Little needed for meth lab

Makers pare down process

Cooking methamphetamine once required a high school knowledge of chemistry and a place big enough to house all the equipment.

Now you just need a jar and some household products.

On Monday, investigators discovered on Coleman Street what they called one of the biggest meth labs in recent years. But the trend among meth manufacturers is increasingly moving away from elaborate setups and more toward small operations.

The natural evolution of the drug's life cycle is one reason for the so-called shake 'n' bake method.

Meth users have experimented over the years and discovered more efficient ways to manufacture the drug. Another reason for the shift is that Georgia and other states have cracked down on the quantity of pseudoephedrine someone can buy at one time.

Pseudoephedrine is the main ingredient in meth and many cough and cold medicines, such as Sudafed.

Georgia has a tracking law that limits individual purchases to nine grams a month, or about three packages; it also requires people to show a government-issued ID when they buy it.

That has cut down on how much meth can be cooked at one time, but it hasn't stamped out the drug's manufacture.

Instead, meth users employ a method called "smurfing," so named because the pills resemble the little red berries that the cartoon characters craved. Several meth users pile into a car and drive around to different pharmacies, each buying their limit. Fake IDs further cloud the paper trail.

The resulting stockpile of pseudoephedrine doesn't produce much meth, but it's enough for a few hits with some left over for sale -- usually just enough cash for the raw ingredients.

"It's enough to continue the cycle," said Richmond County sheriff's Sgt. Allan Rollins, who works in the narcotics division.

The homemade meth isn't near the same quality as the high-grade drugs imported from Mexico, but it's good enough for a high. It's the difference between expensive sneakers bought at the mall and a cheap pair of shoes purchased at a discount store, Sgt. Rollins explained.

"They both do the job, but one is going to fall apart after six months and probably hurt my feet a lot more," he said.

The risk, however, does not get smaller with fewer ingredients. There's still a fire hazard in cooking small batches of meth. A flash fire in a jar can cause serious burns. And the small batches still create a leftover toxic sludge that's classified as hazardous material.

Rollins said the number of meth labs busted by the sheriff's office "comes in spurts" and an uptick could be coming in 2010.

In 2008, the sheriff's office dismantled 14 meth labs; in 2009, 20; to date, the sheriff's office has dismantled five or six, according to Rollins.

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What's in it?

Here's a partial ingredient list for methamphetamine:

- Gasoline additives

- Rubbing alcohol

- Ether (starter fluid)

- Paint thinner

- Acetone

- Chloroform

- Camp stove fuel

- Anhydrous ammonia

- Toluene (found in brake cleaner)

- Red Devil lye

- Drain cleaner

Source: citizensagainstmeth.org