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Meth lab stats show decrease, but spike in marijuana growing

It’s been six years since Washington State officials temporarily closed the 26,000-acre Tahoma State Forest after a large methamphetamine laboratory was found hidden among the fir trees. For weeks, men in moon suits worked to clean up deadly toxic waste spread over 100 acres in what’s believed to be the only state or national forest ever shut down because of the discovery of a methamphetamine lab. This came at the height of known meth production in the woods throughout the Northwest.


Discovered Sites

The latest statistics show meth production declining dramatically since the Tahoma State Forest closing in 2001 — manufacturing in the national forest has returned to nearly the same low levels of 1998, which began with the discovery of 30 labs and 56 dump sites. After reaching an all-time high two years later when 214 labs and 274 dump sites were discovered, by 2002, the numbers began to drop. By the end of last year, only 39 labs and 91 dump sites were found.


The National Drug Enforcement

Coordinator for the U.S. Forestry Service cautions that the stats may be deceiving. Mark Tarantino says, “Decline is probably not the right word. I would say that we are just not seeing as much of it.” While appearing to be a downward trend, Tarantino doesn’t believe the statistics “accurately depict the problem, because our ability to detect and find the labs is severely limited given the small number of law enforcement personnel we have and the quickness and ease in which it’s being manufactured.” Most are small scale and independently- operated out of tents, campers, trailers and cars in remote areas.


Diminishing Problem

Another factor that could be influencing the stats is the lack of precursor chemicals including ephedrine or pseudoephedrine commonly found in nonprescription cold and allergy medicines. They are now subject to new federal and state restrictions that keep them behind the counter. Oregon, which has seen a huge drop in meth production in and out of the woods in the past year, has one of the toughest laws on the books. “As a result, the number of meth labs has dropped over 60 percent or better,” says Chuck Karl, director of Oregon’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA). Calling meth a “diminishing problem” for the Northern Region of the U.S. Forest Service, Media Officer Paula Nelson says no labs or dumps have been found this year, while just two labs and three dumps were found in all of 2005. That’s in a five-state region, which includes 12 national forests located within the perimeter of northeastern Washington, northern Idaho and Montana.

With precursors harder to get in large quantities, they and the finished product are smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico and Canada. While trafficking over the Mexican border is notorious, Canadian criminals have ramped up their activity, according to Dave Rodriguez, director of the Northwest HIDTA, which extends south from the U.S.-Canada border to the Washington- Oregon border and eastward to the Washington-Idaho border.

Even so, Tarantino believes “there’s still a tremendous amount of meth being produced in the U.S. The question is, how much of it is being produced on rural lands? And I don’t think we are able to answer that question any more than we were years ago because of our small staff and the simple and quick production methods.” While he doesn’t see a lot of success in lab detection, marijuana is a different story.


Marijuana Bigger Issue

As Tarantino puts it, “marijuana is a bigger, bulkier product requiring large chunks of land and more time to produce.” Saying it has become a “big issue,” he points to California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arizona and Utah as being among the top ten problem states where large marijuana grows are operated by Mexican organizations or groups influenced by them. In Washington State, where it’s the “Number One Drug,” according to Rodriguez, small entrepreneurs with gardens of 10 to 20 plants have been replaced by large corporate grows involving thousands of plants.

“Marijuana has really taken on the same sort of life as the meth lab problem did ten years ago when we had an influx of organized Mexican nationals operating large labs in California,” says Ross Butler, Assistant Special Agent in Charge for California’s Bureau of Land Management. “They do a lot of damage to the land by clearing the vegetation, causing erosion, and they use a lot of pesticides and herbicides, kill wildlife and leave tons of trash.” But the push is on, he says, “to take back the public land from these growers.” As with going after meth, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are working together to eradicate the problem, and unlike his misgivings about the nation’s success rate on meth production in the woods, Tarantino believes they are getting a handle on marijuana.


Loggers Can Help

Assisting law enforcement in locating illegal activities in the woods are loggers, those doing habitat and restorative work, and hunters. “They are our best sources in reporting clandestine labs, dump sites and marijuana fields,” says Tarantino. While he knows of no incidents where the discovery of a lab, dump or marijuana field has caused logging, restorative or habitat work to shut down completely, there have been some disruptions while the sites are investigated.

“A temporary shutdown would depend on how big the site is and what the circumstances are. If one was found in the midst of a logging operation, it might impede it while we investigate. It may not stop the whole operation but it would disrupt it.” He cautions that although the larger marijuana grows are in the most remote locations, there is always the potential that those working in the woods could stumble into one.


Telltale Signs

While, as Tarantino says, marijuana and meth activity isn’t easy to spot, any one going into remote areas should know what to look for. Growing on tall and course stalks, marijuana’s distinctive green leaves radiate from a common center, and stand out among all other vegetation in the woods. Planted near water sources, the presence of plastic pipe or tubing leading from streams or lakes is a dead giveaway, as are full or empty bags of fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides and rodent poisons. There’s also everyday trash, because tenders usually live on-site. Never approach a marijuana field, because those tending them are usually always armed. Some have been known to use trip wires to alert them to unwanted visitors.

Meth labs exude strong chemical smells, and the area is usually littered with garbage bags, canning jars, hoses, big plastic drink bottles, gas cans, coffee filters, funnels, antifreeze containers, lithium batteries/casing, drain cleaner, iodine tincture/crystals, acids, salt, lye and anhydrous ammonia. Although operators of meth labs are rarely armed, loggers should stay clear of any suspected lab or dump site because of the toxic chemicals used in the process. Even after production, the fumes can cause respiratory and other problems if inhaled, and the acids involved can burn the flesh.

For law enforcement, these sites are crime scenes that reveal fingerprints, DNA and other clues. Tarantino stresses the importance of not touching anything for that reason, as well as because of the toxicity: “Loggers are more woods-wise than most people, so automatically they know how to get in and around in the woods in a safe manner.” However, he cautions that should you come upon either a lab, dump site or marijuana field, “stop where you are, look around, retrace your steps out, then report it as soon as possible.”



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This page was last updated on Wednesday, April 25, 2007