Today is Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Meth still a pressing danger locally

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Educating others regarding the dangers of methamphetamines – producing and using – is one of the top methods authorities use to warn hotel owners and landlords who often bear the costs when a meth lab is discovered.

A recent meth lab discovery at a residence on Hartsville Pike in Lebanon on May 14 resulted in the arrests of four people, the initial clean-up of the site, probable loss of income to the owner of the home which was rented and additional costs to further decontaminate the structure and get the OK from authorities to perhaps rent it again.

The costs can add up to thousands of dollars.

Oh, and meth labs are very dangerous, not only to those who produce it, often using chemicals that can explode, but also to law enforcement officers, who, while highly trained, still face a risk of explosion as they work to neutralize the meth to make it safe so clean-up can proceed.  

Lebanon Police Chief Scott Bowen noted that the May 14 incident was the eighth meth lab discovered in the city since Jan. 1. And because the ingredients to manufacture the highly addictive drug are so easy to obtain, there will likely be more meth labs found.

Recognizing that there is a problem that is not going away anytime soon, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law regarding the sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine in over-the-counter cold medicines – a major component of meth. The law, which takes effect July 1, limits the purchase of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine to 5.76 grams a month, or approximately 48 pills.

The law was a compromise between the State House and State Senate from what was originally proposed by Gov. Bill Haslam. The governor proposed reducing the amount that could be purchased from 9 grams to 4.8 grams over 30 days.

Law enforcement throughout the state, including Bowen and Patrolman Chris Luna, one of two Lebanon Police officers – the other is Brian Blackburn – who are trained in cleaning up meth labs, however, would prefer prescription-only sales of cold medicine containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

Mississippi and Oregon lawmakers passed prescription-only laws and have seen the numbers of meth labs decline by 90 percent, in recent years, Bowen said. He provided a copy of a letter he received from Dennis Young, chief of the Winchester Police Department, which discusses the efforts of Mississippi and Oregon and other states that still have a high number of meth labs even though there have been changes made to laws in those places.

Luna noted that efforts to cut back on the amount of pseudoephedrine available in cold medicine have led those who make meth to find ways to get around the law. One of the ways they do so is by “smurfing,” which is what it is called when they find someone else – say a college student or someone without a job – and tell that person they will pay them to go into a store and buy the medication.

Pharmacists, of course, are also onto this, and they call authorities when something is amiss, something Luna said is appreciated. “Working with pharmacies has worked well with us,” he noted.

So, somehow, someone has obtained all the ingredients needed to “cook,” or make meth. Most often, in the Middle Tennessee area, the preferred way of manufacturing the drug is through the “one-pot” method, that is, one container, often a 2-liter soda bottle.

The pseudoephedrine and other ingredients are mixed – the other ingredients which are potentially flammable/explosive – and then the “cook” takes the meth oil which forms on top and adds a substance, a generator, if you will, mixes that, and then puts it in a bottle with a tube. The pressure builds inside the bottle as all the ingredients cook.

The mix then turns from a liquid to a solid, and then, Luna said, “you have meth.”

“My job is to go up to it, knowing it can explode, and burp it. Release the pressure,” he said.

Even though meth has formed inside a bottle, meth gas can still leak through the tube. “Any of that stuff can shut your lungs down,” Luna said. Indeed, he, Blackburn and others who respond to suspected meth labs must wear protective suits while they secure a scene, collect evidence, clean up and such. Some of the protective clothing is designed to be disposed of after wearing, but others are decontaminated and can be used again.

When a meth lab is discovered in a house or a hotel room or apartment, even, the site is placed under quarantine and a yellow sign is placed on the front and back doors declaring it as such. A red “Warning” sign is also placed on the front and back doors to warn others that a lab used to make illegal drugs or hazardous chemicals was found at that particular site and that dangerous substances may still be present.

Luna said LPD’s Public Safety Officers are called, along with Lebanon Fire Department and Wilson County Emergency Management Agency to assist in the clean-up of a site.

If suspects are found at the scene, Luna and Bowen noted they cannot be taken immediately to booking. The suspects must first be decontaminated, that is, they must be washed down and their clothes taken. They are then provided with clothing and taken to booking.

The homeowner or manager is notified and are told they cannot go inside the house or room because it is contaminated.

