Toxic Shock

Randy Goin remembers his first visit to a methamphetamine lab six years ago. It was the beginning of a long and disturbing chemistry lesson.

A Thornton narcotics detective assigned to the North Metro Drug Task Force, Goin didn't know quite what to expect. He'd heard the horror stories about crazed meth-cooks and their paranoia, guns and booby traps. He knew something about the ingredients they use, a vile brew of cold pills, household solvents and acids, iodine, phosphorous, ammonia -- which, if inexpertly combined, can produce flash fires, deadly gases and toxic spills. But all of his training couldn't prepare him for his first lab bust.

The target was an old barn on a 25-acre property in rural Adams County. Goin's team found a fully automatic machine gun but no cook in progress; to their relief, the chemicals and glassware appeared to be neatly stored. What caught Goin's attention, though, was the sink that the lab operator had used to dump his waste chemicals.

The sink wasn't connected to the sewer system, and the waste simply oozed from a pipe outside -- near a well pump and a trampoline where kids played. It was easy to trace the discharge as it trickled down a hill to a catch-pond. All you had to do was follow the ever-widening kill path in its wake, a swath of bare ground where the surrounding weeds just stopped.

"Nothing would grow there," Goin recalls. "Nothing."

The scene was his first intimation that he was dealing with something beyond the grasp of conventional law enforcement. What kind of dipstick could so casually poison the land around him -- and possibly his children and his own water supply in the bargain?

Over the next three years, North Metro began to encounter meth labs with alarming frequency. The task force was soon hitting a couple a month, then one or two a week -- labs in apartments, motel bathrooms, cars. Goin was in on 35 or 40 of those busts. In almost every case, his protective gear consisted of a pair of latex gloves.

Goin saw pristine apartments turned into iodine-stained dumps, a once-tidy mobile home scarred by unreported fires. He saw kids scavenging for whatever food they could find after their parents had been passed out for days.

"It's all about the meth," he says. "Kids get ignored, the property falls apart. Meth becomes their whole world."

At first, few people -- aside from the haz-mat teams that customarily made the initial entry -- gave much thought to the dizzying vapors that permeated the labs. Even after the joint had been aired out, you could smell the chemicals and sometimes taste them -- a sweet yet acrid smell, not unlike the odor of a hardware store stacked high with pesticides and fertilizer. Goin emerged lightheaded a couple of times. Other team members complained of headaches that lasted for days.

Goin saw one co-worker chase down a suspect and cuff him bare-handed. The cook's clothing was saturated with chemicals; a few minutes later, the skin on the officer's palms started blistering.

In time, Goin thought less about what the labs were doing to the weeds in Adams County. He began to worry about what they were doing to him.

Compared with the meth explosion in states such as California and Arizona, Colorado's problem is still relatively modest. But the rise of mom-and-pop labs across the region is changing the terms of engagement for drug warriors and reshaping health officials' notions of what constitutes a hazardous-waste site. And property owners and taxpayers are getting stuck with the bill.

Amphetamine-related stimulants have been part of the pharmacopia for decades, of course, from Hitler's pick-me-up injections to the pep pills and "diet aids" marketed to American consumers a generation ago. From the 1960s until well into the 1980s, the illegal speed trade was dominated by motorcycle gangs, who employed rogue chemists to manufacture the "P2P" version of meth, using phenyl-2-propanone, methylamine, ether and a host of other volatile ingredients. Batches of P2P were usually concocted in remote rural areas, since the process took days and exuded a stench detectable for blocks.

But all of that changed in the 1990s, as simpler (but not always safer) recipes for homemade meth began to circulate on the Internet. Today's cooks use a variety of methods to strip one molecule from the magic ingredient in over-the-counter cold tablets and produce meth in a matter of hours, in a process known as ephedrine reduction. One popular approach involves red phosphorus, iodine, hydriodic acid and sodium hydroxide; another calls for ammonia, muriatic acid, naphtha, methanol and Freon.

Since virtually all of the ingredients can be found at the local strip mall -- in household products such as lye, matchbooks, drain cleaner and swimming-pool chemicals -- the enterprising tweaker no longer has to depend on bikers or Mexican superlabs for his source of supply. He can set up shop in his closet, add as many boxes of cold pills as he and his pals can boost, and get cooking.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast