Meth Menace Rises as Labs Now Smaller, Even More Combustible; THREAT New 'One-Pot' Method Is Quicker, but Can Lead to Explosions, Deaths

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Byline: Dana Treen

Methamphetamine lab seizures in Northeast Florida are about 83 percent higher this year than in all of 2010 at a time when those who make it have turned to a more dangerous way of producing the drug.

Chip Moore, a veteran narcotics detective, said that during a lengthy investigation and three rounds of federal indictments of 24 people, suspects shifted to the newer and more volatile "one-pot" method of cooking the drug.

In the past, methamphetamine was made using an hours-long process called the "red phosphorous" or "Red P" method, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office detective said.

"Every one of them went from the Red P method to the one-pot method over the course of the last 18 months," Moore said. Now a batch of dope can be turned out in 30 minutes using a 2-liter soda bottle in a way similar to a cocktail shaker.

But shaking a volatile mix of lithium, camp stove fuel, ammonium nitrate and lye is inviting an explosion and can result in fires and deaths.

In Jacksonville police found two labs in 2010, according to the Sheriff's Office. So far this year, in large part due to work resulting in the federal case, 14 labs have been busted.

Moore said the federal case began with a tip to Jacksonville detectives. The tip produced a network and a decision was made to pursue federal charges because the penalties are stiffer, he said.

In Duval, Clay, St. Johns, Nassau and Putnam counties, there have been 75 meth labs seized so far this year compared to 41 in 2010, according to law enforcement agencies.

In one case an explosion inside a Jacksonville apartment off Beach Boulevard lifted the ceiling inches off the wall, blew out windows and scorched a tree outside, Moore said.

He guesses the person making the meth accidentally ignited the lithium and a flash explosion ripped through the toxic fumes filling the apartment.

No one was arrested, though other residents saw a man "on fire" running away, he said.

While more dangerous, the one pot labs are smaller as well as quicker and produce enough for the maker and helpers. In St. Johns County, a man was arrested last month with one concealed in a backpack. One was found in a car last week in Jacksonville.

The uptick in labs and the shift in production also came at a time when local governments had to make up for a loss in federal money for cleaning up the sites where labs are found. Funds ran out in February and were not restored until President Barack Obama signed a wide-ranging appropriations bill Nov. 21, according to The Associated Press.

An investigation by AP found the number of labs seized dropped sharply in states that had been heavily dependent on that money. Experts said agencies in those states tended to be less aggressive in uncovering meth production.

Moore, who said the Sheriff's Office actually stepped up its investigations this year when he was assigned to concentrate on meth cases, said disposing of the dangerous waste averages $1,500 to $3,500 per case.

Pseudoephedrine or ephedrine, parts of cold and allergy medications, are converted into methamphetamine in the production process. Users skim the drug from the mix once the reaction is complete, leaving a sludge behind.

Carpets and drywall absorb fumes, and toxins are dumped into residential septic systems where meth is made. One pot labs are also one-use operations, and backyard burn pits used to destroy other traces of the crime cause environmental damage.

Lt. Barry Abramowitz of the Clay County Sheriff's Office said 12 officers who deal with narcotics there are now trained to do cleanup. It was costing the department $2,000 to $2,500 for each lab after the federal money ran out.

Houses and mobile homes where busts took place months ago are still labeled with condemned and no-trespass signs. Cleanup is usually the responsibility of the homeowner. …

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