How To Clean Up A Methamphetamine Lab

methmouth1

Pity the poor tweaker! I know I do. It’s hard not to feel at least some sympathy for your average methamphetamine addict, what with the missing teeth and all. There but for the grace of God go I, and according to the latest Shasta County Grand Jury report released last month, as an increasing number of our fellow citizens are choosing to follow this path, hooked on a substance so diabolical, in some parts it is known as Satan dust.

According to the grand jury, Shasta County needs more substance-abuse treatment facilities to address this growing scourge. I concur. No one sets out on life’s journey to become a crank fiend. These folks are victims of their own bad decisions and circumstance and deserve kindness, understanding and tough love, even the lowliest chizel head.

But listen up crankensteins: If you ever set up a meth lab in my backyard again, I’m turning you into the law.

I’m not talking about my backyard per se, but the local swimming hole a couple of miles away on South Cow Creek. It’s one of the few streams with public access in eastern Shasta County that features water deep enough in which to swim. There are several spots along the banks where families and other locals hang out on hot summer days. Pines, oaks and dense foliage hem in the stream on both sides as it cuts through a deep gulch on its way to the Sacramento River.

A couple of weeks ago on a sizzling afternoon I was hiking along the creekside trail when I came upon a large mound of refuse blocking the way. At first I figured it was a homeless encampment. I saw bulging black plastic garbage bags, what appeared to be old moldy sheets and bedding, a few plastic soda bottles, an empty Bud Lite can and an old tennis shoe.

Then I looked to my left and saw the pile of rusty camp fuel cans and empty drain cleaner bottles and instantly knew I’d stumbled upon a makeshift outdoor meth lab.

cowcreek1

I Called the Sheriff

My first impulse was to clean up the mess, load it in the truck and cart it off to the transfer station. I’m always picking up after other people’s messes at the swimming hole anyway (thanks neighbors). Then I wondered what if the transfer station won’t accept the potentially toxic waste? What if I get pulled over by the sheriff with a pickup load of used methamphetamine makings? Disposing of the lab wasn’t going to be that simple.

I’m not someone predisposed to calling the police. Live and let live is my philosophy. But the more I thought about the crank lab right here in the middle of my woods — woods so bone-dry they will burst into flames with the first errant spark — the angrier I got. Everyone knows manufacturing meth is a potentially explosive process. Everyone but the geeked-out scatterheads brewing crystal in my backyard.

So I did the thing I always tell people not to do, and called the Shasta County Sheriff’s Department.

To the department’s credit, an officer from the Shasta Interagency Narcotics Task Force immediately returned my phone call, and little more than an hour later, he and another investigator, riding in a nice shiny new pickup truck, met me at the swimming hole. My right hand was in a cast so I couldn’t take down their names or take notes, but I wasn’t acting as a journalist anyway. I was doing my duty as a fine, upstanding citizen.

They were big men, and when we shook hands, my left hand disappeared into theirs like they were meat gloves. I showed them the trailhead and followed them back 100 yards or so to the meth lab. One of them put on a size XXL rubber glove and poked at the debris with a stick, upturning plastic ziplock baggies, squares of bed sheeting stained with a gray pasty substance, the bottles of drain cleaner and the rusting empty cans of camp fuel. The two conferred and agreed it was definitely a meth lab, probably more than two years old.

They seemed disappointed and I wondered if it was because I’d exaggerated the number of cans and bottles I’d observed by a factor of four or five. What had looked like 40 cans of camp fuel turned out to be 10. Fifty bottles of drain cleaner turned out to be an even dozen. What can I say? I get excited sometimes, like when someone is trying to burn down the forest.

