Crank. Speed. Ice. Crystal. Tweek.
There are a lot of names for the drug methamphetamine. But no matter how you spell it, the white powder, which can be snorted, smoked or heated into a liquid and injected, has become Utah's No. 1 problem drug.Agents from the Salt Lake office of the Drug Enforcement Agency expect to "take down," or dismantle more than 200 labs in calendar year 1998, which for the DEA ends in September.
As of June, the agency had dismantled more than 150 labs - more than the city of Los Angeles.
The numbers are up considerably both in Utah and across the nation, particularly in the western states, where meth is something of a phenomenon, said agent Don Mendrala, who is in charge of Salt Lake DEA operations.
In 1996, DEA agents seized 879 labs nationwide. That was an increase of 169 percent over 1995, when only 379 labs were taken down.
Based on 1998 projections, Utah should finish the year in fourth place as the state with the most labs, Mendrala said.
"In Salt Lake it's not unusual for us to have three or four in a day," Mendrala said.
Meth - its production and use - permeates every aspect of a community. Those involved with the drug are of every race and religion, every age group and from every economic background.
"I can't pick one community that has a bigger problem than another, although the statistics might bear out differently. It's everywhere," Mendrala said.
Everywhere because meth is in high demand, affordable, easy to produce and for decades Utah's laws have been lax in terms of monitoring the chemicals used in meth production, said West Valley Police Lt. Charles Illsley, who has seen meth in the valley since the late 1970s. Chemicals such as iodine, phosphorus and ephedreine can all be purchased in local grocery stores.
That situation improved somewhat in 1992 when the first meth law was passed by the Utah Legislature, restricting the sale of precursor chemicals. Two more laws, passed this year, allow law enforcement to track precursor sales and to arrest anyone caught with large amounts of the chemicals without having to establish cause that meth production was intended, he said.
"It will take a while, but it will help," Illsley said.
But an additional concern about meth is the mess it leaves behind once a lab has either been moved by cooks or taken down by law enforcement, Mendrala said.
"It's a biohazard," he said.
Toxic residue and fumes from the drug can find its way into walls, cabinets or carpets fibers - leaving the home, apartment or motel room an unsafe place to inhabit. Exposure to the chemicals can cause respiratory problems and skin rashes, especially in children, who are naturally more susceptible because of their size.
Nationally, DEA and other agencies like the Partnership for a Drug Free America have called the drug a "major public health issue."
And no one seems quite sure if the current methods of clean-up are truly sufficient.
"We treat it like any (hazardous materials) situation, but we have a lot of unknowns," said Salt Lake County firefighter Jim Bacon. The department is frequently called in to assist when labs are dismantled.
In most cases, the fire department's role is to administer "decon" - law enforcement jargon for decontamination procedures - of anyone who might have been in a structure where meth was in production.
That basically amounts to a good wash-down with soap and water, Bacon said.
"We wash them all the way down and bag up any clothing they were wearing. We use soap and water because basically, we don't know what chemical they might have been using," he said. "We usually don't really know if they are contaminated or not, but if you started to decon with some kind of solvent it could react with the chemicals and then you'd have an even bigger problem on your hands."
Those unknown chemicals can include everything from red phosphorus, more commonly known as the red stuff on the tip of a match, to gasoline, diesel fuel, acetone or even sulfuric acid, said Jody Lyday, technical services manager for Chemical Waste Management Inc., a Denver based company that contracts with the DEA to haul away waste from dismantled labs in six Western states.
Lyday's company goes to work after law enforcement and state crime lab technicians have dismantled the lab, collected evidence and tested the air for explosive properties. She hires only technicians with bachelor's degrees in the sciences and puts them through six months of training before turning them loose in a meth environment.
"We handle it just like any other hazardous material and have to comply with Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation regulations for disposal," she said.
That means testing each chemical to determine its main characteristics, like flammability or corrosiveness, and then packaging it for disposal. The testing is critical, she said, because in most cases, meth cooks store their ingredients in unmarked containers that aren't designed for cooking up any kind of chemical reaction.
Meth cooks use everything from glass Mason jars normally used for canning to plastic milk jugs, Lyday said. Those are disposed of as well - as are things like suitcases, heating mantles, scales and glassware of all shapes and sizes. Anything that might have been used in the production or storage of the drug or its precursor chemicals, she said.
Most of the time disposal means incineration, Lyday said.
Hiring someone like Lyday to get a lab swept up and taken away is a costly proposition, DEA special agent John Eddington said.
On average disposing of a lab costs about $3,000. Multiply that by the 200-plus labs DEA officials expect to dismantle this year and you're looking at a major expenditure in the war on drugs in Utah alone.
DEA agents will quickly point out that that those numbers - in addition to manpower costs - don't factor in the costs to the property owner who may have to spend considerable amounts of money to rehabilitate his property. Some homes in the Salt Lake Valley have been so contaminated they were condemned by the health department, Eddington said.
Money aside, a large part of the problem is that before a lab is actually discovered and dismantled, cooks are disposing of their waste in a number of dangerous ways, Me-ndrala said.
"They pour it down the drains, dump it their back yards, throw things in Dumpsters. They don't really care where they put it, and we have no way of knowing," he said.
And officials don't know what potential harm that could mean to the public.
"They say once you've just dumped out some meth, say in a hole in the ground or something, you've ruined the resource," Mendrala said.
Resources are something Men-drala and other law enforcement officials can't get enough of when dealing with meth.
Meth ties up so much manpower - at least 10 people per lab for a minimum of about eight hours - that it limits the attention given to other drug problems.
"Cocaine and heroin aren't going away," Mendrala said.