March 16, 2010

Suspected meth lab called example of 'simmering situation' in Maine

EDWARD D

— By . MURPHY

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John Ewing/Staff Photographer.. Tuesday, July 15, 2008...Scene of a drug bust on a suspected Methamphetamine lab at 2 Shaw Street in Bath on Tuesday afternoon.� Maine drug enforcement officers wearing haz/mat suits search for evidence at the scene of the bust.

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Staff Writer

BATH — A suspected methamphetamine lab that police and drug agents raided Tuesday is typical of most in Maine: small, and capable of supplying the lab's owners, a few of their friends and a handful of customers with the stimulant.

Although they don't produce a lot of the drug, Maine meth labs represent a subculture that officials are watching carefully.

Meth ''is what I would describe as a simmering situation,'' said Roy McKinney, director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. ''The numbers are small in comparison to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine or prescription drugs, but it is there.''

Walter Bennett, 42, and Beth Grasser, 35, were arrested on drug charges Tuesday. Police said the couple had two of the key ingredients for methamphetamine -- iodine and ephedrine -- in a shed behind their house on Shaw Street.

Grasser was released on bail after being charged with aggravated trafficking in prescription drugs. Bennett, who is charged with furnishing and trafficking in methamphetamine, was still being held in the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset Wednesday, with bail set at $5,000.

Bath Detective Sgt. Robert Savary said it is the first time police have found a suspected meth lab in the city.

McKinney said the phrase ''meth lab'' conjures up images of a sophisticated operation, but most of the labs are relatively simple.

Producing methamphetamine involves removing a molecule from pseudoephedrine, which is in decongestants that are used to treat colds and allergies. The molecule is removed through a chemical process, commonly involving phosphorous, ammonia or iodine, McKinney said.

''It's not complex -- otherwise these people wouldn't be able to do it,'' he said. ''They don't spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on beakers and tubes and burners. They use whatever's handy, like a kitchen pot.''

The process also involves other common household objects, such as coffee filters, lantern fuel and Drano.

The ''equipment'' in the suspected lab in Bath included Mason jars, Pyrex dishes and a hot plate, said Jim Pease, a supervisory special agent with the MDEA. It appeared that the setup was capable of producing enough meth to supply five to 10 people, he said.

The chemical process produces a powder that is smoked or injected and produces several hours of euphoria or stimulation.

The byproducts, especially the gases produced, are dangerous, so hazardous-materials teams in protective suits usually accompany law enforcement officers on a raid.

Often, the structure where a meth lab was set up has to be torn down later, he said.

Pease said readings for gases were in the safe range by the time the teams left the Bath site. However, there can be lingering problems from disposal of some of the ingredients before the raid, McKinney said.

''It's out in the backyard or down the drain,'' he said.

New England doesn't have as much of a meth problem as many other parts of the country, McKinney said, especially the South and Southwest.

''It just doesn't seem to have gained a foothold as it has in other states,'' he said. ''New England has largely been spared the epidemic.''

McKinney and Pease said a federal law that limits purchases of products containing pseudoephedrine has cut severely into the availability of meth.

The law has taken the products off the shelves and behind pharmacy counters, and requires buyers to present ID and sign for their purchases.

Although there's a monthly limit on how much a person can buy, it doesn't prevent people from heading to another drugstore to buy more or using a number of people to buy the products, they said.

McKinney said authorities are looking into creating a real-time electronic log that would prevent that, but the system would be expensive.

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

emurphy@pressherald.com

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