Watch for signs of illegal drug activity in neghborhoods

Methamphetamine: known on the street as "crank," "crystal," "glass," "ice," "chris," or just plain old "meth". A big city problem, right? Unfortunately, that's wrong - the truth is this highly addictive drug, which produces artificial "highs" that last far longer than cocaine and costs much less is being illegally manufactured in homes across America. In fact, as dealers and drug rings have been uprooted from the inner city, many have chosen to take refuge in safe, family-oriented neighborhoods.

How widespread is the threat? According to the most recent statistics released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 15,000 labs have been reported. Of those, nearly half (46%) were found in 9 states located in America's heartland.

Meanwhile, the market for the drug continues to be robust, particularly with youth. The National Institute of Health's Monitoring the Future survey reveals that over 6% of high-school seniors have used methamphetamine at some point in their lives. The figure drops only slightly (5.2%) for sophomores and 8th graders (3.9%). Figures also show that some 12.4 million Americans age 12 and older have tried meth at least once, with the majority of those who had used it in the past year falling between 18 and 34 years of age.

Underscoring the link between this highly-toxic substance and crime, some 43.8% of men arrested in Honolulu between 2001 and 2003, tested positive for meth. More than 54% of the women detained during that same interval also were found to have the drug in their systems.

One reason for the proliferation of methamphetamine is the relative ease with which it can be made. There are numerous recipes, many of which use simple over-the-counter cold medications containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. These are then combined with chemicals such as red phosphorous (found on match heads), hydrochloric acid, anhydrous ammonia, drain cleaner, battery acid, lye, lantern fuel and antifreeze. Most are cancer-causing agents. And when they're "cooked" in makeshift labs, they produce a highly-toxic, combustible atmosphere that can literally explode at any time during the process.

"This drug has the potential to cause complete and total destruction of lives, not only for the users, but those around them," said Michael F. Canning, Executive Director, Maryland Sheriffs' Association. "The dangers are immense."

So, what are the possible signs of a home-based meth lab operating in your neighborhood? Look for:

  • Unusual, strong odors (like cat urine, ether, ammonia, acetone, rotten eggs or dirty diapers).
  • Houses in which the curtains or blinds are blacked out.
  • Dumped items such as red, chemically stained coffee filters, drain cleaner, duct tape, antifreeze and lantern fuel cans
  • Aerosol cans of starter fluid, with puncture holes in the bottom
  • Peeled casings from lithium batteries
  • White powder residue
  • Renters who always pay in cash

Meanwhile, if you discover or happen to stumble across a suspected meth lab, there are some very specific protocols that should be followed:

  • Do not touch any paraphernalia or chemicals present
  • Get to a safe location, keeping in mind that you could be contaminated.
  • Try and recall everything you saw or smelled that could be helpful to a decontamination unit that will be called in to investigate.
  • Immediately contact the Sheriff's office or local law enforcement.
  • When suspicious of illegal activity taking place, keep a record but do not alert or confront the suspect(s).
  • Check with neighbors to see if they also suspect a problem.
  • Develop an evacuation plan. It may be as simple as taking the family to a neighbor's home.
  • If you see children living in the home, note their condition. If they appear to be neglected, abused, or in any immediate harm, contact law enforcement and social services agencies immediately.
  • In the event of an explosion or fire, DO NOT try to fight the fire. Call 911 and provide the operators with your neighborhood's suspicions of the home being a meth lab. This will enable firefighters and law enforcement officers to take the appropriate precautions.
  • Keep your family and neighbors at least 500 feet away and UPWIND of smoke and fumes emanating from a suspected home-based meth lab that's caught fire. This will help you avoid fumes that contain high dosages of toxins and contaminants.

Remember, methamphetamine manufacturing is a dirty, dangerous business. However, with the proper amount of diligence and awareness among neighbors, these places can be identified and shut down without injuring people who live nearby

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