STANDISH, Maine — Already a dangerously accessible drug, experts say methamphetamines are easier to make than ever before, and because it can now be manufactured quickly and almost anywhere, specialized training to neutralize the toxic, explosive — and portable — chemicals is needed in Maine.
“All the stuff you see on TV, with beaker bottles and big labs, that’s old school,” said William York, CEO of the Gorham-based BioSpecialists LLC. “You could make 1 to 4 grams of methamphetamines in a backpack. No fancy glasswork, no lab coat and ‘Dr. Crazy’ [outfit], just a backpack. They’re doing it in campers, hotel rooms, trailers — anywhere. Somebody could walk into a [restaurant] restroom and not come out for an hour, and then that place has a major problem.”
Meth has become a scourge in some states — Missouri, Indiana and Tennessee are among the statistically hardest hit — with addictions spreading like wildfire and users notoriously appearing in police mugshots with gaunt faces, pale skin and sunken eyes. It’s the closest thing America has to a real zombie plague, said Lee Surgener of Akron-based Ohio Clan Lab Neutralization Techs.
Surgener was in Maine over the weekend delivering a Saturday seminar for area law enforcement officials and first responders on how to spot signs of methamphetamine production in their communities, followed by a Sunday training for BioSpecialists technicians on how to apply chemical cleansers to a location where the drug has been “cooked.”
Once the drug has been produced, the process leaves behind an almost molecular-level residue on every surface, soaked in nearby fabrics and lingering in out-of-reach heating ducts, Surgener said.
According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, there were seven methamphetamine labs discovered by police in 2012. That’s the highest number on record and a significant increase compared with 2009′s figure of just one.
“It’s not a significant problem compared to other states,” Surgener said. “But it’s going to spread.”
Surgener said if Maine is anything like his home state of Ohio, the number of labs recorded is likely a tip-of-the-iceberg number. In Ohio, he said it took high-profile tragedies to get the public and state leaders to realize the scope of the problem. He said he hopes that won’t be the case in Maine.
“For every meth lab the [drug enforcement agency] is busting, you may have four to 10 that people don’t know about,” he said. “It took a toddler dying and a nursing home burning up in Ohio before people woke up.”
In February of last year, 17-month-old Patrick Lerch died of methamphetamine poisoning in an Akron case that saw four people, including the child’s mother, convicted of crimes related to the death. The next month, a fire at Park Haven Nursing Home in Ashtabula, Ohio, killed one person and was traced back to a portable meth lab set up by visitors in a second-floor room of the building.
“This is the most dangerous drug on the planet,” York said. “Everything they need to cook this drug is available in a person’s hometown. … If they’ve got access to a drugstore and a hardware store, they’re in business.”
York said methamphetamines are popular among some users because the drug can be made privately using easy-to-find medicines, chemicals and instruments, allowing users to avoid meeting with dealers and keeping them another step away from possible detection by law enforcement. Also, he said the drug triggers a euphoric high that lasts between six and 16 hours. In comparison, cocaine users get a 30- to 60-minute high from that drug, York said.
But the process to produce meth covers the surrounding area with a toxic byproduct even after the operation has been disassembled and removed, Surgener said. The federal government has determined that any greater concentration than 0.1 micrograms per 100 centimeters squared is dangerous to be exposed to, he said.
That means less than a pinprick on the corner of a CD case can cause serious health problems, Surgener said, and items such as rugs and teddy bears can absorb 15 to 30 times that amount.
“You just can’t see it,” he said.
During Sunday morning’s training, BioSpecialists technicians mixed a chemical neutralizing agent and then sprayed the shaving cream-like substance over interior surfaces in a tax-acquired two-story home on Route 35 in Standish. Treatments such as that are necessary to make a home habitable again after methamphetamines are produced there.
State and local governments pay $15,000 to break down a lab and clean the surrounding structure, according to information posted online by Maine DHHS, but York said with proper training, private organizations like his may provide the service for less money.
The Standish home where Sunday’s training took place is vacant but was not actually the site of a methamphetamine lab. The training was agreed to by the town, said Ruth-Ann Labrecque, assistant to Town Manager Gordon Billington.
Surgener said larger scale meth lab operators often leave excess garbage around their properties, including bottles of leftover chemicals, and often can be identified by members of the public if they know what to look for.
“The telltale signs of what you’re looking for in a meth lab you can see without setting foot in the homes,” he said. “If the public gets informed, that goes a long way toward controlling the problem.”
Surgener added: “[Meth is] here. It’s not that it’s coming. It’s here now, and it’s not going anywhere.”