Methamphetamine, or meth, is a powerful, long-acting, physical and psychological stimulant drug that is highly addictive. In its finished form, meth usually appears as a powdery substance in a variety of colors and is sold in pill form, capsules, powder and crystals. It may omit a chemical smell or it may be odorless. Meth can be swallowed, smoked, snorted and injected. In its crystal form, meth is inhaled by smoking.
Meth is known by a variety of street names, including speed, crank, vitamin C, go-fast and chalk. In its crystal form, it is sometimes referred to as ice, crystal and glass.
Although criminal drug trafficking organizations and gangs control a significant amount of the production and distribution of meth, in recent years small clandestine drug laboratories operated by individuals and small groups have increased the drug's production and availability. In 2002, 297 home-based meth labs were seized throughout Arizona.
How Meth is Made
Meth is made in drug laboratories that vary from those that look like chemistry labs to small home-based labs set up in kitchens, bedrooms, bathrooms, garages and outbuildings. Drug labs have also been discovered in businesses, houseboats, mini storage units, car trunks, hotel/motel rooms and backpacks. No matter how sophisticated they appear, these drug labs have one purpose – to make illegal drugs, usually meth – secretly, quickly and cheaply.
Meth lab in reach of child; hot plate and chemicals on counter tops in sleeping area of home.
Meth is made through a cooking process that requires heating materials that are toxic,caustic, corrosive, flammable and explosive. To make meth, precursor substances such as pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, commonly found in over-the-counter cold and diet medicines, are modified by adding more chemicals to make a chemical reaction. A solvent is added to the chemical mixture to extract the meth from waste by-product. Bubbling an acidic gas through the dissolved meth forms meth crystals.
Many of the individuals who make meth (cooks) have little, if any, knowledge of chemistry and often operate under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Their lack of chemical knowledge, combined with their drug and alcohol use and the mixture of harmful chemicals they use without adequate safety equipment, explain the common occurrence of meth lab fires, explosions and toxic poisonings.
Medical Impact of Meth
Meth modifies the brain's pleasure receptors by producing excess levels of dopamine, a natural chemical found in the brain. The excess dopamine produced by meth usually allows users to experience a fairly rapid but brief rush, followed by a longer period of euphoria. Following the period of euphoric sensation is the crash – a longer period of lethargy, depression, paranoia and even violent or aggressive behavior. With prolonged use, a meth user's ability to experience normal levels of pleasure declines and is replaced by extreme boredom with normal day-to-day activities. It is this scenario that makes meth a highly addictive drug that creates powerful cravings in the user.
Signs that someone may be using meth include:
- increased heart rate, blood pressure and respiration
- excessive sweating
- flushed, tense or anxious appearance
- high levels of energy
- incessant talking
- chemical odor on the breath
- rapid speech
- dilated pupils
- bloodshot eyes
- extreme moodiness and irritability
- false sense of confidence or power
- severe depression
- disinterest in previously enjoyed activities
- repetitious behavior such as picking skin or pulling hair
- poor hygiene
- inability to sleep or eat
Long-term meth use can cause permanent and severe physical and psychological problems, including severe weight loss, rotting teeth, scars and open sores, a variety of cardiovascular problems, convulsions and hallucinations. Meth-induced paranoia can result in homicidal and suicidal thoughts. Using brain imaging techniques, scientists have found that damage done to the dopamine neurons by long-time meth use remained for as long as three years after meth use was stopped. Much remains to be learned about the long-term effects of using meth.
You do not have to be a meth user to be affected by meth. The manufacture of meth presents a substantial risk of injury and even death to those who live in or near drug labs. Chemicals found in these labs can enter the body through inhalation of gases produced by the manufacturing process. The acidic gases released in meth production can immediately cause second- or third-degree burns of the skin and extreme pain and even death if inhaled. Meth lab chemicals can be absorbed through contact with the skin, a danger that occurs both from cooking meth and from storing chemical ingredients. The effects of taking these toxic materials into the body through inhalation or absorption may be temporary or permanent, immediate or delayed, mild or severe, and can injure the lungs and skin, liver and kidneys and the nervous system. Eating contaminated foods and beverages, or placing contaminated objects such as containers or toys in the mouth, leads to ingestion of these dangerous chemicals. Ingestion of some of the chemicals used to make meth can cause psychosis, seizures and, in high doses, death. Young children, because they crawl and play on the floor and put their hands and other objects into their mouths, are at a much greater risk than adults for ingestion and absorption of these chemicals. Children's different metabolic processes, including more rapid respiration and higher metabolic and growth rates, also place them at an increased risk of chemical exposure from inhaled, absorbed and ingested toxins.
