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Southwest Virginia police are finding methamphetamine labs at the fastest pace in five years as makers of the illegal stimulant switch from complicated laboratories to soda bottle mixes of supermarket ingredients.
The old meth-makers, who made dope in big, expensive labs, were curbed by a 2005 law that forced retailers to move the cold medicine pseudoephedrine behind store counters. The new clandestine chemists, using Internet recipes and easily available ingredients, have miniaturized manufacturing, setting up labs with less than $50 worth of gear in cars, kitchens and motel rooms.
Police say they shut down more than twice as many labs across the state in the last year than in any 12-month period since 2005.
All but four of the latest year's busts were between the state's western boundary and Roanoke, showing this region remains the state's meth-making center.
The seizures also suggest the new method of meth production is poised to expand, just as the potent painkiller Oxycontin traveled from Virginia's coalfields last decade, despite aggressive state action.
"This epidemic is moving from west to the east," said Virginia State Police 1st Sgt. John Ruffin, a Wytheville-based narcotics investigator. "As this drug gets popular and people learn how to cook it, it's going to spread across the state."
Of the 80 labs shut down in the past year, 57 have been of the shake-and-bake variety that crank out a few grams of meth at a time, state police said. Officers have discovered miniature labs while defusing domestic arguments and pulling over lawbreaking motorists.
Radford officers reported finding a small lab inside a Super 8 Motel room Sept. 17 after a tipster phoned.
The old red phosphorous method of cooking meth was an expensive, smelly and volatile chemical process that took a half-day and could produce almost three-fourths of an ounce of meth at a time. That technique dominated Virginia meth-making until 2005, a year when 79 labs were seized and a law was passed requiring stores to keep ingredients behind counters.
Shake-and-bake meth-makers, using easier recipes, add small quantities of ingredients to ammonium nitrate, found in fertilizer and instant cold packs, and mix it in a bottle. The method yields about three grams, Ruffin said, about one-seventh as much as the old-school technique.
That means the actual amount of meth being produced and consumed may not be increasing — at least not in Southwest Virginia.
Dr. Mukesh Patel, a psychiatrist who treats addicts at the Lewis-Gale Center for Behavioral Health in Salem, said the opiates heroin, oxycodone and hydromorphone continue to be the most widely abused drugs.
"We see people getting meth as a side," Patel said. "Most of what we see is a combination of drugs. It's been a while since I have seen a pure meth addiction."
Cleaning up the little labs, which are full of flammables, remains expensive for taxpayers.
Tim Carden, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Roanoke office, said it costs about $3,500 to hire a specialized contractor to clean the waste. That doesn't include law enforcement pay, social services counselors who tend to the children of arrested parents, or fire department crews.
"They're creating a toxic waste dump," Carden said. "They have no idea what they're doing. It's literally like holding a hand grenade because the reaction inside this bottle can cause fire and an explosion."