The investigators somewhat forlornly conceded there hasn’t been a big meth lab bust in Redding for 10 years; most of the methamphetamine is coming in through Mexico these days. They told me the abandoned lab posed no toxic hazard but suggested I could call the county Environmental Health Division if I was worried about disposing of it myself. They sure didn’t seem inclined to load it in the back of their shiny new pickup truck. They asked me which way was quickest back to town, I pointed east, and they left me holding the bag.

methmouth2

Don’t Fear the Tweaker

According to the Shasta County Grand Jury report, methamphetamine addicts possess “insensitivity to pain” and “superhuman strength” after “speed-balling” their drug of choice with heroin. Although heroin use also appears to be on the rise in Shasta County, I’m pretty sure the grand jury is confusing speedballs with PCP, the infamous animal tranquilizer that enables users to jump tall buildings in a single bound. Sketch monsters are much more likely to be malnourished than malevolent. However, a word of caution: If crank is cooking, there’s a good chance firearms are on hand.

Back in 2002 I spent the night in a cramped travel trailer somewhere in the Butte County foothills, watching a trio of armed felons cook up a batch of pure methamphetamine. Their chemistry set was cobbled together from discarded flasks, mason jars and aquarium tubing. Things could have spun out any number of ways. I might have succumbed to lethal ammonia fumes. The trailer could have exploded. The sheriff might have turned up. It remains one of the most dangerous stories I’ve ever worked on.

The chemicals used on that night included sodium hydroxide, which can be found in cleaning products such as lye and liquid drain opener. That’s why I knew I was looking at a meth lab when I spotted the bottles of drain cleaner beside the trail. Methanol, toluene, acetone and a host of caustic and toxic chemicals can be used, and whatever the sketch artists here were using went right into the ground then right into South Cow Creek, which provides water to all the ranches and farms between here and the Sacramento River.

cowcreek2

The Archaeology of Shake and Bake

Several days after SINTF’s visit, I returned to the abandoned meth lab with a waste disposal bin, garbage bags, a trash grabber, rubber gloves and a refreshed memory of clandestine methamphetamine chemistry.

There are hundreds of formulas for methamphetamine on the internet, each designed to take advantage of the available ingredients in a given geographical region. Most feature the over-the-counter cold medication pseudoephedrine as a precursor, which is why you’re only allowed to buy three boxes at a time at the drug store. This is combined with various household and industrial chemicals, which can become hard to obtain legally once the authorities catch on to the recipe.

The formula used in the meth lab I spent the night in is known as the red phosphorus/iodine synthesis, or RPI. During the process, red phosphorus is converted to highly toxic and explosive phosphene gas. That’s the stuff that makes camping trailers go boom. As the two SINTF agents informed me, the government has severely restricted the purchase of red phosphorus and today it’s almost impossible to get in California. Clandestine chemists have been forced to obtain red phosphorous from road flares or matchbook striker pads.

But as in any free market, a new more efficient method has supplanted RPI. It’s called “shake and bake” and all you need to cook a fat sack of dope is a few blister packs of cold pills, camp fuel, drain cleaner, lithium stripped from alkaline batteries and a couple of plastic soda bottles. The method appears to have originated in the rural South a decade ago and has since spread to the western United States. The lab I found on South Cow Creek employed the shake and bake method.

Lithium explodes on contact with water and is the key to the method. First a plastic soda bottle is filled with camp fuel. Then lithium strips are added so the fuel covers the strips—moisture in the air can ignite the volatile substance. Water is then added, the bottle is capped and then shaken gently to encourage the chemical reaction. As the mixture begins to literally boil, the bottle becomes pressurized by ammonia gas. Unless the gas is carefully bled off using the bottle cap, the bottle will explode. That’s why battery benders prefer to work outdoors.

After the reaction runs its course, the residue is collected. Several more chemicals depending upon the formula are mixed using a second plastic bottle and coffee filters or strips of bed sheeting. The method is far simpler than RPI, yields more methamphetamine, uses less psuedoephedrine and requires no expensive lab equipment. It is sometimes called the “one-pot” method.

Many of these tell-tale signs were evident at the South Cow Creek site, which I now believe may have been operating as recently as six months ago. When I began digging through the mess, I found fresher material buried beneath the trash on top, including zip lock bags filled with an unknown, noxious-smelling liquid that was probably denatured alcohol used to store the lithium in so it doesn’t explode.