More information on the medical impact of meth is available on the National Institute of Drug Abuse Website.
Environmental Impact of Meth
Meth manufacturing is an environmental nightmare. Environmental concerns are associated both with the meth cooking process and the storage of the many chemicals used to make meth. For every pound of meth that is made, five to six pounds of waste are generated. Those who make meth often dispose of waste by flushing it down toilets, putting it into the trash, dumping it on the ground, pouring it into waterways and leaving it in hotels or public storage facilities.
Waste materials from the drug making process, as well as contaminated glass and equipment, can be explosive, flammable, toxic and, in some concentrations, lethal. Without proper disposal and cleanup, toxic waste from the meth manufacturing process can remain present and active for years. Unsuspecting victims who live in dwellings formerly used as drug labs are among those at greatest risk of long-term exposure because the vapors involved in manufacturing meth are absorbed by wall and floor surfaces, and the chemical ingredients may remain on floors and countertops long after a drug lab has been dismantled. These leftover chemicals cannot be removed by normal cleaning.
Detailed information on exposure to a meth lab environment may be found within Chemical Exposures Associated with Clandestine Methamphetamine Laboratories.
After the investigation of a meth lab is complete, the gross contamination, including chemicals and lab waste, is removed from the site. In the five years ending December 31, 2004, law enforcement agencies have conducted over 1,300 meth lab and meth lab related seizures. The removal of gross contamination associated with those seizures has cost over $3.9 million. Some of the cost of gross contamination removal is recovered through restitution, but often the cost is passed on to the taxpayer.
As of July 1, 2003, those who sell property are required by Arizona law to inform prospective buyers if a property has been used to manufacture methamphetamine, ecstasy or LSD. They are also required to hire a drug laboratory site remediation firm that is registered with the State Board of Technical Registration, pursuant to A.R.S. § 32-122.03, to remediate the property of residual contamination. Until the site is properly cleaned, it is unlawful for any person other than the owner, landlord or manager to enter the property (see A.R.S. § 12-1000). Clean-up requirements and an approved list of drug remediation firms can be found at the Arizona State Board of Technical Registration. The owner is liable for the costs incurred to remediate the property of residual contamination, even if the owner had no knowledge of the criminal activity at the property. The cost of hiring a drug lab site remediation firm will vary depending on the extent of damage to a property, the length of time drugs were being manufactured, the types of chemicals used in the cooking process, and other property factors such as asbestos, lead paint, water damage or mold.
In areas of high contamination, generally all porous materials such as carpet, bedding, upholstered furniture and related items will be removed and disposed. All stained materials from the laboratory operations, including sheet rock, wood furniture, wood flooring and tile flooring, will be removed and disposed. In areas not highly suggestive of contamination, all materials will be cleaned to meet the post remediation testing requirements. Owners can expect the costs of remediation for minimal damage to range from $500 to $5,000. More extensive damage can cost well over $10,000.
