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.
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.
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.
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.
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.