Luna said he then files an EPIC report, or El Paso Intelligence Center, through the Tennessee Meth Task Force, which takes all the information and makes it available via the Internet to alert other agencies. EPIC is a part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

A hold is placed on the property in question with the Wilson County Register of Deeds office, he said, and the owner or manager is told they are responsible for final clean-up and are provided with a list of state certified hygienists and clean-up contractors.

The hygienist responds first and will take samples from walls, carpeting, etc., to see if any chemicals are present, and if there are, then the clean-up contractor is summoned.

Once the clean-up is completed, which can involve wiping down the walls with a substance to outright removal of whatever is inside to include the carpeting, furniture, clothing, toys, and such, the hygienist returns and tests the residence again. If it is determined to be safe, then Luna provides the owner with the paperwork that asks the Register of Deeds office to release the hold.

The owner is responsible for the cost of the clean-up, including having the hygienist and contractor do their jobs. In addition, it costs $14 to have a hold released on a property.

If repairs must be made to a residence as a result of contamination from a meth lab, that is the owner’s responsibility as well.

The costs can add up to thousands of dollars.

(Luna said two residences in Lebanon remain under quarantine – the one on Hartsville Pike and the other on Red Fox Court where a man blew himself up in a suspected meth manufacturing lab that exploded.”

Luna and Blackburn are known as Clandestine Laboratory Technicians, and are trained to deal with labs where other illegal drugs or substances might be manufactured.

They have attended numerous schools and training sessions and are also available to train others. He said they hope to send other officers to school for training to be certified “because we’re finding so many” meth labs.

He mentioned working with hotel personnel to educate them on what to look for when entering rooms, cautioning them not to pick up anything that looks suspicious as it may be contaminated and therefore dangerous to them.

There are a number of hotels in Lebanon and several stores are open 24 hours a day, making it easier for those who may be seeking ingredients to make meth.

“It’s why we tend to get people from other counties here,” he noted, adding other counties do not necessarily have stores open 24/7, making the ingredients – namely pseudoephedrine – more difficult to obtain.

In disposing of items found at meth labs, Luna said the Tennessee Meth Task Force, which has certified lab techs, responds, and they haul all the waste, the bottles and such, to a “pod,” several of which are located throughout the state. There the lab techs work to reduce the ph level of the contaminants to where it is neutral. Once the pod is full – that is, it can contain items from many other meth labs in the area – the clean-up contractor will come and get it, sign off on it, and then it is disposed of.

With all the attention in recent years regarding meth, does Luna think the situation is better or worse?

“It’s getting worse,” he said, noting “last year especially it started to pick up. A lot may be due to the economy.” He mentioned a case that occurred some months ago where a couple came here from another county to buy cold medicine containing pseudoephedrine – not for their use, but for someone else who told them he would pay them $75 each to make the purchases. The couple told officers they had not been able to find jobs despite efforts to do so, and had children to feed.

“I feel for people like that in a way, if they’re out trying to get jobs,” the officer said, but added, what they did was still not right.

He also mentioned the owner of the home on Hartsville Pike that is now under quarantine. The owner, a woman, actually co-owned with another woman who recently passed away.

The owner told him she was shocked by the incident and would like to bulldoze the house, which has a leaning front porch. But Luna noted before it can be bulldozed, it must first be cleaned up so contaminants do not escape and make workers sick.

“I feel for people like that, too,” he said of owners who bear the financial burden.

Cities and counties bear a financial cost, too, regarding the equipment needed to deal with labs and also complying with state law.

The state law that requires cities and counties to enter the names of offenders into a meth lab database is not working as well as officials initially hoped when it was passed in 2012.

Bowen said the information is not getting reported correctly initially to the database, and, he added, “I don’t have time to have an officer to monitor it 24/7. It’s just not working.”

As for the new law regarding the amount of pseudoephedrine in cold medication that can be purchased, Bowen said, “When the new law takes effect in July, I don’t believe it’s going to make a difference.”

He mentioned Mississippi and Oregon as the two states that are presently prescription-only when it comes to purchasing pseudoephedrine in cold medication and that their meth lab busts have dropped significantly.

“There’s no doubt prescription-only works.”

Editor Jennifer Horton may be contacted at news@wilsonpost.com.    

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