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March 01, 2004   Email to Friend 

ADDICTION IN THE HEARTLAND
Jeff Helms
(334) 613-4212
March 01, 2004

Meth drug labs can be as simple as two five-gallon buckets or as elaborate as this underground lab discovered recently by agricultural investigators.
It happens almost everyday in Alabama. A farmer discovers an abandoned campsite in a wooded corner of his property, or he suspects that someone has tampered with his fertilizer tank. Sometimes, he simply calls to report cattle or equipment theft. But more often than not, these crimes all can be traced back to the same thing: methamphetamines.

Known simply as "meth," this illegal, homemade narcotic has become the most dangerous drug problem in small-town America and Alabama's "biggest drug threat," according to the Drug Enforcement Adminstration's website.

Alabama Agricultural Investigator Gerald McGough said farmers are particularly vulnerable to meth-related crimes because they live in remote areas, and some use anhydrous ammonia as fertilizer, which is major component in a popular methamphetamine recipe.

"We've had whole tanks of anhydrous stolen from farms and farm supply stores, but a lot of times, they just bleed the lines on a farmer's nurse tank," McGough said. "They steal just enough to 'cook' a batch."

Kelvin Stokes of McMillan and Harrison Fertilizer Co. in Mobile County said his employer has been forced to purchase extra security equipment to prevent thieves from taking anhydrous ammonia.

"It's pretty much a weekly problem," he said. "We've got a chain link fence and mounted cameras that tape every night, and we still catch people trying to break in and steal anhydrous."

Don McMullan, operations commander for the Houston County Sheriff's Department, said his office has investigated several anhydrous ammonia thefts. "A farmer contacted me a couple months ago and said he believed some people had tried to get into his anhydrous ammonia tank. There were strange tire tracks around the tank and marks where they tried to cut the fail-safe device (lock) off with a hacksaw," McMullan said. "We put his farm on close patrol, which will discourage most people. We had another case where they weren't able to get any ammonia, but they were successful in causing a leak."

Such leaks can be dangerous because anhydrous ammonia can burn the eyes, skin and respiratory tract. In fact, across the nation, entire towns have been evacuated because meth-addicted thieves--who may go days without sleeping--left anhydrous valves open.

Many Alabama farmers have stopped using anhydrous because it's costly and difficult to handle. But that doesn't mean farmers who use other fertilizers are immune to the meth epidemic. Agricultural Investigator Clint Davis said meth "cookers" often trespass onto private property and set up temporary labs.

"We find meth labs in forests, campgrounds and other remote areas," he said. "They're not elaborate. Two five-gallon buckets can be a meth lab. They can put everything in a couple large plastic containers, put them on a four-wheeler and be gone in an hour and 45 minutes."

Davis said the active ingredient in meth is pseudoephedrine, which is found in over-the-counter cold medicines. Cookers use a variety of chemicals to make the ephedrine potent, including either anhydrous ammonia or red phosphorous--which they extract from matchbook striker plates. The finished product is a fine powder or crystal that addicts smoke, snort, drink or inject into their veins.

Because an addict can buy everything he needs to make the illegal drug at a discount store, law enforcement officers have seen meth arrests explode in recent years. According to the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, total amphetamine arrests statewide jumped from 107 in 1998 to 888 last year.

Chuck Phillips of the Jackson County Sheriff's Department, said his office reported the most meth labs seizures in the state last year--the majority of which were in rural areas.

"In 2002, just the Sheriff's Department alone worked 92 labs. Then in 2003, we worked 87," Phillips said. "We find them in homes, motel rooms, deer hunting cabins--they can be anywhere."

In addition to discovering meth labs on farmers' land, agricultural investigators said an increasing number of farm equipment and livestock thefts are related to meth use. Agricultural Investigator Jimmy Miller said one drug ring stole cattle from sale barns in five states including Alabama. They sold the cattle in Tennessee and used cattle trailers to smuggle anhydrous ammonia out of Oklahoma to drug labs in the Southeast.

Phillips, who has been training emergency response personnel on the dangers of meth labs since 1998, said the labs often blow up or catch fire. Volunteer firemen in rural areas should be especially careful, he said, because the chemicals used to make the drug are volatile. To make matters worse, cookers often dump their waste, and law enforcement officers have to call in a hazardous materials team to clean up the site.

Recently, a trash collector in Jackson County had to be rushed to the emergency room for acid burns after picking up part of a discarded lab. Phillips said the harmful device, known as a "gassing generator," often consists of a simple plastic bottle with a tube taped to the top. However, he warned rural residents to be wary of any site that's littered with cold-medicine packages, plastic bottles, household chemical containers, matchbooks or lithium batteries.

Agricultural investigators also advise farmers to keep anhydrous ammonia tanks locked and in a well-lighted area. In addition, producers should schedule delivery of nurse tanks as close to the time of application as possible and bleed hoses each night after use.

McMullan said farmers often do not want to report anhydrous ammonia theft because they fear other meth addicts will find out they have a supply of the precious ingredient. Still other meth labs go unreported because people don't want to deal with the hazardous materials cleanup.

Rural law enforcement officers, however, say they are counting on farmers to help them get a handle on the growing meth problem.

"All the farmers we have any contact with are good people. They look out for each other and help each other," McMullan said. "This is just part of it. People need to be alert to what's going on around them. If you see some folks you don't recognize who look suspicious, call your local law enforcement. We don't mind; that's why we're here. Until people get more involved and alert law enforcement to what's going on, the meth problem is going to grow by leaps and bounds."

To report an agricultural crime, call your local law enforcement agency then contact the Alabama Department of Agriculture at 1-800-642-7761, ext. 7208.

Click here to view more stories from this month's Neighbors magazine.


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