched regularly for evidence that they have resumed operating a lab.[92] Searches of discarded trash often yield evidence sufficient to obtain a search warrant for a particular premise. Wholesale and retail chemical and lab equipment suppliers might be willing to identify suspicious customers; police might then serve search warrants on, and build criminal cases against, those customers. Because methamphetamine markets tend to be closed (dealers sell only to people they know), undercover infiltration of production and distribution organizations is difficult. The use of criminal informants, covert surveillance and wiretaps is often necessary to make good criminal cases against organized methamphetamine production organizations.[93]

Criminal statutes that provide penalty enhancements for distributing large amounts of illicit drugs are not likely to be as effective in responding to the methamphetamine problem as they might be for addressing the marijuana, cocaine, and heroin problems, because methamphetamine is so easily manufactured in small batches for personal use.[94] There appear to be relatively few drug kingpins in the methamphetamine trade. However, some states have enacted new criminal statutes or enhanced penalties to more directly address some of the particular activities associated with operating methamphetamine labs.§ Of course, new criminal statutes and penalty enhancements are not particularly effective if enforcement resources, including crime lab resources, are inadequate.[95]

§ In 2005, Illinois created new offenses targeting those serving as look-outs for methamphetamine labs and those who dispose of toxic waste from methamphetamine labs. Those operating labs in motels, hotels, apartments, and condominiums also face mandatory prison time (Illinois, Office of the Governor, 2005) [PDF].

Similarly, arresting and prosecuting methamphetamine cooks has limited potential to effectively address the problem. Because methamphetamine is relatively easy to produce, the supply of potential cooks seems nearly inexhaustible. Enough methamphetamine abusers are eager to learn to cook, if only to ensure their own drug supply.§§ Methamphetamine abusers who cook are almost certain to resume cooking given any opportunity to do so, including while on bail pending trial for drug charges.[96]

§§ Nearly 10 percent of one sample of arrested methamphetamine users said they cooked methamphetamine for themselves (Pennell et al. 1999) [PDF].

11. Seizing and filing for forfeiture of clandestine methamphetamine lab operators' assets. Federal and state asset forfeiture laws can be applied to the problem of clandestine methamphetamine labs.[97] While this response might prove effective in controlling some of the larger drug organizations, it is unlikely to prove very effective at controlling the smaller labs. Because they usually only produce enough product for personal consumption, small-lab operators often have few valuable assets to forfeit.[98] Again, the seizing agency may incur significant liability for cleaning up the property.

12. Enforcing environmental protection laws against clandestine methamphetamine lab operators. Federal§ and state environmental protection laws will often be applicable to the hazards created by clandestine methamphetamine labs.[99] The burden of proof under these environmental laws is typically less than that required for criminal convictions. You should consult with federal or state environmental attorneys to proceed under these laws.

§ Among the most relevant federal statutes are the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1980, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (also known as the Superfund Act). The Clean Air Act; Water Pollution Control Act; Ocean Dumping Act; Safe Drinking Water Act; Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act; Toxic Substances and Control Act; and National Environmental Policy Act may also apply in certain circumstances.

13. Filing civil actions against properties used for clandestine methamphetamine labs. Police and prosecutors can initiate asset forfeiture proceedings against property owners who knowingly allow their properties to be used as clandestine methamphetamine labs.[100] Police can also encourage owners to file eviction actions against tenants who use their property to house such labs. Nuisance abatement actions can be filed against properties recurrently used as labs,[101] but since smaller labs are so mobile, and since lab operators are typically only lessees, not owners, this response would most likely have only limited effectiveness.
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