When police in Sheboygan, Wis., responded to a call recently about a domestic disturbance they found something they had not seen before in their city -- a meth lab, which turned the house from a simple crime scene to a hazardous waste site.
The discovery of the lab -- the second found in the county in the past two months -- gave police all the evidence they need that the methamphetamine epidemic is still spreading. Crews in hazmat suits spent hours, anxiously watched by neighbors, as they tried to make the house safe.
"In our particular area of the state, meth labs have been pretty rare, so this has been -- I don't know if it's shocking, but it is upsetting," said Lt. Kurt Brasser, head of the Sheboygan County Multijurisdictional Enforcement Group, a drug task force. "We don't want to deal with any drugs, but meth is the worst because of the range of problems and the cost to the community."
Meth use has spread like wildfire across the country since the early 1990s in part because it is so highly addictive, but also because it can be produced from products readily available in hardware and drug stores, and can be "cooked" in the home.
With meth labs come not only crime and the ravaged lives of the users themselves, but a broad range of social problems, from environmental damage from the toxic byproducts of the labs to the swelling ranks of children sickened by exposure to meth and placed in foster care.
"In terms of damage to children and to our society, meth is now the most dangerous drug in America," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Monday at the summer conference of the National District Attorneys Association in Portland, Maine.
He said that according to a recent survey, 58 percent of the nation's counties list meth abuse as their most serious problem.
Traditional crime-fighting techniques have failed to stop the growth, as the number of meth labs seized grew year after year across the country. But a year ago, a law that limited access to one of the key components of the drug, pseudoephedrine, went into effect in Oklahoma.
It has been more effective than anyone expected, and federal lawmakers are considering similar nationwide legislation, though authorities in Oklahoma say the bill may not have enough teeth to have the dramatic effect the law there has had.
In March 2004, there were 105 meth labs seized statewide in Oklahoma, before the law went into effect on April 6, 2004. In May 2005, there were just six meth labs seized. By contrast, statewide meth lab seizures had risen 12,000 percent between 1994 and 2003, soaring from 10 seizures in 1994 to 1,233 nine years later.
"You just couldn't get a handle on it," said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drug Control. "Now, for the first time, we've been able to move on large-scale, drug-trafficking investigations, instead of being caught up in busts of these mom-and-pop meth labs we were finding everywhere."
The phenomenal success of the Oklahoma law has led 18 other states to pass similar laws. And 14 other state legislatures are considering measures to put cold tablets containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter in pharmacies.
Are Exemptions a Good Idea?
The federal bill is modeled on the Oklahoma law and a similar law in Iowa.
Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Jim Talent, R-Mo., along with Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced it in the Judiciary Committee last week.
"Meth is the worst drug I have ever seen -- in terms of its scope, its effects on users and its effect on the environment," Feinstein said. "The epidemic only continues to deepen. Meth lab seizures across the nation, for instance, have doubled in the past five years -- from 7,438 in 1999 to 15,994 in 2004. But the Oklahoma model offers a ray of hope."
In Oklahoma, all pills containing pseudoephedrine can only be sold in stores with pharmacists and must be kept behind the counter. An individual can buy up to nine grams -- 300 cold medication tablets -- in a month. But anyone buying them must sign a register listing how many pills they purchased.
The federal legislation, the Combat Meth Act, limits consumers to 7.5 grams, or 250 tablets a month.
But it would allow states to come up with their own ways of implementing the controls, possibly allowing them to create exemptions for stores in rural areas and airports or those without pharmacies, allowing them to sell medications containing the drug without recording the purchaser's name and address.
As the federal bill now stands, the Drug Enforcement Agency and states would be allowed to develop regulations to continue to allow cold medicine to be sold at retail stores without pharmacies and in rural areas.
The exemptions, which have been included in legislation some states have passed or are considering, are supposed to make life easier for people living in out-of-the-way places.
"It might happen in a very rural area where you're all familiar, in those areas, the local convenience store at the highway exit is used very often as a food mart or something, so it might happen there," Talent said at a news conference.
Woodward, of the Oklahoma narcotics bureau, said he welcomes action at the federal level, but cautioned that the state law would likely not have been as effective without the tougher standard.
He said he has heard stories from law enforcement personnel in states where meth laws have included the exemptions being considered in the federal measure about "gas stations that sell thousands of pseudoephedrine pills out the back door in the middle of the night.
"We're concerned about anything that would be weaker than our law," he said.
'I Can't Get the Pills to Cook'
Federal regulation would help because it would stop meth cooks from traveling across state lines to purchase pills. Woodward said that Oklahoma experienced a further drop in meth lab seizures when similar laws in the surrounding states of Texas, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri went into effect.
The drop in the number of working labs may even be greater than the drop in the number seized, Woodward said.
"The cooks are telling us themselves, 'I can't get the pills to cook,' " he said.
And the ripple effect has been impressive, too, because so many other agencies besides law enforcement become involved when a meth lab is found.
In some states, task forces have been formed to help local police deal with the cleanup when a meth lab is found, but the costs are staggering.
Oklahoma, for example, spent $4.9 million in 2003 to dispose of the hazardous materials found in labs, Woodward said.
Innocent People Affected
Social service agencies have also been strained by the meth epidemic, because of the adverse effect on children who live in and around houses where the drug is cooked. The typical meth cook is between the ages of 18 and 38, "the prime age for kids," Woodward said.
Nationally, 70 percent of the meth labs seized are found either with children or children's toys inside, and two-thirds of the children who live in houses with operating meth labs test positive for the drug, according to DEA figures.
"There's a lot of innocent people who have been affected by this," Woodward said.
The people of Sheboygan got a taste of that, as they stood in the street watching the eerie scene of space-suited workers going in and out of a house on their block.
"I was out here until 3 o'clock in the morning. I was scared," said neighbor Shannon Smith.
Had police gone to the scene looking for a meth lab, they would have taken precautions to protect themselves from the dangerous fumes. The four officers who discovered the Sheboygan lab were taken to a hospital as a precaution.
Brasser, of the county drug task force, said officers can be overcome by the gasses as soon as they walk into a home where meth is cooked.
"We wear rubber boots along with rubber gloves along with a Ty-Vek suit, which is at the end. This is more or less just to protect the agent if they go in there," Pete Thelen of the Wisconsin Division of Narcotics Enforcement told ABC News affiliate WBAY-TV in Green Bay. "We tape every seam so that fumes can't get in to the agents or the officers on their body at all."
Even brief exposure to the chemicals can cause skin rashes, burns and lung irritation, and some of the gasses can be highly flammable, creating the risk of explosions.
"Most of the labs we go to, the houses are sealed up because they don't want people to know what they're doing inside, and the gasses that come off of it are very deadly," Thelen said.
Since there are several different recipes for the illegal drug, officers don't always know what they're dealing with.
"At the lab in Sheboygan, we had approximately 15 unknown liquids ... ," said Thelen.
Agents may suit up when heading into a known meth lab, but police say most people cooking the drug aren't so cautious, either about their own health or the health of others around them.
"We do take all these precautions," Thelen said. "But the people cooking the meth, they don't take any precautions. They're sitting over it, smoking a cigarette or whatever."