Authorities keep watch for secret meth labs
By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Peter Boylan
As the amount of methamphetamine coming into Hawai'i dwindles, law enforcement agencies are closely watching for the possible spread of secret laboratories used by dealers to dilute the illegal drug.
Dealers build labs to double or triple the volume of the methamphetamine they have, sacrificing the drug's purity in the process. The methods used to "step on" or "cut" the drug involve volatile chemicals, heat and combustible concoctions that leave toxic residue and create harmful fumes.
"Even if there is only one or two (labs) on this island, if they have a toxic spill or bury it underground, it can get into the water and wreak havoc," said Keith Kamita, chief of the narcotics enforcement division for the Department of Public Safety.
In response to the possible increase in lab activity, the state Department of Health this week released rules meant to govern the recognition and cleanup of clandestine drug laboratories. Most of the meth laboratories that are seized in Hawai'i are small "conversion" laboratories capable of manufacturing ounce quantities out of small amounts of pure methamphetamine, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"Proliferation (of labs) is always a concern; there are some nasty things there," said Laurence Lau, DOH deputy director for environmental health. "Like people say about hurricanes, we may not have the numbers, but one can ruin your day or year. We're trying to provide guidance for cleanups ... and to let people know what procedures to follow."
Fumes and residue from the labs saturate carpets and other surfaces, exposing unsuspecting tenants to hazardous chemicals. Runoff from labs can contaminate soil and groundwater.
DECLINE IN POTENCY
The ice being taken off the streets in Hawai'i is half as potent as that of three years ago, with purity levels between 40 percent and 45 percent, compared with 90 percent to 98 percent in 2003, authorities said.
Ice arrests are headed toward a four-year low, and laws restricting access to methamphetamine's key component, pseudoephedrine, have cut the supply.
With less pure methamphetamine coming in from foreign countries and the Mainland, law officers are concerned dealers are going to build labs to create their own product or maximize their smuggled supply.
Law enforcement officials say that just because a slew of labs haven't been found, it doesn't mean they aren't out there. The cost to clean a drug lab is between $2,000 and $10,000, according to law enforcement and environmental services technicians.
Producing one pound of methamphetamine leaves 5 or 6 pounds of toxic waste.
"It's a danger; there is a real danger in the labs," said Larry Burnett, director of the Hawai'i High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a partnership of federal, state and county law enforcement agencies. "Every pound of product creates 5 to 7 pounds of waste, and here we have a fragile ecosystem."
Kamita hopes that laws put in place in the last year will deter would-be chemists from cooking up meth.
On Oct. 1, a law will take effect that limits consumers without a prescription to 3.6 grams or about one package of pseudoephedrine medicine a day and 9 grams or three packages a month. Consumers also will have to show identification and sign a log that may be examined by law officers.
Retailers will be required to put pseudoephedrine products behind the counter or in locked display cases. The new law mirrors federal pseudoephedrine controls added to the USA Patriot Act this year.
The Honolulu Police Department's clandestine laboratory unit makes use of two full-time officers dedicated solely to locating and taking down drug labs. Other officers within the narcotics/vice unit also have drug lab training, and the unit works jointly with the Hawai'i High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, the DEA and state narcotics enforcement officers.
"The law enforcement community will continue to monitor the clandestine lab situation in Hawai'i. We are all aware of the dangers clandestine labs can cause to the public and the environment," said Anthony D. Williams, assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Honolulu district office. "It is equally important for the public to contact law enforcement if the existence of a clandestine lab is suspected."
Reach Peter Boylan at email@example.com.