More meth cooks making own ammonia

Sunday, May 4, 2003

ST. LOUIS -- Authorities once bent on curbing thefts of anhydrous ammonia often required for methamphetamine have a new dilemma: Savvy makers of the drug apparently are crafting the ammonia on their own.

Authorities this year raided a lab making anhydrous ammonia in Lemay, a St. Louis suburb. Two recent raids of meth labs in St. Francois County reportedly found cooks doing the same, Capt. Scott Reed, a Missouri State Highway Patrol drug investigator, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a story Saturday.

And in Overland, another St. Louis suburb, authorities believe a home caught fire this year after the recipe for anhydrous ammonia went awry in the making of meth.

To Reed, creating homemade anhydrous ammonia is "the next big thing in Missouri meth."

The highway patrol estimates there is a theft of anhydrous ammonia at least nightly somewhere in Missouri, a state where the fertilizer is legally used for crops and illegally converted to a meth ingredient.

Last year, more than one of every six meth labs in the country were found in Missouri, where police recorded a nation-leading 2,725 raids and seizures, according to federal and state figures released in March. That marked a 28 percent increase over 2001.

The drug is made in makeshift labs using pseudoephedrine, which the active ingredient in most cold pills, and other ingredients such as anhydrous ammonia or red phosphorous, found in flares and matches.

Anhydrous ammonia is the only ingredient that can't be bought legally for recipes that make meth.

Attempts to make anhydrous ammonia often fail, but Detective Jason Grellner of the Franklin County Sheriff's Department narcotics unit said rewards, such as potential cost savings and lower likelihood of being caught, outweigh the risks for most cooks.

Higher awareness of meth and its ingredients makes it harder to steal anhydrous ammonia, meaning the chemical's black-market price can top $100 a gallon, a huge markup. Also each year, police catch hundreds of suspected meth cooks transporting stolen anhydrous ammonia or storing it in unlawful containers.

A popular recipe for the fertilizer calls for ammonia salt found in garden fertilizers, drain opener and water. Detailed recipes can be found online.

"If someone shows you how to do it, you can do it," said Christopher Boldt, a Missouri Department of Natural Resources chemist.

Among the potential perils: Anhydrous ammonia generators -- devices that cooks craft from bottles, buckets and tubes to make the chemical -- can explode. If enough gas escapes from the generator, it can burn, incapacitate or kill those nearby.

The process used by meth cooks to make anhydrous ammonia also leaves behind a corrosive byproduct that could injure people exposed to it and hurt the environment, Boldt said.

And police say homemade fertilizer could lead to bigger drug labs producing pounds, not just ounces, of methamphetamine.

"What we're trying to do now is stay ahead of the curve," Grellner said.

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