Law Enforcement Fights Methamphetamine; Officers Preparing for War on Drug Labs

Article excerpt

Byline: Jim Schoettler, Times-Union staff writer

The equipment and ingredients for the deadly drug are available in any discount department store.

The recipe for its highly addictive brew can be found on dozens of Internet sites, though most cookers learn through word of mouth.

The clandestine laboratories could be anywhere close by -- a neighbor's kitchen table, an adjoining motel room or a passing car.

Crank. Ice. Speed. Crystal meth. Whatever its nickname, the powerful stimulant known legally as methamphetamine is coming to a neighborhood near you, if it isn't already next door, federal drug agents warn.

"It could be in a million-dollar house or the shed down the street. It could be in the $50,000 Escalade in the front yard or a Pinto in the back," said special agent Mark Greer of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Jacksonville office. "It's growing and growing, and it's getting here."

To combat the growing numbers of clandestine makeshift methamphetamine labs nationwide, the DEA is training local and state police in identifying labs and how to handle the potential dangers from poisonous gas and toxic chemicals.

This week, the first such school in Florida is being held in Jacksonville under the tutelage of local DEA agents. About 40 police officers from throughout the state are undergoing classroom training, including meth cooking sessions, and field exercises that include using protective suits needed to dismantle labs.

The training is required by federal safety officials, because officers face hazardous conditions in labs.

"Simply knocking over a tube or turning on a light switch could lead to an explosion," said Randy Bohman, assistant special agent in charge of the Jacksonville DEA office. "This [training] will allow them to go in, investigate and dismantle them safely."

Methamphetamine is popular because it is cheap to make and buy and the high lasts much longer than other drugs, such as crack cocaine, Bohman said. The drug is highly addictive and can cause violent reactions.

Methamphetamine first became popular in the West in the 1970s when the Hell's Angels and Outlaws motorcycle gangs were involved in making and distributing the white powder. Mexican drug cartels, using cheap farm labor, set up labs in the West in the '80s and moved the drug into Midwestern states such as Missouri in the early 1990s. The drug slowly has moved eastward since.

The DEA seized about 8,000 labs last year nationwide, compared with 3,000 in 1998. In Florida, authorities already have shut down about 120 labs this year, compared with 134 in 2002 and 30 in 2001. …