How to Recognize a Meth Lab
Meth labs are dangerous to those who live in them. They also present dangers to law enforcement, safety and utility workers, as well as to delivery persons, neighbors and door-to-door solicitors who may unexpectedly come across them. Of the many signs of illegal drug manufacturing, some are more obvious than others. Watch for these signs as an alert to a possible drug lab:
- Strong chemical smells like fuel or ammonia
- Laboratory equipment, including glass tubing, beakers/flasks, Bunsen burners, funnels and large plastic containers
- Windows covered with plastic, foil, wood, tarps or other materials
- Hoses hanging from windows
- An unusual number of cook stoves, hot plates or blow torches
- Melted pots and pans
- Bottles in a refrigerator or freezer where fluids and solids have been separated
- Evidence of large quantities of cold medication and non-prescription weight loss products that contain pseudoephedrine or ephedrine, the basic ingredient in meth
- Large quantities of chemical cans or drums in the yard (e.g., Drano, iodine crystals, Red Devil Lye, pool acid with no pool present, antifreeze in a hot climate)
- Large quantities of kitty litter, used to trap toxic gases
- People standing outside only long enough to smoke
- Automobile or foot traffic at all hours of the day and night
- Heavily barred windows or doors on houses or outbuildings
- Surveillance cameras and audio listening devices
- New high fences with no visible signs of animals
- Orange-brown or rust colored stains on walls, floors, counter tops, bathtubs and sinks
- Dismantled smoke detectors
What To Do If You Suspect or Know of a Meth Lab
Your knowledge and quick action can assist law enforcement personnel in closing down dangerous drug labs and preventing serious injuries and deaths of innocent children. If you have reason to suspect the manufacturing of meth, especially where children may be involved, please call 911, or contact your local law enforcement office immediately and provide them with a detailed description of what you observed that made you think a meth lab may be operating. If possible, provide the name of the suspects, their address and license plate numbers. Remember, meth labs are very dangerous, so keep your distance.
Danger may be present not only from the toxic and combustible chemicals used to make meth, but those involved in its illegal production may use firearms, explosives and booby traps to protect the secrecy of their operation. Touching drug lab chemicals or breathing their fumes can cause sickness, permanent injury and even death. Actions such as knocking over a container, lighting a cigarette or switching on electrical equipment may be enough to trigger an explosion. Uncovering and investigating meth labs are some of the most dangerous situations encountered by law enforcement personnel. Initially, investigating officers were poorly prepared for handling exposure to meth lab toxins, resulting in injuries and illness. Today, meth lab investigators have extensive training and are required to wear protective gear before entering a suspected drug lab.
How Meth Endangers Children
Exposure to meth manufacturing can harm anyone, but it is particularly dangerous to children. Once a meth lab is discovered, children who live in meth labs need special and immediate attention from a variety of professionals, including medical, legal and child welfare. The dangers faced by children who live in and near meth labs include contamination, fire and explosion, child abuse and neglect, hazardous living conditions and other social problems.
One of the greatest dangers of a meth lab is contamination. Contamination can occur in a number of ways – through the skin, soiled clothing, household items used in the lab, second hand smoke and ingestion. Children are more likely than adults to absorb meth lab chemicals into their bodies because of their size and higher rates of metabolism and respiration. The chemicals used to produce meth are often stored in unlabeled food and drink containers on floors and countertops. This puts toddlers and infants at increased risk due to childhood behaviors such as putting hands and other objects into mouths and crawling and playing on floors. The poor ventilation that results from attempting to seal in smells and add privacy increases the likelihood of inhaling toxic fumes. Exposure to waste by-products that have been dumped in outside play areas is also common for children living in and near meth labs. While much remains to be learned about the long-term medical consequences of exposure to meth chemicals in childhood, potential damage from such exposure includes anemia, neurologic damage and respiratory problems.
How Meth Can Exposure Impact Pregnancy and Birth
Risk to the embryo and fetus during pregnancy can occur both in the production and use of meth. Some of the toxins created in making meth can cause malformation of an embryo and result in congenital defects and stillbirth.
Meth use during pregnancy can increase maternal blood pressure and heart rate, increasing the risk of premature delivery or spontaneous abortion. Meth also constricts blood vessels in the placenta, resulting in reduced blood flow to the fetus and, thereby, a reduced oxygen and nutrient supply. Meth passes through the placenta and can cause elevated fetal blood pressure, which in turn can lead to prenatal stroke or damage to the heart or other major organs. It can also slow or alter fetal growth. With the exception of any major organ system damage, birth outcomes are thought to improve if the mother stops using meth in the last trimester of the pregnancy.
Upon birth, babies exposed to meth in utero are frequently very sleepy for the first few weeks, often not waking to feed. After this time, they are often jittery, irritable and have a shrill cry. Some infants have withdrawal symptoms and need treatment for withdrawal. Infants exposed to meth in utero are also at increased risk for SIDS, viral hepatitis and HIV.
