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Paynesville Press - March 30, 2005

Residents warned to watch for meth labs

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

Area residents could have a methamphetamine lab next door and never know it, according to Paynesville police chief Kent Kortlever. Knowing the indicators of a meth lab and the signs of meth use may be the keys to helping eliminate the drug that has become the most popular illegal drug in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Residents should be aware of the signs of a meth lab, said Kortlever. Large quantities of cold medicine packages (pseudoephedrine and ephedrine), empty cans of WD40, acetone, rubbing alcohol, lye, match boxes, drain cleaner, paint stripper, or ether are all products used in the production of meth. Neighbors may see these items discarded in the trash - not necessarily at the house in question.

And residents who notice a chemical odor coming from a building or vehicle, or lot of traffic coming and going from a residence - especially traffic that stays for only a few minutes - should call the police. These are indicators that meth is being made or sold there, said Kortlever.

The illegal use of meth has increased rapidly in Minnesota since the 1990s, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. The drug - which is also known as crank, go fast, speed, amp, and crystal - produces a powerful high that can last for more than a week. The drug - which commonly comes in a powder form or rock form - can be inhaled, injected, smoked, or ingested.

Meth users are unusually alert and energetic during a high, said Kortlever. The user's heart races, the user's blood pressure is elevated, and the user can be agitated or even violent. Once the high is gone the user crashes, which is indicated by several days of sleep.

Sometimes, meth users take more of the drug to avoid the crash and go for very long periods without sleep. According to Stearns County Sheriff's Deputy Kellan Hemmesch - a Paynesville native who is also a member of a three-county drug task force - meth's popularity has increased in the past few years because it's easy to make using household materials and chemicals, it's easy to hide, and it's easy to buy. Both Hemmesch and Kortlever said it's easier for teenagers to buy meth than alcohol.

Unfortunately, because the drug is made of common materials and because a meth lab can fit into a relatively small area, finding clandestine meth labs is difficult. Meth labs have been found in fish houses, garden sheds, homes, and even in vans, said Kortlever.

And finding materials used in meth production doesn't automatically indicate a meth lab, he continued. For instance, salt is an ingredient in meth production, but if someone finds six empty 50-pound salt bags in a neighbor's garbage, it would be safe to assume the neighbor used it for a water softener, said Kortlever.

With spring fieldwork soon to begin on area farms, Kortlever is going to speak to local agri-businesses to try and prevent the theft of anhydrous ammonia, used in the most common method for producing meth. Farmers and farm supply businesses need to be especially alert for the theft of anhydrous ammonia from nurse tanks, according to Kortlever. Because it's impossible to lock anhydrous tanks, farmers need to keep the tanks close to their homes or should ask their suppliers not to leave tanks overnight, if possible, Kortlever added.

In 2004, the Central Minnesota Drug Task Force located 96 meth labs in Stearns, Benton, and Morrison counties. In the last year, Hemmesch estimates the task force has found five meth labs in Stearns County alone, most in isolated areas. Because making meth produces such a strong odor, meth "cookers" like isolated locations where passersby won't notice the stench, he said.

But meth labs aren't found only in isolated areas, cautioned Kortlever. In Paynesville, strong smells can often be noticed, he said, including odors from nearby turkey farms, from the cheese plant, and the sewer ponds, so residents may not think another strong odor is unusual, he added.

Locating meth labs is important for several reasons, according to Hemmesch. Meth production and use is dangerous and expensive, he explained. Many materials used in meth production are extremely toxic and volatile. Meth-lab fires and caustic burns on meth makers are not uncommon.

Cleaning up a meth lab can be dangerous and expensive, said Kortlever. If the Paynesville police find a meth lab, they are instructed to leave it alone until teams trained in meth lab cleanup arrive, he said. In fact, the city of Paynesville recently agreed to allow Stearns County to be responsible for cleaning up any meth labs found by the local police, as doing so locally could be very costly.

Everything in and around a meth lab is considered toxic, according to Kortlever. The building's plumbing, sewer lines, septic system, drainfield, and the surrounding soil all have to be treated as hazardous materials. Cleaning up a meth lab can cost more than $15,000, depending on the size and location, he said. The DEA uses grant money to clean up meth labs, Hemmesch added, but the tab is ultimately picked up by taxpayers.

Taxpayers also pay for meth use, Hemmesch said. The drug is highly addictive, so tax money is commonly used for rehabilitation, for welfare benefits for addicts who can't work, and for prison and jail terms for people caught using, selling, or making methamphetamine. Tax money is also used for medical and dental treatment for prisoners who suffer from long-term meth use. (Meth causes teeth to rot, a disorder known as "meth-mouth.")

To ease the epidemic, or to at least slow it, Kortlever urges anyone who notices the signs of a meth lab to contact the police at its non-emergency number 320-243-7346. The Paynesville police have already found one clandestine meth lab, and they suspect others in the city, said Kortlever. One tip may be the key to shutting down a clandestine meth lab, Kortlever added.

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