Does anybody remember when Pierce County was the center of the methamphetamine universe?
Almost twenty years ago our humble county was the capital of meth production and the tweaker nation. Back then, stumbling across a meth lab was almost a daily occurrence. The locations also varied, from houses, apartments, mobile homes, trailers, rental spaces or the trunks of cars. Regardless of the place, the smell was always the same – a mix of kitty litter and fuel oil – and it usually preceded the first sighting of a test tube or glass beaker.
Given the volatility of the chemicals found in meth production, such a discovery was met with, shall we say, a high pucker factor. That’s when the call would go out for the clandestine lab team. At that time many larger agencies had a so-called “clan-lab team” composed of cops with extensive training in the chemical compounds used to manufacture methamphetamine. It was their job to serve the search warrants and work with the Department of Ecology to clean up the mess. It was a dangerous job.
We always got a laugh at the sight of our colleagues, bundled up in their HAZMAT suits, as they waddled up to the houses. But entering these locations was always a serious matter. The teams often faced armed drug dealers, deadly toxins and the potential for a violent explosion. In my estimation, those officers earned every bit of their hazardous duty pay.
When they made an arrest it was usually the chemist (aka the meth “cook”) who stumbled outside in handcuffs, looking for all the world like Doc Brown from “Back to the Future.” Unlike Doc Brown, however, meth cooks had a life span of about three years.
In the ensuing decades, the clandestine lab teams have all but gone away. Ironically, these specialized units proved to be so efficient at locating and clearing meth houses that they virtually ensured their own demise. In addition, legislative restrictions against precursor drugs (such as pseudoephedrine, now on the other side of the pharmacy counter) put the nail in the local meth industry. Pierce County’s notoriety as the meth capital was no more.
But as any scientist can tell you, nature abhors a vacuum.
The vacancy left by the recently departed domestic meth labs was rapidly filled, from both top and bottom of our state. From the south, Mexican drug cartels were quick to recognize the potential demand for mass produced methamphetamine. Their organization, funds, and distribution network were far superior to Washington’s garage industry approach to meth production. The cartels brought the goods to market efficiently and have reaped huge profits.
To the north, sophisticated Canadian narcotics operations have been producing high quality marijuana and heroin for years. Once meth became a highly profitable venture, organized crime syndicates, street gangs and outlaw motorcycle groups all vied for a piece of the meth pie. Interestingly, the Hell’s Angels dominant role as a Canadian criminal enterprise has allowed them to control much of the southern flow of methamphetamine – much to the chagrin of their Washington State rivals, the Bandidos.
Meth flows in from both directions, and its method of transport also varies: in concealed compartments in private and commercial vehicles; on buses and trains; on commercial and private aircraft; through private and government postal carriers. Because of its accessibility, methamphetamine usage in Washington ranks third in illegal drug usage (behind marijuana and crack cocaine).
Perhaps because of that popularity, the number of clan labs discovered in Washington has actually risen in the last five years. The increase is troubling for many reasons, but if the trend continues then we may find ourselves again tapped with an unpleasant notoriety.
So, in the event we need to put together a special team to help solve a future meth problem, I have put together the following ad:
WANTED: Individual(s) willing to wear a space suit while apprehending possibly armed criminals; must be comfortable in toxic environment and not afraid of large explosions; employee is on call 24/7; compensation will be for time worked.
Oh, and non-smokers only.