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Rolling Meth Labs In Vogue

Last November, a car ferrying a container of farm fertilizer exploded along Interstate 24, backing up traffic for miles through this southwest Kentucky community.

It was no farming accident. The fertilizer was anhydrous ammonia - a key ingredient in methamphetamine. The car turned out to be a rolling meth lab.

Driven from their homes and motels, meth makers are increasingly taking to America's roadways, mixing their bubbling brew in drug labs inside tractor-trailers, rental trucks, cars and even motorcycles.

Meth cooks see them as a way to avoid detection. Trucking down the highway allows them to disperse the rotten egg smell the labs produce and keep the waste out of their own homes.

"If they're moving, it's easier to hide," said Lt. William Sparks, spokesman for the Oak Grove Police Department.

Nationally, the number of labs found in vehicles increased from 869 in 1999 to 1,307 in 2001, and the number of vehicles found with chemicals or equipment used to make meth increased from 30 in 1999 to 624 in 2001, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. But because there is no mandatory reporting requirement, it is difficult to gauge the total number of roving labs.

Methamphetamine is a powerful drug that is often snorted or injected and makes users feel euphoric, energized and powerful. Addicts can go days without sleep, and the drug's downside include irritability, paranoia, aggression and violence.

It has become a popular new drug in recent years because it is so easy to produce - and conceal.

Typically, truckers hauling the meth labs or chemicals used to make the drug are carrying the illegal items along with legal cargo, said Cheyenne Albro, director of the Pennyrile Narcotics Task Force in Hopkinsville.

It's the volatile nature of the chemicals used to prepare the drug that makes the labs so dangerous. Nationally, one of every five meth labs is discovered because of an explosion, Albro said.

Of the 2,000 chemicals available to make the drug, at least half are explosive, Albro said. He estimates in western Kentucky, up to 20 percent of the meth labs are mobile.

Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson, during a recent stop in Lexington, said meth producers are being forced to come up with more innovative ways to hide their labs because law enforcement agencies are more aggressive in making arrests.

"That includes keeping them in the trunks of their cars, or in trucks or vans so they are more mobile and less easy to track," Hutchinson said.

Other meth makers do not want to contaminate their own homes with meth-making residue and fumes.

"The chemicals are so dangerous, it gets into the walls and the curtains, and people have poisoned their own families just to make a buck - if they don't blow themselves up in the first place," said Sparks of the Oak Grove police.

In southern Indiana, a man was arrested recently for making meth on his motorcycle. "Instead of beakers and Bunsen burners, they're using pop bottles and Igloo coolers," said Brad Ellsworth, sheriff for Vanderburgh County, Ind.

About 20 students and staff members were evacuated in April from Westwood Elementary School in New Castle, Ind., after officers stopped a pickup truck driven by a suspected meth maker. Anhydrous ammonia was found in the back, and officers reported strong ammonia fumes.

And in September in Utica, a small community in western Kentucky, 50 people were evacuated from their homes in the middle of the night and seven people hospitalized after anhydrous ammonia leaked into the air during a botched attempt to steal a tank from a farm supply store.

Most meth cooks don't appear to know how to store the chemicals they steal to make their drugs and they don't know how to use them, Sheriff Ellsworth said.

"They've got the high school chemistry 101 class and think they are chemists," he said.

By Kimberly Hefling

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