Crystal Meth Addicts in America Keep Setting Themselves on Fire
I interviewed a cop about the 'shake and bake' method that's burning people alive and closing down hospitals.
Crystal meth, the cheap, life-wrecking, libido-inflaming drug beloved of actor Tom Sizemore, Fergie and many other unfortunate American people has now found a way to make itself even more readily available, dangerous and undignified. Unless, y'know, having third-degree burns covering 90 percent of your body and a bunch of teeth missing is a look that you're into.
Over the last few years, the "shake and bake" method has overtaken the lengthy, complicated production technique that required an out of the way location, sophisticated glassware and patience (something meth tweakers tend to be in short supply of). The newfangled way retains the majority of crystal meth's traditional ingredients (pseudoephedrine, lithium, Coleman fuel, hydrochloric acid, etc), but instead of using glassware and an open flame, they're mixed by shaking them all together in a regular plastic bottle with water.
The shaking process takes 15 minutes to produce meth, it's so easy that you can do it in Walmart without anyone really noticing and the batch is stronger – sounds perfect, right? Well yes, if it wasn't for the one major downside: a massive risk that the whole thing will blow up in your face.
The problem shakers and bakers are having is that the reaction is much less stable when you're rattling a litre bottle of Cresta around than when you're in lab conditions. The lithium can react with the water – or the air, if the bottle cap is released too early – and can explode, consuming the meth cook in a ball of flame. Victims of these explosions are flooding into burns units all over the US, forcing some to close as the mostly insurance-free addicts rinse hospital resources.
I wanted to learn a bit more about the shake and bake method (for purely journalistic reasons ;) of course), so I got in touch with Tommy Farmer, a detective at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and director of the state meth and pharmaceuticals task force.
VICE: Hey Tommy. How do these shake bottles explode, what goes wrong?
Tommy: A combination of things really, but basically it's a false sense of security on the part of the meth cook. We tell them it's a matter of when not if, because the speed of the reaction and the combination of the chemicals makes it very explosive. The ingredients consist of ammonia nitrate, sodium hydroxide, pseudoephedrine and ether, and with water, that's a very reactive combination.
So a bit of chemistry knowledge may keep you safe?
Well yes and no, the problem with it is you're using improvised devices and when you do that, these things happen. When you create an endothermic reaction in a plastic bottle, you can't prepare for all the equations and outcomes. Even the experiments we've done in our lab where we're trying to learn about this technique and its risks have been failures, and we've had some dangerous reactions. The difference between us and them is that we were wearing fire protective suits, but meth cooks don't have $1200 for one of those and so end up in one of the local burn units which are currently one-third full across the US.
Are shake explosions becoming a real problem for these burns units?
Oh absolutely, it's a huge cost and a huge concern. There's also a massive risk to others if shake fires break out in apartment complexes, motels or cars driving down the interstate. If the fire itself doesn't kill them, then they'll end up in one of the burn units. In my local burns unit, the Vanderbilt centre, a third of the patients were meth-related and we quickly found out this was not just an anomaly for Tennessee, but was similar for the whole US. Most of these meth users don't have any form of health insurance and that ends up putting a huge strain on the burns units. The average cost for a meth burn patient can be up to a million dollars.
Jesus. When was the first time you came across the shake method?
Well we were aware that it hit the States on the West Coast in about 2003-04, and didn't hit the South till about '07. The use increases exponentially each year. I would say that shake labs now account for 80 percent of our lab seizures. Technically, one shake bottle is a lab and people think that skews the stats, but we never only just find one, in one seizure we found 98 shake bottles. On average, we find three or four per seizure.
Why do you think the shake method exists? Is it purely because of its ease, or is it linked to the recession?
I think it goes back to the complexity of the meth problem. If meth users don't have to be beholden to manufacturers and dealers, they don't have to worry about having a good contact to the finished product. They feel they can run under the radar, they want a purer form and by making it themselves they feel they have an element of quality control.
With the shake method increasing the use and availability of meth, would you say meth has now become the most dangerous drug in America?
If you add in the manufacturing, absolutely. It's the worst drug that I've seen come down the pipeline in my law enforcement career because of the complexity of it. It's so draining chasing the labs themselves, it's the cumulative impact, it impacts so many areas of the community, it can be devastating. If you look at the drug itself and the addictiveness, one could argue that it's as addictive as crack or heroin. With those drugs you're only dealing with the finished product, but meth you have the labs, and that makes it so much harder.
How does law enforcement fight that?
We can't use conventional means of investigating, so we have to train the law enforcement to also be hazardous waste experts, people who can go into a lab and stabilise, segregate and dismantle the chemicals and equipment. We need to make sure our law enforcement officers received the proper protective equipment which we provide via strategically placed response trucks. We've also set up a statewide intelligence system that tracks the pseudoephedrine as well as giving law enforcement the ability to report the clandestine labs and map their locations.
Have you come across many horror stories in your time fighting meth?
[Laughs] On a monthly basis, yes. The calls from the family moving into a meth home that we were not aware of and the children becoming ill with respiratory problems. From stuff like that to directly seeing children who've accidentally picked up a glass full of meth ingredients, drunk it and then had their oesophagus literally eaten out by the sulphuric acid. It's every month you see stuff like this, it's ridiculous.
Throatless kids, burning houses, burns units shutting down... the shake method has a lot to answer for in the US, but what about here in the UK? I'd never really come across meth in the UK before, but I was curious to see whether that was because I grew up in a countryside backwater or we just genuinely don't have it here in the UK.
Elliot Elam works at Addaction, a UK-based drug treatment centre. "Meth hasn't really taken root in this country, but that's not to say it won't. We only see a couple of cases per year." Is that an issue of demand? "Not necessarily, because you could make it here if you really wanted to. It took off in Australia because it's a bloody nightmare trying to get heroin, so they flooded the market with meth because it's self-sustainable. It was the same with mid-western US."
So do we have anything to worry about? Seems not, being an island nation with plenty of ports means we can get pretty much any drug we want and ones that are certainly less damaging than meth. It would have to take a really curious person to give it a go, but now, with the shake method, I guess theoretically that curiosity could be much easier to please.
Follow Henry on Twitter: @Henry_Langston
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