Signs That A Child Is Being Exposed To Meth Lab Chemicals
Teachers, day care staff and other individuals who work with or care for children exposed to chemicals associated with meth labs may, or may not, observe a variety of symptoms, including:
- Watery eyes
- Discharge from the eyes
- Blurred vision
- Eye pain, including burning
- Skin irritation and redness
- Mild to severe burns on the skin
- Sneezing and coughing
- Difficult and labored breathing, shortness of breath
- Congestion of the voice box
- Chest pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Moderate to severe headache
- Rapid heart rate
- Dark colored urine
- Decrease in mental status
- Yellow jaundice
- Extreme irritability
- Severe neglect
If you believe a child is being exposed to meth lab chemicals, or if a child tells you that drug-making is occurring in their home, please call 911 immediately and tell law enforcement personnel what you know.
What Happens Once A Report Of Suspected Drug-Endangered Children Is Received?
When local law enforcement personnel receive a report of a suspected meth lab, they will first determine through a thorough investigation if a meth lab is likely operating. If children are present, their safety is a primary concern. The appropriate investigators, including the DEC program, child crimes and Department of Child Safety (DCS) are notified and respond immediately. DCS works jointly with law enforcement at the scene to ensure that the child is protected from further chemical exposure and collects information necessary for both the drug investigation and the potential child abuse case. An interview of the child can take place at the scene, but generally occurs in a more child-friendly environment such as a family advocacy center.
After the child is removed, the crime scene is isolated. If the DCS worker determines there is sufficient information to indicate child abuse, the DCS hotline is called and a formal report is filed. This is different from the general practice where a DCS report is made before an investigation takes place. Concurrent investigations – narcotics, child abuse and child protective services – will proceed and investigators will share information with each other to facilitate their collaborative, multidisciplinary effort.
In the past, if a child was found at a meth lab, the child was removed from the scene, often to the care of a family friend or relative, and insufficient consideration was given to the effects of the toxic chemicals or hazards the child faced on a daily basis. At best, a referral would be made to a social service agency.
The Arizona DEC Program ensures that children receive an immediate and appropriate medical exam, including a test for exposure to toxic chemicals and developmental screening. Upon being removed from the crime scene, the children are showered or bathed to reduce chemical exposure and provided with new clothing, food and, if needed, crisis counseling. A forensic interview will be conducted with the child, most often in a child friendly environment. The medical exam and interview provide important evidence to be used in the drug and child abuse prosecutions and the dependency case.
After the initial emergency response, the appropriate law enforcement unit will complete the investigation. Once a meth lab site is cleared of the evidence needed for prosecution, a police officer will affix on the dwelling a notice stating that a drug lab was seized and that it is unlawful for anyone, other than the owner, manager or remediation firm personnel, to enter the premises. Entering is a violation of the law and a class 6 felony; removal of the sign prior to cleanup is a class 2 misdemeanor. Once the property owner or manager is notified, a remediation firm recognized by the Arizona State Board of Technical Registration must clean up the property. After the property is cleaned, the remediation firm can remove the notice. A list of approved drug remediation firms and clean-up requirements can be found on the Arizona State Board of Technical Registration’s Web site.
The Arizona Attorney General's Office has concurrent jurisdiction in Maricopa County and statewide for the prosecution of cases involving children exposed to the methamphetamine lab environment. In other areas, the County Attorney assumes responsibility for the criminal prosecution. The Arizona Attorney General's Office has statewide jurisdiction over the dependency action.
The Arizona Attorney General's Office of Victim Services will work with DCS to obtain the contact information for the guardian of the child victim and will provide written notification the of case status, including dates and times of all legal hearings to the guardian. A Victim Advocate is available to accompany the child and/or their legal guardian to court, as well as to detail the rights of the legal guardian with regard to the minor victim and make needed social service referrals. In some instances, losses to the victim as a result of the crime may be reimbursable. The Victim Advocate can provide information about victim compensation, including costs for such items as counseling. For more information on victim services, call 602-542-4911.
What Is It Like For A Child To Live In A Meth Lab?
