ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
Two Marion County convenience store clerks in the last month made unexpected contact with what could be the greatest local hazard of our times, methamphetamine.
Meth drug use and manufacturing may be the hazard you and your family are far more likely to encounter than any threat from terrorism.
Marion County Sheriff Lee Becker goes so far as to label methamphetamine, the crystalline derivative of amphetamine, as “the new great plague of the century.”
The bottle half filled with fluid your child finds on a walk, and shakes, could explode in his face, Becker warned.
A rolled piece of aluminum foil could be a foilie, like two recently found smuggled into the Marion County Jail, used by a meth drug user so the drug rolled inside can be ignited so he can inhale the fumes.
Be aware of groups of discarded cold-remedy pill bottles, or multiple containers for items like Drano or lye, according to both Becker and information distributed by the U.S. Department of Justice. The bottles could be left from methamphetamine production.
You might stumble upon containers used in meth labs-perhaps with hoses sticking out of them-everything from fuel cans to hot water heaters.
All of these things should be reported to local law enforcement even if the items are just laying in a rural ditch.
Especially be aware of strong chemical smells that can come from health-threatening meth-production gases like hydrogen sulfide, Becker said.
Normally such smells are hazards for law enforcement to deal with in labs where meth may be “cooked” over fire sources such as propane burners that add to the meth fire and explosions hazards.
But the contact can be casual as in the case of the convenience store clerks.
They said they were aware of a customer who walked five or six blocks to the store, but even with that time to air off outside, the chemical odor emanating from him when he came into the store was described as “overwhelming.”
One clerk said: “I can’t describe the smell very well, but I’ll never forget it. It’s something you would recognize again right away. It was just a very strong chemical smell.
“The other girl thought it smelled most like ether, and I thought maybe more like nail polish remover. I’ve been gluing down carpet in a closed-up basement, which I thought was really bad. But it was nothing in comparison to that smell.”
Both clerks instantly developed nausea followed by strong headaches. One was about to go off shift, and went home sick. The other clerk tried to stay working for the next few hours, but ended up needing to go home quickly.
They reported the incident to local law enforcement officers who monitored the customer’s activities.
Meth use goes beyond its effects on drug users to have some effect on nearly everybody in local society-from farmers and rural cooperatives that must be aware of ammonia theft from fertilizer tanks used in “meth labs,” to counties that pay more money to house overflow jail inmates, Becker said.
A tour of the Marion County Jail illustrates the point. Cells are packed to capacity with prisoners in orange clothing.
When Becker first served in Marion County-not long ago in the early 1990s-he said the jail seldom had more than one or two prisoners over a weekend.
Now the inmates regularly number up to 19, nearly double what once was considered capacity. Marion County pays $40 a day per prisoner to other counties to house extras-sometimes Chase, Rice, Dickinson or any other county that has room.
The problem of where to take extra prisoners is compounded, Becker said, by even larger overflow prisoner populations that are sent from more urban areas like the Sedgwick County Jail.
At one time, Marion County seldom had female prisoners, but now, in part because of meth, one set of cells has to be set aside for women.
Marion County is renovating one cell for use that had been used as storage area.
The foilies were found on the floors of jail hallways by officers during the jail tour. Becker said they are symptomatic of the kind of need meth users have for the drug that they would sneak them into the jail.
Even though the booking cell is correctly kept for strip search of prisoners coming into the jail, Becker said there exists the unpleasant reality that some of them will conceal meth or other items in body cavities.
The type of meth labs this part of the country usually has are “user labs,” where the people making methamphetamine are using it for their own “recreation,” and to provide it for friends with any sales usually a secondary consideration, Becker said.
The practice of meth manufacturing is spread among these users by “friends showing friends” how to do it, he said.
Local users typically use what is called the Nazi method where small quantities, typically around one pound, can be made at one time using materials that can be stolen or purchased locally for $300 or less.
The relative ease makes meth the new drug of choice because of economy, availability and effect.
The large Mexican or “red phosphorus” labs that market quantities of meth that may range from 20 to 80 pounds made at a time, are found more on the West Coast, although a first one for Kansas was discovered last month in Salina.
A dangerous threat
The Department of Justice says meth use has spread across the country from west to east. It is new to the the country, beginning its spread only in the late 1980s to early 1990s. But DOJ warns it is one of the more dangerous threats the world has faced.
Meth can be inhaled, ingested or injected intravenously, a more life threatening method that users tell officers is “an ultimate rush,” Becker said.
Becker said users are almost instantly “rewired” in brain function, and become almost instantly addicted. Some users are obviously “hooked” in a moment and others are able “to walk away once” only to find that a little repetition keeps them using.
A user, a meth “tweaker,” may, in a very short time, only feel “normal” when on meth, Becker said.
DOJ materials warn officers that meth users, who may go perhaps four to seven days at a time without sleep, may become violent without warning.
DOJ said, “They may suffer erratic, paranoid, delusional behavior that can make them very dangerous for officers to handle.”
DOJ officers described situations where meth users at first might seem to engage in normal conversation, then withdraw perhaps staring at officers or fixating on something for a while, and then attacking officers because they were seen in delusional terms as “Satan” or some other threatening thing.
An officer said: “Tweakers can be aggressive and mean. Approach them like approaching a cobra. They may aim to hurt you because they’re off somewhere in paranoid la la land.
“They may become very angry, and we’re seeing that in home-domestic disputes, where a couple of users turn on each other. Be careful, because that rage can be turned on first responders.”
The agency warns that depressed persons using meth usually become more depressed, and may become suicidal.
The production process
DOJ said meth is made in a process that roughly is described as washing psuedoephedrine from cold pills into solution through something like coffee filters, then using hydrogen chloride gas obtained by mixing sulfuric acid with table salt to make meth crystals.
Other materials, such as the stolen ammonia, can enter in, but in the public interest, a full description of how to process meth usually is not given.
DOJ also warns landlords and landowners there can be $5,000 to $100,000 in cleanup bills where a meth lab has been discovered, and they may be made responsible for some of the bill.
Production of one pound of meth produces five to six pounds of waste that can be absorbed through the skin, burn clothing, and contaminate soil and water.
DOJ wants police officers and emergency personnel who work with meth investigation and cleanup for years to be periodically monitored for accumulative health risks.
Officers wear protective suits, including respirators.
The dangers increase with the larger labs in part because of phosphene gas that DOJ says can blister the lungs causing an intruder to drown with fluid filled lungs.
The larger labs that have not been in Kansas also bring operators with firearms and warning alarms that law enforcement must face, DOJ said. The fire hazards to the public and to firemen increase.
“It has become the drug of choice on the West Coast,” DOJ said, “and its use is growing by leaps and bounds across the country due to its popularity and ease of manufacturing.”