Methamphetamine, a manufactured, highly addictive drug, is “the scourge of rural areas across the nation,” says U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman Rusty Payne. “Meth is now the No. 1 drug in rural America — absolutely, positively.”

Called the poor man's cocaine, meth is popular because the effects are so powerful and last longer than many other mind-bending drugs. Meth affects the central nervous system and gives the user an intense feeling of pleasure.

The drug has a phenomenal rate of addiction. Some users often get hooked after just one use.

But there's more to meth than the suffering and havoc it causes users. It also exacts a heavy price tag from rural law enforcement, and can economically hamstring landlords whose properties, unbeknownst to them, are used to produce meth.

You see, the seclusion that ranchers and farmers value in their lifestyles is also a reason meth is streaming into rural America.

“International traffickers are aggressively targeting rural areas, where they think they can escape law enforcement,” Payne adds.

Rural areas are popular sites for production because the strong odors produced during manufacture can dissipate. Meth cooks are even zeroing in on sites downwind from feedlots, dairies, hog barns and chicken sheds.

Compounding detection efforts is the increasing use of mobile labs where cooking is performed in stages at different locations.

Meth is a simple drug to produce and the ingredients are readily available and inexpensive. The key ingredient of meth is ephedrine, a controlled substance that is difficult to obtain. Thus, dealers cook ephedrine by removing buffers from pseudo-ephedrine found in many over-the-counter medicines. Large quantities of red phosphorous and iodine are often used in this process.

Typically after a lab is seized, the bulk of any lab-related debris is removed and saved for evidence. But, even after a meth lab is shut down, the property can be saturated with hazardous chemicals.

Contaminants can remain on surfaces, in carpets, furniture, sinks, drains, and septic and ventilation systems. Law enforcement officials estimate the manufacture of 1 lb. of meth results in 5-6 lbs. of toxic waste.

Many states are working to address the cleanup problem associated with meth lab seizures. The owner of the property may be held liable if a person gets sick from entering a contaminated building.

In Oregon, realtors and property owners must warn prospective buyers or tenants about contaminated residences. There, former lab sites are put on a special list and information about the possible hazards is added to the property title. Currently, no nationwide method exists for tracking or listing meth sites.

Getting Your Attention

Response across the country to the cleanup of these properties has ranged from doing nothing to complete demolition. Few states, though, are willing or able to share in cleanup costs.

“In this state, at least, if you own the contaminated property you pay for the cleanup, and the costs can sometimes be enough to break you,” warns Lee Cornell, a Montana Department of Justice agent. “If there's no other reason to be watching for meth labs, that alone ought to get your attention.”

The DEA says cleanup runs from $2,000 to $10,000/lab depending on size. In some cases, costs have exceeded $150,000.

In Arkansas, 719 meth sites were seized last year — up from 461 seizures in 2002 and 404 seizures in 2001.

“We're never going to be able to afford to pay for the cleanup of these sites,” says recently retired Arkansas State crime lab director Jim Clark.

Missouri Gov. Bob Holden has pushed for a bold and comprehensive campaign to fight the use and manufacturing of meth in his state. Last year Missouri led the nation with 3,000 meth lab seizures due to aggressive efforts by law enforcement and prosecutors.

Setting aside the “practicalities” of the exploding meth epidemic, the overall seriousness of the problems resulting from this drug threat can't be overstated.

“Perhaps more than any other drug, methamphetamine puts all of us — users and nonusers alike — at risk,” says Armand McClintock, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA's Indianapolis, IN, district office. “The innocence of children, the fortitude of law enforcement, and the pristine state of our ecosystem are not immune to meth's dangers.”

What To Look For

Besides those who use meth, small toxic labs are the principal threat to local communities. Many people may be unaware they live near a meth lab.

Properties used to produce meth will usually be found with a lab-like setting, including containers of chemicals, heat sources and various types of lab equipment. Some other things to look for are:

  • Unusual, strong odors such as ether, ammonia, acetone or other chemicals.

  • Renters who pay their rent in cash. Residences with windows that are blacked out.

  • People coming and going at unusual times. Or, places that are quiet during the day but see increased activity at night.

  • Excessive trash, including large amounts of antifreeze containers, lantern fuel cans, red stained coffee filters, drain cleaner and duct tape.

  • Unusual amounts of clear glass containers being brought into the residence.

State By State

Methamphetamine is Arkansas' primary drug of concern. The state's rural landscape provides an ideal setting for illicit manufacturing. For the last several years, Arkansas ranked third in the nation per capita in the number of clandestine meth labs seized, ranking only behind Missouri and California.

Here's what the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has to say about meth use in other states:

Alabama — Meth is Alabama's biggest drug threat. Labs are found principally in isolated, rural communities. The growing popularity of meth in small towns and rural communities is directly responsible for the increase in thefts, violent assaults and burglaries.

Idaho — There's significant clandestine lab activity in Idaho. The number of “superlabs” has increased dramatically.

Kentucky — Meth production is a simple process dominated by Caucasians in the lower social and economic class — especially in the rural areas of the state. Former marijuana growers are beginning to realize the greater profit margins with meth.

Michigan — Most meth production is occurring in rural areas. The Michigan State Police estimates that 80% of its caseload is meth related.

South Dakota — Small toxic labs have steadily increased. The theft of anhydrous ammonia from farm supply stores and farmers has also emerged as a serious problem in the state.

Texas — Meth continues to be manufactured by motorcycle gangs and independent producers. Small clandestine labs producing extremely high-quality meth are found in both rural and urban areas.