Apart from the children themselves, those who best understand what it is really like for a child to live in a meth lab are the investigating police officers and child welfare workers. Police veteran Tim Ahumada wrote the following story about his first meth lab bust.
Tyler, by Detective Tim Ahumada, Family Investigations Bureau, Phoenix Police Department (the victim's name has been changed to protect his identity)
I've been a police officer for 22 years, and for the past nine years I've investigated crimes against children. I see children that are broken, beaten and sexually abused. Children that are found in meth labs, however, are different. These children are being abused emotionally and physically. Their parents choose to neglect them by using drugs. These parents are obsessed with methamphetamine.
Most physical abuse is grounds for removing a child from a home. With meth kids, you don't see the marks or bruises. Often meth kids go through day-to-day life with no one knowing that anything is wrong. The schools usually say that these kids are hyper or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder). The meth exposed children carry their secret in silence.
I remember a child named Tyler. Tyler's mother is a meth user and has been found in a couple of meth lab investigations. Tyler was four years old when I first met him. He had lively button green eyes with jet-black hair. Tyler's favorite things were cars, trucks and tractors. He loves to eat hot dogs.
In Tyler's world, his bedroom was the cleanest room in the house. It was also where his mother and her boyfriend kept their drugs. Tyler's room was three feet from the converted bathroom that became the meth lab. Tyler had been diagnosed with asthma and was given medication to treat a respiratory problem. His mother did not tell the doctor that Tyler slept next to a meth lab.
In my interview with Tyler, he described that when Mommy's friends would come over, they would sit in the living room smoking a glass pipe. Tyler was taught to take the pipe from one adult to the other.
Tyler did not attend school at the time, so his home was his world. His play area was outside the back door and consisted of a dirt track for his cars. Tyler played there most of the time. The dirt track was made up of dirt, lab chemicals and broken ceramic tiles.
During the investigation, I found Tyler's asthma medicine in the refrigerator. It was stored in the butter tray, right above the rotting hot dogs. The hot dogs had green fungus on them. Throughout the house I identified numerous hazards to a child. There were razor blades on all the counters that appeared to be used for lining out the drugs. The electrical system in the home was modified to accommodate the bathroom-based meth lab, bare electrical wires were stretched across the floor leading into the bathroom.
In this case, the mother's drug problem was so bad that her parental rights were going to be severed. However, the commissioner felt that this family needed another chance, so Tyler went back to his mother.
Meth children have a better chance at a normal life if they are removed from the Meth drug world. For the most part, their exposure is not long term. The long-term medical effects of meth exposure in childhood are not yet known. But what chance does a child have when the parent refuses to give up the drug?
The reason Tyler is so important to me is that he was my first meth lab investigation. I wanted to take this wonderful child home with me. I did not have a tractor to leave with Tyler at the conclusion of the interview. On a follow-up visit with me, Tyler brought me a tractor.
Suzie, by Nicole Kaufman, Department of Economic Security, Child Protective Services Investigator (the victim's name has been changed to protect her identity)
One time you are in a middle-to-upper class neighborhood with numbers on the home. The inside of the home might be clean and have children's toys. Another time you are on the outskirts of town with directions to follow the canal, turn at the dead end, then go to the big tree and turn left.
The children in homes with meth labs are often dirty and have not bathed. Caretakers using methamphetamines often fail to care properly for their children. When children are removed from their homes, they rarely cry when they are being driven away. Instead they wonder when they can go back with their caretaker. They almost always ask: "Will my mommy be ok?"
School age children have usually assumed the role of caretaker for younger siblings. These children tend to struggle with the unfamiliar role of being a caretaker. Sadly, some of these children are able to educate the worker on the production of methamphetamines, as they have been used to assist in the cooking, sales and distribution process of the drug. These children often are thankful that someone finally noticed the hell they were living in.
I remember a six-year-old child named Suzie. Suzie was the oldest in her sibling group. Suzie was so parentified that she lost her childhood. I arrived to the home one mid day and Suzie was still in her nightgown. Suzie was very concerned for the well being of her siblings. Suzie was able to give me the family's demographic information more accurately than her mother.