I found no stripped batteries or used soda bottles, indicating the chefs tried to cover some of their more obvious tracks. They used 2-ft square pieces of bed sheet for filters, and there were a half-dozen filled with a dried gray paste, like some giant’s handkerchiefs. As I dug deeper into the pile, I came to a clean square of bed sheet. I gave it a tug and was rewarded with a spray of purple powder that settled on my body and the ground like spores.

It looked like red phosphorus, but as far as I know it isn’t used for shake and bake. I still have no idea what it was. It was hot, the purple spores were sticking to my sweaty skin and I was eager to leave. I bagged up the garbage, threw it in the back of the truck and got the hell out of there.

methmouth3

Why Meth Mouth Matters

The illustrations accompanying this story were created by my good friend, artist Jesse Weidel, a Redding native who now lives in Eureka. For decades, Weidel has been painting California’s bleakest landscapes and the people who inhabit them. Methamphetamine was bound to creep into the picture and was the inspiration for the “Meth Mouth” series. I asked Weidel to elaborate further below:

“I began a series of paintings in 2006, called Haunted Trailer Park based on my interpretation of the largely abandoned desert communities surrounding the Salton Sea area of Southern California. In the series, two of the paintings were titled Meth Mouth and featured a cosmic monster based on the dental condition of rotting teeth caused by methamphetamine abuse.

“In the first Meth Mouth painting, the mouth is giant sized, and inside of a large pink mountain, seemingly breathing out orders to the dismal trailer community on the opposite shore of the Salton Sea. A psychedelic shadow of doom covers the bottom third of the painting.

“The second Meth Mouth painting features a barren desert landscape, with the mouth figure inside the sky, sucking up the remaining inhabitants of the decaying community who are pictured flying through the air in some sort of anti-rapture scenario.

“I painted a third Meth Mouth painting a few years later. This one shows the mouth figure as a giant swirling green snot devil, surrounded by a circle of worshiping cheerleaders. Methamphetamine abuse seems to be a scourge of poor communities like this one, and I thought I would illustrate that in this way, showing the mouth as an allegory for meth abuse, holding some sort of psychic power over these places.”

In my view, the third painting, “Meth Mouth 3: The Deadly Spawn,” brilliantly depicts the threat methamphetamine poses to Shasta County. As the grand jury reports, the community is deeply concerned about the increase in meth abuse, particularly among young people. Why would young people, here depicted by cheerleaders, embrace a substance that most often leads to tooth decay and despair? Answer that question, and you’ll be qualified to open your own recovery home.

In the meantime, I have a theory about why these sketched-out jib monkeys are cooking crank in my neck of the woods: money. It’s common knowledge that the economies of rural communities across the United States have never recovered from the Great Recession. There are no jobs, even if you have a college degree. But you don’t even need a high school diploma to make meth, and if you’re good at it, it can be quite lucrative.

Using the most common formula for the shake and bake method, I plugged in the number of camp fuel cans and drain cleaner bottles I found at the site to estimate how much methamphetamine was manufactured. According to the formula, the lab could have made up to 150 grams of methamphetamine. The street price for meth is $100 per gram, and depending on the quality, it can be cut as many as four times. Assuming the carpet miners didn’t smoke up all the profits, they could have hauled in anywhere from $15,000 to $60,000.

That’s not chump change. Compared to growing marijuana, which requires significant resources and labor, cooking meth is a money-maker. All you need are a few household chemicals, a couple of soda bottles and a bolt hole in the woods. There are at least three long-abandoned meth labs within a 7-mile radius of my home, including a dilapidated camping trailer that’s been there for more than 15 years. As the Shasta County Grand Jury notes, methamphetamine is a multi-generational problem.

What’s the answer? More drug rehabilitation services, the grand jury suggests, and of course, more cops. How we’re supposed to pay for all that is left unanswered, but I’d like to offer a cheaper alternative. Why not use the police we already have? Learn what the signs of a meth lab are, and if you find one, call the sheriff. Trust me, they’ll come running.

