How to Make Meth Production More Dangerous


State and federal restrictions on purchases of pseudoephedrine, aimed at curtailing illicit meth production, seem to have had two major effects (aside from inconveniencing cold and allergy sufferers): They have increased the share of the market controlled by Mexican cartels, which do not have to buy pseudoephedrine by the box at Walgreens, and they have helped make the "shake and bake" method, which is simpler and uses less pseudoephedrine, the leading process for domestic production. The upshot is a lot more do-it-yourself production for personal use, using a technique that is more likely to cause injuries because it involves combining volatile chemicals in a two-liter soda bottle that you hold in your hand. By 2010, A.P. reports, 80 percent of meth manufacturing busts by the DEA involved the shake-and-bake method. As a result, it says, hospitals in areas where meth is popular are seeing a surge in burns associated with incompetent meth production:

If the person mixing the noxious brew makes the slightest error, such as removing the cap too soon or accidentally perforating the plastic, the concoction can explode, searing flesh and causing permanent disfigurement, blindness or even death.

An Associated Press survey of key hospitals in the nation's most active meth states showed that up to a third of patients in some burn units were hurt while making meth, and most were uninsured. The average treatment costs $6,000 per day. And the average meth patient's hospital stay costs $130,000 — 60 percent more than other burn patients, according to a study by doctors at a burn center in Kalamazoo, Mich….

Larger meth labs have been bursting into flame for years, usually in basements, backyard sheds or other private spaces. But those were fires that people could usually escape. Using the shake-and-bake method, drugmakers typically hold the flammable concoction up close, causing burns from the waist to the face.

"You're holding a flame-thrower in your hands," said Jason Grellner of the Franklin County, Mo., Sheriff's Department….

"From what we see on the medical side, that's the primary reason the numbers seem to be going up: greater numbers of producers making smaller batches," said Dr. Michael Smock, director of the burn unit at Mercy Hospital St. Louis….

Indiana had 89 meth-related injuries during the 10-year period ending in 2009. The state has had 70 in the last 23 months, mostly from shake-and-bake labs.

There is little evidence that the pseudoephedrine crackdown has curtailed meth use, which peaked years before limits on the decongestant became common. Now it looks like drug warriors can't even claim that shifting production to the big Mexican suppliers reduced the local hazards associated with making meth. 

Previous Reason coverage of shake-and-bake meth here.