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Meth forum gives clues to residents

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By Brian Beckley

The Courier-Herald

Everyone in attendance agreed, the picture on the screen of a standard propane tank hanging upside down in a garage would fail the "normalcy test" - whether the average person would consider it normal.

The tank, hanging upside down to prevent gas from escaping, was part of a methamphetamine bust conducted by Pierce County's Metro Lab Team, and was typical of scenes found at suspected meth labs.

"We call that a clue," Pierce County Det. Sgt. Dave Dewey told the more than 35 people in attendance at the "Death to Meth" meeting Wednesday night at the Public Safety Building.

The meeting, organized by Sen. Pam Roach (R-Bonney Lake), was designed to show residents the "red flags and light bulbs" that might indicate a meth lab in their neighborhood.

Another photo showed a standard coffee grinder, packed with white powder instead of coffee grounds.

"Has anyone ever seen albino coffee?" Dewey asked." If you have white powder in your coffee grinder, what is it? It's a clue."

By the time the pile of unraveled lithium batteries appeared on the screen, the class had caught on.

"What is that?" Dewey asked.

"A clue," came a voice from the back of the darkened room.

"There you go."

Even with more than 540 methamphetamine lab busts last year, Pierce County remains near the top of meth-producing locations nationwide, but Dewey, Roach and Pierce County Deputy Prosecutor Mark Lindquist all hope that teaching neighbors the warning signs will lead to an increased crackdown on meth cooks in local neighborhoods.

"There's places you suspect, but I guess most of the time I thought they were just selling pot," said Janice Harrison about suspicious buildings in the Ponderosa Estates neighborhood, adding that following the meeting, she'll have a better idea of the signs of meth.

"The more you teach ... the more they find," Dewey said, adding that the 540 labs discovered are "not even 10 percent of what's going on in this county."

According to statistics provided by Dewey, 18 meth labs were busted in Bonney Lake and the surrounding area in 2004. As of April 13, three more labs had been raided this year.

According to Dewey, the majority of cases around Bonney Lake come from the Ponderosa and Prairie Ridge neighborhoods, but Lindquist said "guerrilla labs" - small, go-anywhere production facilities - are making it easier for cooks to make meth anywhere.

"There's no boundary," Bonney Lake interim Police Chief Buster McGehee said. "You can find a mobile meth lab anywhere."

According to Dewey, the majority of methamphetamines produced in Pierce County is made through what is known as the Nazi method, named for a recipe first used in World War II Germany that resurfaced in Pierce County in late 1995. In the Nazi method, pseudoephedrine is combined with lithium metal and anhydrous ammonia to create the powdered drug that is smoked, snorted, inhaled or injected.

As opposed to the "Red P" method favored by organized crime and found in eastern Washington, the Nazi method produces a more pure drug that can be produced in a smaller lab.

"It's easily overlooked," Dewey said of the signs of a Nazi method lab. "It doesn't look like a chemistry set."

Showing slides of prior busts, Dewey walked those in attendance through different signs that may mean meth is being produced, such as a large number of propane tanks, perhaps hanging upside down and often showing signs of corrosion around mismatched or incompatible parts.

The corrosion, like that on a car battery, forms because instead of propane, the tanks often contain anhydrous ammonia, a component in production.

"I have never, never, never seen any container with that kind of corrosion that was not later proven to contain anhydrous," Dewey said after one photo.

Other things to look for that may lead to a meth lab include cargo containers, junk vehicles, half-finished projects, propane tanks, solvent containers and burn piles. There can also be discoloration of structures or pavement or weird patterns of vegetation throughout a yard.

Dewey also said meth cooks seem to favor blue tarps, even more so than brown or tan tarps.

"I don't know what it is; Blue tarps go with meth labs," he said.

According to Dewey, meth users tend to exhibit erratic, paranoid behavior, drive aggressively and have thin or gaunt features, open sores, poor dental conditions and may have a strong, chemical odor.

Chemical odors, such as ethers, solvents or more commonly, ammonia can also be a clue that methamphetamine production is taking place.

Because cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine are a vital component in the making of methamphetamine, the state Legislature has sought to limit the amount of over-the-counter cold medicines an individual can buy.

This session, the Legislature passed a new law that will reduce the number to two packages or three grams of cold medicine containing "pseudo" in a 24-hour period. The law goes into effect Oct. 1, though many stores have already voluntarily removed the products from their shelves.

Roach, a strong proponent of the new legislation, said that though she understands how some people can be upset at a seeming loss of the privacy rights, the problem of methamphetamine requires such solutions.

"The fact is it's going to be a little more inconvenient," she said.

"I don't have colds that often, but I'll give (medicines containing pseudoephedrine) up if it will get rid of this problem," Dewey agreed.

Residents said they learned a lot from the meeting and hope to apply their new knowledge to their neighborhoods.

"It's nice to be able to know what to look for," Brad Doll said following the meeting.

"Now we've got the earmarks saying to be a lot more aware of what's going on in our surroundings," agreed Rich Leber.

According to Lindquist, tips from citizens are considered "gold" by the courts, making meetings like the one at the public safety building so important.

Dewey estimated that following 90 percent of the meetings, which he conducts approximately twice a week for groups in the county, someone calls with a useful tip.

"Community involvement leads to convictions," Lindquist agreed.

Reach reporter Brian Beckley at bbeckley@courierherald.com.

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