R.V. Scheide
R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas.
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26 Responses

  1. James H says:

    This is one awesome article, it truly hits home for me. My youngest brother is a maddict (meth addict) my sister in law fits the meth mouth scenario. Her teeth were so bad that she had the rest of them pulled. She doesn’t even wear false teeth. It is truly tragic I must say. For example, just recently, Miss Nevada lost her crown and her privileges as a productive member of society when she got arrested for methamphetamine transport. It makes me ask, “is product being delivered to Shasta County via Nevada? This is another instance where I ask myself, are our elementary and middle school children abusing this junk too? Either way, its use and manufacture needs to stop. It is way beyond too much. Concerning our safety and those of our kids, the police and the county really need to intervene more.  Especially the users that medicate with it due to a mental illness. Thank you for this information, now maybe someone will do something about it

    • R.V. Scheide says:

      James I was thinking about mentioning some drug such as Ritalin, a very close relative to methamphetamine that is used to treat, of all things, hyperactivity.  I am sorry to hear about your brother. I have tried meth (back in the 1980s), I’ve had many friends who have tried it, and a few friends who have made a habit out of it. I’ve known a couple of “functional meth addicts” who achieved great middle class success, but of course they did not have to start at the bottom. I like sleeping, so I never had use for a substance that keeps you up for days and days and days.

  2. just me says:

    Thank you for yet again another wonderfully written article that covers the full spectrum of the problem.  I truly enjoy reading your stories, and look forward to the next publication.

    • R.V. Scheide says:

      well if i did a true full spectrum story  I would try to help readers understand why people, especially kids, do this. it is true when you first snort, smoke or shoot methampthetamine, you get a rush of euphoria similar to cocaine, this feeling that all your problems have gone away. Maybe it lasts for an hour, which is longer than cocaine. Then you are just awake in your own miserable world for hours on end–on cocaine, you can sleep after the euphoria, on speed you’re up for three days. As I mentioned above, I love sleeping, and neither cocaine nor methamphetamine has held particular appeal.

  3. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    The nature of my business entails putting biologists and archaeologists out in the rural areas of California on a daily basis.  Each morning begins with a safety tailboard session.  About half of that session addresses what to do about encounters with people engaged in the business of drug production, and how to avoid conflicts with them, because these people are very often heavily armed, paranoid, territorial, and aggressive.

    In general, the problem isn’t the rural family with some acreage that decides to put in a marijuana grow next to the house to make some extra income.  And it’s not the expansive greenhouse operation by the Pit River Tribe that just got busted by the feds.  It’s people from elsewhere who come in, purchase property (often paid for by investors), hire a bulldozer to rip up the landscape while cutting roads and creating pads (usually without grading permits), drag in a trailer and set up shop.  And it’s the meth cooks who rent or own cheap digs in the woods and turn them into toxic waste dumps.  We encounter these types all across Northern California, and it appears that law enforcement is doing very little to deter them.  I scratch my head and wonder why LE would waste their time with the Tribe or the likes of the Benno family when there are so many producers out there who are damaging the environment and threatening those who live and work in rural areas.

    • R.V. Scheide says:

      Thanks for the interesting reply Steve! I am trying to give the sheriff the benefit of the doubt and point out to citizens a true hazard in our community. It’s insane how easy methamphetamine is to make. I don’t know how you stop it.

  4. cheyenne says:

    In Colorado, again I bring up that state, LE has been making a lot of major busts of meth labs.  This helps the whole multi-state area here as it has been well documented about the Denver drug gangs suppling meth throughout Wyoming, Nebraska and the Dakotas.  The drug gangs used to concentrate on the indian reservations but now are more active supplying the fracking man-camps.  The reason LE is making more of these busts, according to them and probably true, is that legalizing marijuana has given them more resources to combat other drugs like meth.  Like one sheriff said, “Now we go after real crime”.

    That doesn’t mean LE isn’t still pursuing illegal marijuana as they raided a nearly 3,000 plant grow near Grand Junction.  Interestingly, noone was arrested and the growers were allowed to keep the legal amount of 300 plants.

