By Samantha Pidde
Herald Staff Writer
Empty 20-ounce drink containers coated with salty residue or sludge, discarded tubing, cold compresses and fuel cans lying on the side of the road and in ditches are more than just a product of littering.
Indicators of portable methamphetamine labs, those discarded items are becoming a more common sight throughout Clinton County, according to law enforcement officials.
“There’s been an increase in the number of the methamphetamine-related arrests in the county,” agrees Clinton County Attorney Mike Wolf, whose office oversees prosecution of meth-related cases.
In fact, Clinton Police Sgt. Ron Heeren has not seen this level of meth problems since the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. He added that for a time, there were a lot of cooks using anhydrous ammonia and psuedoephedrine to manufacture meth. After the state adopted its psuedoephedrine law that limits the amount of the drug that can be purchased, the amount of labs had decreased.
“So we went through a period of time when we had occasional instances of manufacturing, but not to the point it’s at now,” Heeren said.
Until recently, Clinton police did not separate drug arrests by type, instead lumping them all together. Heeren was unable to compare how the number of meth arrests has changed, but was confident there has been a definite increase. Gateway ImpACT Coalition Executive Director Kristin Huisenga estimated that at least nine labs were discovered in the county during the first half of this year.
In the last 10 years, Camanche Police Sgt. Rich Schmitz remembers only one meth arrest and that there were definitely less than five during that time. But while Camanche had zero meth-related arrests in the past two years, the number jumped to a total of 13 since the middle of May until now.
The culprit behind this dramatic increase may be the “one-pot” or “shake and bake” method. These small labs actually typically consist of two drink containers — the portion where the meth oil is manufactured and the bottle where the anhydrous ammonia is created. The fumes are then blown back into the other container to create the drug.
Shake and bake meth labs combine a variety of household items. Heeren attributed the rise in meth activity to the accessibility of these items.
“It’s relatively easy to get everything you need to manufacture,” Hereen said.
Clinton County Sheriff’s Sgt. Steve Cundiff said the traditional meth lab required a larger amount of psuedoephedrine tablets and anhydrous ammonia. The county has worked with farmers in order to stop people from stealing the chemical for the manufacture of meth. However, the “one-pot” meth cooks use cold compress packs to produce the anhydrous ammonia.
“So they don’t have that fear where they have to steal anhydrous. Now they can just go into the convenience stores and buy these cold packs,” said Cundiff, adding that they need to educate retailers to be on the lookout for people buying a lot of cold packs.
Cundiff said this method of manufacturing the drug will allow labs to pop up more in town, while traditional labs, mainly because of the smell they produced, were typically found in more rural areas. This method also is quicker and produces less product.
“The fact they’re portable makes them more dangerous,” Huisenga said. “They can really transport them anywhere.”
Many of these labs are found in cars or at the side of a road. Schmitz has received several tips of meth lab waste lying in ditches. This usually consists of drink containers with tubing or black duct tape coming out of them.
“If it looks like there’s something in it other than Mt. Dew or Gatorade or something to that effect, I wouldn’t move it. Call law enforcement,” Schmitz said.
He emphasized people should not touch the items because the chemicals can sometimes reactivate themselves if moved. Also, some manufacturers will start the process and leave it in a secluded area to cook. Either way, it can be very volatile.
“Manufacturing methamphetamine, no matter how you do it, is dangerous with all these different types of chemicals. But putting all these chemicals in a two-liter bottle, I mean, basically you’re creating a bomb if you’re not careful,” Cundiff said.
Schmitz said local law enforcement has been very proactive in fighting the production of meth. Camanche police have partnered with Clinton, Savanna, Ill., and the county on recent arrests, as well as with the Iowa Department of Narcotics.
“Without their (other law enforcement agencies’) help we’d really be struggling,” Heeren said. “They’ve been very good to us.”
Meth investigations can take a great deal of time. The investigation for the May bust by Camanche and Clinton police started in January. Heeren said the Clinton department is stretched to the limit as it is.
Heeren added the work by the Gateway ImpACT Coalition has really educated the community and increased awareness. He said people are not hesitant to get involved by calling when they notice something suspicious.
“It’s the subtle, little things that quite often crack open cases,” Heeren said.
Wolf is seeing not only repeat offenders, but also first-timers arrested on meth charges. He said charges also can be brought against those supplying the precursors. Wolf encouraged anyone asked to purchase psuedoephedrine products for someone else to alert the police or CrimeStoppers at 242-6595.
“If you know that you are buying psuedoephedrine for the manufacture of methamphetamine, that’s a felony,” Wolf said. “It’s not something that should be taken lightly.”
The Clinton County Attorney’s Office works to separate the manufacturer or user from the addiction. Wold said meth is extremely addictive and users usually have to be incarcerated for a period of time so they can get clean.
“It’s rare that I’ve seen someone rehabilitate on their own,” Wolf said.