23 January 2015

Clan Labs

by R.T. Lawton

Several vehicles streak down the road. Each vehicle is loaded with agents wearing black Nomex gear, Kevlar helmets and turtle vests. At a predesignated location, they screech to a halt. Agents rapidly exit from the vehicles and take up their assigned positions around the building. The door goes down by means of a handheld ram or sledgehammer and each room inside is secured. Any people are handcuffed, searched and immediately removed from the premises. Now, the agents back out without touching any potential evidence.

Why not touch the potential evidence? They've just hit an operating clandestine drug lab, in which case it is not safe to turn off any heating elements or disturb any chemical processes in any way until an expert takes over the situation. Chemicals can be explosive or even create deadly gases if handled incorrectly.

With the building secured, some of the agents change into white "bunny suits" which act as protection against chemical burns and contamination. Breathing apparatus may be required depending upon the air quality inside the rooms containing the clan lab. With the advancement of technology, agents can use "sniffing machines" to test the air before dismantling the lab setup. Now, the bunny suit team (sorry, no rabbit ears or cute bunny tail on these suits) along with a qualified chemist can enter the rooms and take photos and videos of the operation. The chemist and lead agent decide what equipment is collected and which chemicals are sampled as evidence. The rest is usually packed into 55 gallon metal drums to be destroyed rather than kept in an evidence locker until trial. After leaving the clan lab, the agents are showered down in a kid's portable swimming pool and their bunny suits are destroyed.

One source for recipes
If the image in your mind about these types of operations is a clean, tidy setup like the chemistry labs you used in high school and college, be advised that these setups are usually rare. The common clandestine lab is what's known as a "bucket lab" where plastic buckets and whatever glassware can be obtained is scrounged up to be used in very untidy surroundings. So if your total perception of the clan lab trade is from watching Breaking Bad, know that those type of guys are in the minority.

First off, there's the chemist, who knows what he's doing, and then there's the majority, who are merely "recipe readers." A recipe reader is a person who has learned all the necessary steps from a person in the know and can follow a chemical recipe, but does not truly understand how chemicals and chemistry work. This is the guy who decided a plastic bucket will work in some of the steps because he can't acquire lab grade equipment without attracting suspicion. This is the guy who when he runs out of a needed chemical will decide that a similar sounding chemical name will suffice. This is the guy who uses his own product, becomes over paranoid at strange sounds and discharges his firearm out the window whether anything is out there or not, or lights up a cigarette while washing the product with ether during a final step, or forgets he booby-trapped his lab against potential outsiders.

Available on the open market
This can be a short-lived occupation if you make the wrong mistake. Example: two gentlemen in California were using the red phosphorus and ephedrine method to make meth. One noticed that a glass beaker had cracked from too much heat. He promptly picked up the beaker and headed for the door. The second guy, also being a gentleman, held the door open for the first guy. Unfortunately, their step in the process produced phosgene gas. The gentleman holding the door didn't make it outside. [NOTE: if you have a sensitive mind, please skip the rest of this paragraph.] As for the one carrying the cracked beaker, he was found lying in the yard where he had stuffed mud down his throat while trying to stop the intense burning sensation in his lungs.

And of course, there is always the occasional explosion from improperly mixed chemicals, combining the wrong chemicals, or a spark from an electrical fan not lab grade equipment, not to mention that forgetful cigarette smoker who just has to inhale from one more coffin nail.

Since there is no quality control in these clan lab operations or afterwards, that means the buyer of these substances does not really know what he's getting and ingesting into his body. For instance, a meth lab in Washington had a faulty process which left lead in their finished product. Some customers subsequently expired from lead poisoning. Drugs are also diluted with various cutting agents such as baby laxative, milk sugar and arsenic to make them go further. Seems the arsenic helps provide a kick to some products, but since there is no quality control, who knows what percentage of the product is now arsenic? Of course, that may come out in a coroner's report, too late for the initial consumer.

Even with all this, the lure of large sums of money keeps seducing people into setting up clandestine laboratories. Guess they think nothing will happen to them personally. As for the street user, he's already addicted to the drug of his choice and is willing to take the chance on what he's buying. Helluvaway to live. Or to die.

9 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

Much of the Anarchist Cookbook is a disaster waiting to happen.

Two things I never understood about the intense lure of drugs: (1) trusting a cook without the IQ of a tree branch and (2) how druggies think their dealer is their friend. That said, I should count my blessings.

Fran Rizer said...

R.T., you bring out several facts that I never before considered. I filed this for future reference.

Eve Fisher said...

Great article. I refused to watch "Breaking Bad" because it was such total crap. WAY too hygenic. I'm sorry, 99.9% of meth cooks are just as you described, R.T. - recipe readers, with an already low IQ damaged by drugs. Back a few years ago, a house out in the country exploded from bad meth cooking. And nowadays, they're wandering around in cars with a plastic gallon jug. Very safe. Aside from jitteriness, bad teeth, and pockmarks, another way to tell a meth cook/user is bad burns.


Melodie Campbell said...

I learned so much from this post! Thank you, RT.

Elizabeth said...

Christmas tree meth - green methamphetamine produced with Drano crystals.

Shake-and-bake meth - methamphetamine made in a 2-liter soda bottle. Also known as the "one-pot" approach, the method is popular because it uses less pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in cold and allergy pills. If a person mixing shake-and-bake meth makes the slightest mistake, such as removing the cap too early or perforating the bottle, the concoction can explode.

David Dean said...

Excellent, as always, my friend. I hear that Mexico is getting into the meth trade in a big way these days. Low cost and high returns are a potent lure, and there's no having to grow anything, or deal with Columbian cocaine cartels. There was a news account of them trying out drone delivery across the border just yesterday.

I also have to say, and this seems to be happening a lot lately, that I agree wholeheartedly with Eve about 'Breaking Bad'. Programming that glorifies drug dealers(or at least offers very sympathetic treatment of the same)just doesn't cut it with me. What's next, a mini-series on the trials and tribulations of slavers and child molesters?

Eve Fisher said...

Thank you, Dean - I was beginning to think I was the only person who didn't like Breaking Bad!

Robert Lopresti said...

Great article. A couple of decades ago a fireman came to a meeting of the MWA Seattle chapter to discuss this sort of thing. He talked about the authorities destroying houses used as meth labs as being unfit for human habitation.

One listener asked approximately: if they know making this stuff will shorten their lives, why do they do it?

The fireman replied, approximately: "They do not think ahead. These are people who failed kindergarten."

Dixon Hill said...

Phosgene: Yeah, that's a friendly substance. LOL

Reminds me of a year or two ago, when I discovered that someone had dumped glassware and an odd homemade chemistry apparatus a little way down the alley that ran behind our house. I called the police, and it was taken care of. But it was pretty freaky, to think that somebody had dumped it there.

--Dixon