     

    • A Brady says:

      Nice to hear that LE has been relieved of some duties related to plant control, to find those that make a drug with horrifying addictive and health effects.

  5. Susan Bryant says:

    Thank you for this article R.V. ….the only thing missing is that all the meth funding is being funneled to harass cannabis patients instead of being used for meth…we now have more compliance officers ….looking to bust cannabis patients..instead couldnt LE put them to better use looking for Baby Ember and Meth Labs.

     

  6. K. Beck says:

    Once again a perfect article! Thanks RV.

    “According to the grand jury, Shasta County needs more substance-abuse treatment facilities to address this growing scourge. I concur. No one sets out on life’s journey to become a crank fiend. These folks are victims of their own bad decisions and circumstance and deserve kindness, understanding and tough love, even the lowliest chizel head.” Yes to the more substance-abuse facilities. However, it seems to me the real key to this problem is figuring out WHY people get on drugs to begin with. Stop the problem before it starts. By the time people are addicted they have lost brain cells and they will probably never be “productive citizens” ever again. I don’t believe they are all victims of their “own” bad decisions & circumstances. Many of them are probably products of their own drug/alcohol addicted parents. Growing up in poverty leads to many, many, problems. It would be interesting to hear the stories of these people. Where did they start out, how, when, did they start using drugs, etc. Hint, hint. As I said, seems to me that is the starting point of getting a handle on this mess. Blaming the victim doesn’t get any of us anywhere. This is not aimed at you RV, you did not say that, but I hear that all over Redding.

    I find it sickening when I see the “Most Wanted” photos on the KRCR news. You can tell every single meth head just by the scabs all over their faces. And most them appear to be in their 20s – 40s.

    Perhaps more drug eduction starting in elementary school? Every year. With school counselors available at each school. And I don’t mean the lame “Just Say No” crap. That was nothing but a joke from it’s inception.

    If the drugs are being transported across state lines, and the Mexican border, why are their no border patrol checks?

    I think the law enforcement resources are there, no one has an over all plan for using them.

    RE:  pseudoephedrine, you can only legally purchase 1 box at a time, not 3. I use  pseudoephedrine for seasonal allergies. When CA enacted this stupid legislation I could see the hole the size of Mexico in the system right off. Legitimate “users” would hand over their id to get their 1 box while meth heads would scatter out all around Redding and buy one box at a time. What else do they have to do with their time? I don’t have much of a “criminal mind” so if I could figure this out…Oregon has a better solution. Make it a drug that needs a prescription. Most of the time I have to go to 2 or 3 places to find 1 box. All the stores are sold out. What does that tell you?

    RV: PLEASE do not clean up these physical messes. Call in the haz mat team. They get paid to do that kind of work. I have worked, legally, with many of these chemicals. They are indeed extremely hazardous/toxic. I suspect you wanted to take an inventory and write your story, but you could have taken notes/photos while you watched the haz mat team do their job. Take good care of  YOURSELF! Shasta County needs you!

     

    • EasternCounty says:

      Your comment, “Perhaps more drug education starting in elementary school?” reminds me of when I worked for a school district and attended weekly meetings of the administrators.  At one session, drugs were being discussed, and, as a very naïve non-user, I stated that I had no idea where to buy drugs.  A couple of the administrators said, “Ask any fifth grader.”  I was appalled, but I fear they were exactly correct.  Several of the students in the Community Day School (for those of you who are unfamiliar with theses schools, a district is mandated by the state to provide a program for suspended and expelled students) were fetal drug/alcohol babies; so they never had a chance to be educated before being hooked.  Many of them had parents who were young enough to have been addicted at birth, also.  Vicious, vicious cycle.

      • cheyenne says:

        Those fifth graders and their classmates get their drugs, legal and illegal, the same place we of an older generation got our cigarettes and beer when we were kids.  From their parents stash.

