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Besides the dangerous chemicals, these older methods exposed meth cooks to risks that played right into the hands of law enforcement. The shopping list for a normal batch — usually about 200 grams of meth — was conspicuous; it's hard to walk out of Wal-Mart hauling cases of road flares without raising an eyebrow or two. The labs themselves were made up of elaborate systems of buckets and pipes, so if police knocked on the door and saw the rec room had been jerry-rigged to look like Bill Nye's lab, it was slam-dunk felony manufacturing. The actual process of meth-making was also long, requiring anywhere from 4 to 16 hours.
These earlier forms of meth peaked in the mid-2000s; soon after, production was choked off due to a push by law enforcement, including mandatory prison sentences for manufacturing and the removal of certain chemical ingredients, like crystal iodine, from the general market.
But meth's revival comes thanks to an innovation that hit the streets about four years ago. Gone are big labs and long cooking times; instead, the "one pot" or "shake and bake" method makes the drug in a single container — usually a two-liter pop bottle that can be easily concealed. By mixing ammonium nitrate fertilizer, lithium stripped from batteries, lye, and Coleman fuel with the pills inside a pressurized container, a modern cook can produce a batch of meth oil in under an hour; the substance can then easily be "salted out" into solid form to be smoked, snorted, or shot directly into veins to jump-start a high that often lasts more than a day. Some experts suspect the new method results in a purer drug or — thanks to the lithium — packs an extra psychotropic kick.
But it's the new economics, not the potency, that's likely contributed to meth's boom. Each two-liter bottle produces about five grams of meth for less than $100. On the street, a single gram — about the amount in a sugar packet — goes for about $100 to $125. If a cook gets multiple bottles going at once, a stockpile of meth can be churned out with little overhead. The math has not only brought new users into manufacturing; it's brought back old cooks collared a few years ago, who are just now getting out of prison and finding the new method hard to pass up.
"We're statewide starting to see the same numbers [we saw] in 2005, when things were kind of out of hand," says Dave Posten, an agent of Ohio's Bureau of Criminal Investigation who until recently worked on a meth team stationed in Summit County.
"It's definitely a statewide issue."
In a paint-by-numbers portrait of Ohio's meth use, Akron is as dark as a kicked shin. Since 2000, the Drug Enforcement Agency has kept a loose database on the number of meth labs across the country based on arrest records. Whereas Cuyahoga and Lake County authorities have discovered only a handful of labs each, more than a third of all labs across the state are found in Summit County, with 256 locations falling within Akron's city limits.
Over the last 12 years, the city's CLET unit estimates that it has taken down 600 labs, including 77 last year alone. In only four months this year, they've already hit 70 — a pace that would more than triple their previous high. Last year, by comparison, Cleveland Police took down all of four labs. This year, they've added another four.
"If you don't think it's in your community, you're dead wrong," Crockett says one March morning in an office at the department's downtown headquarters. "It's that they're not looking for it, or they don't have the time."
Rather than flagging a new epidemic, Akron's cops believe their number of busts points to the increased attention they've devoted to the problem. For more than a decade, the city has trained cops in meth tracking and cleanup. As labs continued to surface, additional officers volunteered to undergo required training with the DEA or BCI.
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