Meth Myths, Meth Realities

What we know--and what we don't--about methamphetamine's history, chemistry, and impact on users

On the evening of January 20, 1999, Sgt. Todd Hoffman of the Wright County Sheriff's Department had an unnerving experience: He thought his face was melting.

Hoffman was investigating an informant's tip about methamphetamine manufacture in an ice-fishing shack on Waverly Lake. Arriving at the scene--about 30 miles west of Minneapolis and, ironically, about 200 yards from the New Beginnings drug treatment center--Hoffman met two game wardens. They directed him to a shack that had neither name nor license posted on the exterior. Outside, Hoffman detected a peculiar odor in the air. There were a few dead fish strewn about on the ice. But it wasn't a fishy smell. It was an acrid, chemical stench, and that was the giveaway.

A former Minneapolis cop, Hoffman had been working narcotics in Wright County since 1995. By 1999, meth use had already begun to spike in rural and suburban parts of the state, and Hoffman had taken part in dozens of meth lab busts. (He now figures the number is over 100.) While most of the labs were housed in less exotic spots--trailer homes, garages, sheds, and motel rooms--they all shared that nasty, solvent-laden stink.

Figuring he needed more tangible evidence to justify a search of the shack, Hoffman decided to sift through a nearby pile of refuse. But when he picked up a small, nearly empty one-gallon thermos, a cloud of noxious gas spewed upward from the spout toward his head.

"My face instantly began to burn and, for five or ten seconds, I couldn't breathe," Hoffman recalls. "As soon as the fumes touched my face, all my mucous membranes began to drain. My nose, mouth, skin, eyes--everything began to flush. I touched my hands to my face and I could feel a liquid. I thought it was blood, and I thought my face was dissolving."

Hoffman's face did not dissolve. He was not even badly hurt. Following a trip to the emergency room in nearby Buffalo, he returned to the scene and set up surveillance. Later that night, he and his fellow deputies arrested three local teens outside the shack, including a 19-year-old man believed to be the cook, as methamphetamine manufacturers are called.

But Hoffman is the first to admit that he was lucky. The thermos that erupted in his face contained anhydrous ammonia. A liquid when stored under pressure or at temperatures of below minus 28 degrees, it rapidly gasifies if those conditions change. Upon contact with skin, it wicks up all the moisture and forms ammonium hydroxide, a highly caustic substance that burns the skin. Not surprisingly, anhydrous can be fatal when inhaled in sufficient quantities.

Anhydrous ammonia is ubiquitous in the rural Midwest, where it is typically stored in farm fields in thousand-gallon oblong tanks. Even in its legitimate uses as a fertilizer and refrigerant, handling anhydrous ammonia can be tricky. That is one reason why it is illegal to transport the chemical in an unapproved container. And because it is a key ingredient in making meth, such violations are now a five-year felony.

Not that such measures make much of a difference. Few meth cooks show much inclination to follow the rules for handling anhydrous ammonia, or for that matter any of the 30-odd toxic, flammable, and carcinogenic chemicals that are used in meth production. In this regard if no other, meth is virtually unique among the drug scourges of the day. In addition to its impact on users, its very production poses major health and safety hazards to non-users.

In police jargon, the lab on Waverly Lake was a classic "Beavis and Butthead lab," not much different from any of the small-scale operations that Minnesota cops now bust on a daily basis. Even the location was not especially surprising. In the past five years, meth labs have been turning up in all sorts of odd places, including a buried school bus, a tree house, and a houseboat on the Mississippi. Last year, police uncovered a small operation in a storm sewer in Eagan. State parks and other public lands are often used for "box labs," mobile operations run out of backs of vans or car trunks. The toxic by-products are often disposed of in the fields, woods, and waters.

The defendant in the Waverly Lake case fit the profile of the typical Minnesota meth cook. He was not a big-time dealer, just a user looking to cook some speed for himself and a few friends. Like most, he was young, white, and male. As a teenager, he started using low-grade street meth smuggled in from out of state. Soon he was $20,000 in debt to his supplier, who proceeded to cut him off. He decided to cook up his own batch.

After the bust on Waverly Lake, the teen was diverted into a treatment program. Within a matter of weeks, Hoffman says, he had run away and set up another lab, only to be caught once again. At that scene, Hoffman says, a Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent suffered minor injuries after coming into contact with an acid gas. Yet Hoffman is not without some sympathy for the wayward teen. "When I arrested him, he knew he made a mistake. He was just a middle-class farm kid who got caught up in it," Hoffman says. And then Hoffman offers what has become something of a mantra in law enforcement circles. "But you know, meth just gets a hold of people and it doesn't let go."

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