         

    • R.V. Scheide says:

      I have to admit my own confusion on the issue of why people do this, other than the initial boost of euphoria, which gradually disappears with the diminishing returns characteristic of drug abuse. I think it may have something to do with useful work, and just doing jobs that have no connection to the real world.

  7. A. Jacoby says:

    Thank you, AGAIN, for a well written, informative, balanced look into what a lot of us would just rather ignore. Important stuff!

  8. Carla says:

    Good article and very informative. It seems to me that we have efforts made off and on “do something” about the meth problem, but none of it has been very effective. Remember the “Not in Our Town” campaign of the 90’s?

    It is hard to know what to do now, the problem seems so entrenched. One thing that I believe has created a spawning ground for these conditions is the lack of blue collar jobs everywhere, but especially in an area like ours that doesn’t have a good replacement economy for logging and all the associated industries. Labor and the job market fundamentally changed about 40 years ago and the fall-out continues.

    Also, the paintings used as illustrations are very good.

  9. cheyenne says:

    In the mid eighties right there in Redding meth was a leisure time drug.  Many used it to party on the weekends.  Certain bars, most notably one on Hilltop, were party central and after hours gatherings at houses were common.  One on Galaxy, another on Layton, another on Old Alturas with an occasional popup new one.  There were no fights or assaults or robberies, just people partaking of what seemed a harmless drug.  Many of the future pillars of Redding were there.

    Then things changed.  The first, and only time, I saw someone shooting up was at one of the parties.  I happened to glance in a spare room and saw a guy and girl with their arms wrapped with a rope or sash and sticking needles in their skin.  It was sickening and I decided I didn’t need to go to these parties.  A lot of others were the same way and meth use dropped as a casual past time.  While many of us went on to normal lifes, dismissing the meth stage as a passing experience, others did not and those are the toothless addicts one sees everywhere.

    Why?  Good question.  Why does one become a tweaker or an alcoholic or a gambler or a compulsive shoplifter?

  10. name says:

    Is that the same dilapidated camping trailer that, some time ago,  someone removed the frame and axles from it?

    (Good story!!)

     

  11. Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    Thank you for an excellent article.  I look forward to reading what you have to say, and share your articles with friends.  I only have a couple of comments to make.   People do drugs because it makes them feel very good.  Sometimes they feel better than they’ve ever felt before.  It’s hard to walk away from that, especially if you know it’s going to make you  the life of the party, and you can lose some unwanted weight and you imagine that you can control your use.   I so admire people who have kicked the meth habit.  My niece succeeded in losing that habit after her second rehab. (her mother and grandmother footed the bill)  She’s been clean for 10 years and she is employed, has two beautiful children, has beautiful skin and all her teeth!   How did she do it?  What worked for her?   Again, wonderful article.

    • R.V. Scheide says:

      I’ve has several friends who could be called functional methamphetamine addicts. One couple. professionals, used it for years, and I had no idea. They don’t do it anymore though! Thanks fir reading!

      • Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

        When I took a class for drug and alcohol abuse counseling years ago, the thought seemed to be that 20 percent of drug users went on to become hard-core abusers. That was considering drugs across the board on average; I’d imagine heroin and methamphetamine have a higher addiction rate than cocaine and alcohol. Still, the point stands that some people use methamphetamine occasionally without deteriorating into crank zombies.

        The crap still scares me though. Drunks can be a real pain in the ass, but I’d sure as hell rather live next door to a drunk than a meth head.

        • Virginia says:

          I agree about the drunk.  They tend to sleep it off.  Not the meth.

          When I volunteered at a drug rehab in 1970, I saw a man who hadn’t had any drugs for more than 6 months.  He worked in the cook house.  One morning out of the blue, he tried to kill several people with a cook knife!  Very fair skinned man.  I came into the building an hour later, and his face still looked like as red as a beet, as he left the facility forever.  Another man had been clean for a year, working, and had a stroke at 42, and died.  Speed, no matter what kind, can and does kill.

  12. Breakfast Guy says:

    An outstanding piece of work, R.V. One of your best.

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