Suzie's mother was arrested that day. Not only were the children put at great physical risk due to the methamphetamine lab located feet from where they slept, they were neglected. Suzie was essentially raising her younger siblings and in turn forced to give up her childhood.
Once back to the Advocacy Center, Suzie was bathed and given brand new, clean clothes. One of Suzie's infant siblings began to cry; Suzie stopped playing and asked if I needed her to take the sibling. I then explained to Suzie that her job is to be a kid and play and that she does not have to take care of the other children. Suzie looked at me with a tear in her eye and said: "really, you mean it." I told her that yes, I really did mean it.
When Suzie came back to the Advocacy Center for a follow up visit a couple of weeks later, she came running up to me and gave me a hug. Suzie said: "Guess what, they (placement) don't make me take care of anyone, I just have to be a kid." Suzie said this with the smile that all children should have.
For more stories and letters from meth users and those affected by meth, visit the KCI Web site.
The living area at this home-based meth lab was filthy: dirty clothes, food, and plates littered the floor, along with animal feces and chemicals.
Applicable Laws For Prosecution
A number of laws, including drug laws, environmental laws and, where children are involved, child abuse laws, apply to the operation of meth labs. Like many other states, Arizona law holds that methamphetamine production is an inherently dangerous crime and carries stiff criminal penalties. Manufacturing dangerous drugs in the presence of children, especially young children, can dramatically increase the penalties incurred from the drug charges.
In July 2000, Arizona’s child abuse law, A.R.S. § 13-3623, was expanded to add a provision that provides a presumption of endangerment when children or vulnerable adults are found at meth labs. This addition to Arizona law essentially creates strict liability when a person places a child in a location where a meth lab exists.
Child Abuse Law
A.R.S. § 13-3623(C) provides: For the purposes of subsections A and B of this section, the terms endangered and abuse include but are not limited to circumstances in which a child or vulnerable adult is permitted to enter or remain in any structure or vehicle in which volatile, toxic or flammable chemicals are found or equipment is possessed by any person for the purpose of manufacturing a dangerous drug in violation of A.R.S. § 13-3407, subsection A, paragraph 4.
Effective July 1, 2003, A.R.S. § 12-1000 indirectly supports the child abuse law. In summary, this law makes it unlawful for any person other than the owner, landlord or manager to enter the property where dangerous drugs were being manufactured until it is cleaned of residual contamination by a state approved drug laboratory site remediation firm. This law ensures that DES CPS will not be returning a child to a residence that operated as a drug lab, at least until it is determined safe by strict standards. This law also protects the public, who knowingly or otherwise would become residents of a former drug lab where residual contamination from the manufacturing of dangerous drugs remained.
A.R.S. § 13-712, Sentence for certain drug offenses
A. A person who stands convicted of a violation of section 13-3407, subsection A, paragraph 2, 3, 4 or 7 involving methamphetamine shall be sentenced to a presumptive term of ten calendar years. The presumptive term imposed pursuant to this subsection may be mitigated or aggravated by up to five years pursuant to section 13-702, subsections C and D.
B. A person who stands convicted of a violation of section 13-3407, subsection A, paragraph 2, 3, 4 or 7 involving methamphetamine and who has previously been convicted of a violation of section 13-3407, subsection A, paragraph 2, 3, 4 or 7 involving methamphetamine or section 13-3407.01 shall be sentenced to a presumptive term of fifteen calendar years. The presumptive term imposed pursuant to this subsection may be mitigated or aggravated by up to five years pursuant to section 13-702, subsections C and D.
A.R.S. § 13-3401, Drug Offenses, Definitions, provides definitions for drugs and substances and other related terminology, including the definition for manufacture.
A.R.S. § 13-3404.01, Possession or sale of precursor chemicals, regulated chemicals, substances or equipment: exceptions and classifications defines the class of felony related to precursor chemicals and related items. Pseudoephedrine is a precursor chemical to the manufacture of methamphetamine.
A.R.S. § 13-3407, Possession, use, administration, acquisition, sale, manufacture or transportation of dangerous drugs; classification, defines the class of felony for a variety of drug related crimes.
To see the full text of Arizona Revised Statutes, go to the Arizona Legislative Information System ALIS ONLINE.