BAR HARBOR — Mention the term “meth lab” and one might picture an elaborate setup, complete with glass beakers, Pyrex boilers, gas burners and the like. But that image is far more involved than the typical process being used to manufacture methamphetamine in Maine, according to Peter Arno, commander of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency (MDEA).”
What is common in the state is the use of the one-pot or “shake-and-bake” method of manufacture, which basically involves dumping a brew of household chemicals into an empty plastic soda bottle and shepherding the mix through a volatile, potentially dangerous chemical reaction. A manufacturer who knows what they are doing can get everything they need at their local pharmacy and hardware store, Arno said, and have a batch cooked up in an hour’s time.
Police here have confirmed that this one-pot method allegedly was being used by the three people who were arrested on March 4 on charges of producing meth in a house on Gilbert Farm Road.
Even while the list of ingredients may be simple, the process of investigating and dismantling a shake-and-bake meth lab is a delicate, dangerous affair, Arno said. That is due to the volatility and toxicity of the chemicals involved.
“It’s not really that elaborate or sophisticated, but there is a high potential that things can go wrong, and there is a pretty good chance of fire or explosion if someone doesn’t know what they’re doing,” Arno said. “These are not chemists that we’re dealing with, so the quality control and the safety measures aren’t in place and are really not existent in most instances.”
There are 12 MDEA agents in the state who are trained specifically to deal with meth labs, Arno said. The agents have each been through a 40-hour program; most recently, the state sent agents to the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s Clandestine Laboratory Training Facility in Quantico, Va.
Between six and eight agents typically respond to a meth production site, along with a chemist from the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory in Augusta and staff from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection’s hazardous materials response team. Firefighters from a local department also are included in any response.
The cost of such an operation, not including local emergency responders, can run anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, Arno said. This year, the MDEA meth lab response team is averaging about one site investigation a month.
The scale of the response to meth labs has much less to do with the extent of criminal activity at the site than it does with the persistent public health hazard presented by methamphetamine use and the ongoing environmental threats from its production, Arno said.
“The size of our response really is to deal with the potential safety hazards. It’s not necessarily indicative of the size of the drug trafficker,” Arno said. “These aren’t, for the most part, sophisticated drug trafficking organizations that are making huge profits selling methamphetamine. Typically, they are people manufacturing methamphetamine to support their own habit.”
Meth is made with a number of common ingredients, such as lye, drain cleaner, camping stove fuel, lithium (taken from batteries), starting fluid and salt. The one item common and indispensable to all production is pseudoephedrine, an active ingredient in many cold medicines. This has become more difficult to obtain in recent years after laws were passed to limit its purchase. But users still find ways to obtain it.
The cooking process often generates a powerful chemical smell ranging in description from paint thinner to rotten eggs to cat urine.
For every gram of pseudoephedrine, .5 grams of meth are produced. A one-pot batch may yield five grams, which can sell for $150 each.
Materials left over from production are toxic and are typically scattered outside or tossed on the side of a road, Arno said. These threaten the local environment and anyone who might come into contact with them. Even more of a threat is the possibility of explosion and fire, which can happen every time meth is produced or a lab site is investigated, Arno said.
In order to mitigate the potential dangers, MDEA agents entering a suspected lab site wear fire-resistant suits and are outfitted with gloves, air tanks and breathing masks. The group takes air-quality readings before entering. For every agent who enters, there is one on standby outside in the eventuality that a rescue is necessary.
The team’s biggest concern is executing a search warrant during the active cooking process, when there is the highest risk of fire or explosion. But even after the cooking process is over, leftover chemicals can begin reacting if jostled, and this poses as large of a danger, Arno said. If materials in a bottle build up too much pressure, there can be an explosion.
“I have personally seen or been through meth labs where a bottle used in the manufacturing process was discarded in a dumpster. When that bottle moved, the process started rolling and smoking. So there is some concern even after the process is over,” Arno said.
The relative toxicity of a site after meth production is something that the MDEA does not determine. They do inform the town government where the site is located at which the activity occurred, Arno said.
Code enforcement officer Angela Chamberlain confirmed Tuesday that she had received notice about the Gilbert Farm Road property. She said she has never dealt with the issue before and knows of no special steps to take to handle it. She put the letter in the property’s building permit file, she said.
“People thinking about buying a house generally look in there, and I’m sure that will raise a red flag,” she said.
The Gilbert Farm Road meth lab bust was the MDEA’s third of this year. Meth lab busts have risen sharply in recent years, but Arno said that is not necessarily because of increased production. Rather, it might be because of the amount of education and training that is being received by local emergency responders across the state, he said.
There are a number of telltale signs of meth production, and as local law enforcement, firefighters, even hardware store owners learn about them, the amount of awareness, and thus the scale of police investigation, rises, Arno said.
“Every sworn law enforcement officer in the state of Maine in 2014 received this awareness training,” Arno said.
This month, the Maine DEA received nearly $1 million from the federal government to hire four drug agents set up to deal specifically with the meth issue.
In the video below, a demonstration of the shake-and-bake method of methamphetamine production by Tulsa, Oklahoma police shows just how quickly things can go wrong during the volatile process.
Thee Maine Methamphetamine Prevention Toolkit, put out by the Maine Department of Justice, contains information about the dangers of the drug, the manufacturing process, and how to tell if your neighbors might be producing meth.