New laws cracking down on methamphetamine in Missouri may send clandestine labs to Kansas, where laws are not as strict.
There's a slight hitch in Rick Sabel's voice when he talks, a small cough that is better suited to a heavy smoker.
Every time Sabel clears his throat he is reminded that the methamphetamine dealers he pursues as a Kansas Bureau of Investigation special agent are not the only hazards of the increasing meth problem in Kansas.
``We probably weren't in that trailer for 20 or 30 seconds when the atmospheric fumes hit us,'' said Sabel, one of four agents sent to a hospital during a meth lab raid seven months ago. He won't talk about the location of the lab because a court case is pending, but said he regularly visits a pulmonary specialist for treatment.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Tri-County Drug Enforcement Unit (Douglas, Franklin and Jefferson counties) have been dealing with increasing numbers of methamphetamine labs in recent years, and many law enforcement officers fear the problem will get worse. Not only is the highly addictive drug cheap to make -- $100 of over-the-counter drugs and chemicals can be turned into $1,000 worth of meth in a few hours -- it also produces a longer high and is replacing crack in popularity.
``In the mid-'80s and early '90s, crack cocaine was king,'' said Lance Flachsbarth, a Lawrence police officer assigned to the drug unit. ``That's changing.''
When Dan Dunbar, the assistant Douglas County district attorney who handles drug cases, joined the office in 1983, he was seeing a 10-to-1 ratio of cocaine to meth cases. That pendulum has swung to the other extreme.
``I don't handle the misdemeanor marijuana cases, and I imagine that's still prevalent,'' Dunbar said. ``But methamphetamine cases far exceed the others I see.''
KBI Assistant Director Kirk Thompson said new Missouri laws will go into effect in August, raising penalties for meth dealers. That news may send some meth cooks packing their labs across the border into Kansas, he said.
``This is a hazardous business and it's being conducted by people who don't have concerns about the general safety of the public,'' said Thompson, who heads the KBI's narcotics investigation unit.
Douglas County Undersheriff Ken Massey and Flachsbarth have seen the effects of the drug, from a meth lab bust at a local bonding/bail agency to an explosion and fire that destroyed a Eudora trailer home in mid-April.
Flachsbarth's first encounter with a meth lab two years ago in the 2200 block of Harper underlines how meth affects not only its users.
``When we first walked in there, it burned my nose. The carpets were saturated with this stuff,'' he said. ``There was a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old sleeping in there. This stuff is nasty and those people are just so strung out they don't care.''
Methamphetamine labs are no longer new to Kansas. There were only seven labs found by authorities in 1995; that number grew to 71 in 1996 and 99 last year. As of mid-June this year, 42 labs had been seized in the state.
Massey said five labs have been located in Douglas County since the start of 1997.
On the highway, Kansas Highway Patrol troopers seized under 10 pounds in 1995, 21 1/2 pounds in 1996 and 59 pounds last year.
Over the years, methods of ``cooking'' methamphetamine have evolved. Once limited to those with knowledge of chemicals and laboratory equipment, the ``P-2-P'' (using phenylacetic acid, acetic anhydride and pyridine) method has given way to amateurs mixing chemicals in plastic buckets in secluded areas at state parks and every other imaginable location.
``We're seeing labs in vans, closets, motel rooms, the trunk of a car,'' said Flachsbarth, who is on the drug enforcement unit. ``What a lot of people do now is buy a big plastic Rubbermaid tote, and they've got a moving meth lab right there.''
Dunbar said the P-2-P ingredients are listed as controlled substances, but cooks quickly came up with other methods.
``The process has been simplified. You don't have to go out on the streets to make it,'' he said. ``You're not running the risk of being out in the public eye, because you can make it in the tub.''
Once secretive about different meth recipes, the KBI recently sponsored a ``media day'' to introduce reporters to how the drug is made. Thompson said the KBI wants the public to know about the telltale signs of meth manufacturing, now that recipes are readily available on the Internet and underground ``how-to'' books.
Among the things to look for:
- A large number of cold tablet containers listing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine as ingredients
- Coffee filters containing a dark red sludge, a white pasty substance or shiny white crystals
- A large number of matchbooks with the red phosphorous removed
- Bottles of hydrochloric and sulfuric acid
- Jars of iodine, Red Devil lye and Coleman lantern fuel.
While it's not illegal to buy large quantities of the ingredients, such as cold medicine or the lye, some retailers have been tipping off drug investigators when someone suspicious buys the products, Massey said. Veterinarians are also wary when strangers buy 7 percent tinctured iodine. Massey said he found a list of 20 iodine sources across the state during one arrest.
``The cooks are very proud of their work. If you can get them to talk about it, they are obviously proud of what they do,'' Flachsbarth said. ``I sat with one cook for 1 1/2 hours, and he told me all about it.''
Cooks are usually less than concerned about the resulting hazardous wastes, from deadly phosphene gas to acids and other chemicals that saturate the lab surroundings. Some are working with no sleep in days, are malnourished and often paranoid and psychotic from the meth.
``The people we pull out of these places are an accident waiting to happen,'' Sabel said.
Scott Robinson, head of the emergency department at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, said meth-addicted patients have been treated at the hospital, but it's likely they're also abusing other drugs.
``We see the effects of both acute ingestions, where they're having some sort of a negative reaction, including chest pains,'' Robinson said. ``We also see people who have been chronic abusers with paranoia, psychosis, all sorts of behaviors. In fact, I saw a guy last week who was a chronic user.''
Longtime users can develop mental disorders that wouldn't have surfaced without the drug, said Robinson, who has worked at the Kansas University Medical Center and hospitals in California.
``You tend to see more of the abuse in metropolitan areas than in the rural areas, but I think Lawrence is in a transition period. We're seeing more, and not just methamphetamine, but drugs and alcohol problems in general.''
-- Chris Koger's phone message number is 832-7126. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.