Patterns of Illicit Methamphetamine Production ("Cooking") and Associated Risks in the Rural South: An Ethnographic Exploration

Article excerpt

This article describes rural methamphetamine (MA) production ("cooking") and associated risks in Kentucky and Arkansas. It is based on qualitative interviews with 36 active MA users and one former user, a population that included 10 MA "cookers." Participants reported that various forms of the Birch cooking method have become widespread locally over the past decade. There is an underground market in MA ingredients like pseudoephedrine pills and anhydrous ammonia and innovative methods to overcome restrictions on obtaining them. MA production is hazardous. Explosions, chemical spills, and injuries are associated with acquiring anhydrous ammonia. MA cooking is often undertaken by the inexperienced, those "high" on MA, or people who rush production because of fear of discovery or craving for the drug. Consequently, accidents and injuries sometimes occur. Lab waste is also a potential danger. Our preliminary findings can inform future research and the development of educational programs that address MA cooking and associated problems.


Methamphetamine (MA) is a powerful central nervous system stimulant that was once widely prescribed for conditions ranging from depression to obesity (Anglin, Burke, Perrochet, Stamper, & Dawud-Noursi, 2002). Abuse of prescription MA because of its psychoactive effects and suppression of appetite and fatigue led to restrictions on the drug (Anglin et al., 2002; Miller, 1997; Morgan & Beck, 1997). As a result, illicit MA "recipes" like the Phenyl-2-Propanone [P-2-P] Amalgam process became common by the 1960s, especially in California (Morgan & Beck, 1997). P-2-P was designated as a Schedule II controlled substance in 1982, and other production methods have since become popular (Miller, 1997; Morgan & Beck, 1997; National Drug Intelligence Center [NDIC], 2002,2003).

MA production ("cooking") in the U.S. is linked to West Coast biker gangs and Mexican traffickers who make the drug for wholesale interstate distribution (Miller, 1997; NDIC, 2002,2003). MA cooking, often in makeshift "labs," has also become apparent in the rural West, Midwest, and South (Anglin et al., 2002; Barnes, Boeger, & Huffman, 1998; Freese, Obert, Dickow, Cohen, & Lord, 2000; Glittenberg & Anderson, 1999; MacMaster, Tripp, & Argo, under review; Sexton et al., 2005; Sexton, Carlson, Leukefeld, & Booth, in press; Weisheit & Fuller, 2004). As just two examples of this trend, the number of reported "meth sites" increased from 97 to 486 in Kentucky and from 245 to 682 in Arkansas between 2000 and 2004 (Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, 2004).

There are many adverse consequences of MA use. It has been linked to cardiovascular and neurological pathologies (Richards et al., 1999; Thompson et al., 2004). The connection between MA use and sexually transmitted disease risk has been noted (Anderson & Flynn, 1997; Clatts, Welle, & Goldsamt, 2001 ; Frosch, Shoptaw, Huber, Rawson, & Ling, 1996; Reback, 1997; Reback & Grella, 1999; ZuIe & Desmond, 1999). Extended MA use causes diminished appetite, sleeplessness, exhaustion, depression, paranoia, and psychosis-conditions associated with poor personal hygiene, neglect of medical problems, interpersonal violence, self-inflicted wounds, and suicide (Baberg, Nelesen, & Dimsdale, 1996; Cohen et al., 2003; Murray, 1998; Rawson, Washton, Domier, & Reiber, 2002; Sexton et al., in press; Wolkoff, 1997).

MA production also includes various risks. For example, a 16-state survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2005a) identified 164 "hazardous substance release events" between 2000 and 2004 that were linked to attempts to steal anhydrous ammonia for making MA. It also reported 1,627 MA cooking accidents, with 862 injuries and nine deaths (CDC, 2005b). An early study suggested that at least 20% to 30% of all officially reported MA "labs" are discovered through fires and explosions (Skeers, 1992). …