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DEA training facility teaches the tricky business of raiding meth labs

QUANTICO, Va.—A certain adrenaline rush comes with busting a meth lab, even if the gun in your hand is loaded with paintball bullets.

The bad guys may be cardboard cutouts and the lab a Quonset hut at a Drug Enforcement Administration training facility, rather than some backwoods shack or ramshackle trailer. But the Kevlar vest can withstand bullets fired from most handguns. The helmet is real. The gas mask makes a Darth Vader-like metallic click with each breath.

The instructor knocks on the front door, shouting, "DEA. Police. We have a search warrant." The next thing you know you're inside, clearing rooms like a SWAT team on "Cops," firing only at targets with odd numbers. The even-numbered targets could be the good guys, even children. Everyone shoots at the dog. It's covered with paintball splatters.

Over the past 20 years, more than 12,000 mostly state and local law enforcement officers have taken the weeklong DEA course on raiding and securing a methamphetamine lab.

Though the number of meth lab busts has declined dramatically over the past several years, it remains one of the most dangerous tasks in law enforcement. Suspects act like someone out of "Night of the Living Dead." Labs are sometimes booby-trapped. The chemicals used to cook the meth are explosive, flammable and so toxic they can blister flesh and damage internal organs.

"It's rough stuff," said John Donnelly, a lead instructor at the DEA training facility on the sprawling Marine base at Quantico. Donnelly got his start in the late 1980s busting meth labs in California's Central Valley.

Even though he's raided meth labs more than 100 times, he said there was nothing routine about it.

"Your heart races at the critical time," he said.

They call them "Beavis and Butt-Head" labs, the small labs where meth addicts produce less than an ounce or so of the chemical cocktail for themselves and their friends. Most of the "super" labs, which can produce 10 pounds or more in a single batch, are now in Mexico. Mexican gangs increasingly are using their cocaine-, heroin- and marijuana-distribution networks to transport meth to the United States.

The number of clandestine meth-lab incidents nationwide has dropped roughly 50 percent in the last year, from almost 12,500 in 2005 to 6,400 in 2006, according to the DEA. An incident can involve a bust, the discovery of a disposal site for the chemicals or the seizure of chemicals or other lab paraphernalia.

Officials said the 6,000 incidents nationwide were still too many.

"The meth lab numbers still aren't zero," said Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., the co-chair of the House Meth Caucus, who spent a day at the DEA training facility. "And there has been no drop in the use of meth."

Since 2004, some 44 states have restricted over-the-counter sales of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine products, which provide the basic ingredient in methamphetamine. While that's led to the significant drop in meth lab busts, almost 40 percent of local law-enforcement officials across the country still consider meth the greatest drug threat in their areas.

On the West Coast, where meth got its start, police are even more concerned. More than 92 percent of local law-enforcement officials in the Pacific region consider meth their No. 1 drug threat, more than any other region in the country.

For years, meth was thought of mostly as a problem in what police call the "inverted J": Washington, Oregon, California and the Southwest. The trade was initially dominated by motorcycle gangs, but Mexican gangs eventually took over.

"They pretty much rode the bikers out of town," Donnelly said.

Now the meth epidemic has spread through the Midwest, with such states as Missouri, Illinois and Indiana reporting more meth lab incidents in 2006 than West Coast states. Meth also is found increasingly on the East Coast.

"It's a major problem in communities across the country," said Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman.

Meth is considered the most addictive illicit drug available. Usage can lead to anxiety, insomnia, paranoia, hallucinations, aggression, violent mood swings and an intense craving for the drug.

While there are recovering cocaine and heroin addicts, a meth addiction is almost impossible to kick, Donnelly said. The toll on families and communities can be devastating.

With ephedrine providing the kick, meth can be manufactured in clandestine labs using red phosphorus scraped off matchbooks or from highway flares; anhydrous ammonia stolen from ice rinks, where it's used as a refrigerant, or from farms; ether, chloride gas, iodine, lye, hydrogen peroxide, camp stove fuel and a periodic table of other chemicals found in other household products.

Every pound of meth manufactured produces 5 to 6 pounds of toxic waste.

"They throw it in the burn barrel, toss it on the side of the road or let the garbage man take it away," Donnelly said.

Larsen said the House meth caucus's priorities included prevention, treatment and education about the drug; establishing international controls over the sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, most of which are produced in India; and ensuring adequate funding for police.

But on the day he toured the DEA training facility, the politics of meth on Capitol Hill were left behind and the dangers of busting a meth lab sank in. Larsen swung a battering ram to knock down a door, inched through a room so full of smoke you couldn't see your hand in front of your face and raided a meth lab armed with a paintball gun.

"I wear one uniform: It's a suit and a tie," Larsen said. "Police wear a different one, and you never know how they feel until you at least try and step into their shoes."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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