Police in communities across New Hampshire are seeing an alarming increase in "one-pot" methamphetamine labs, and they warn of a growing risk to public health and safety.
"We have found them out in the woods; we've found them in vehicles; we've found them in multi-family dwellings; we've found them in hotels; we've found them in commercial buildings. That's how portable they are," said Trooper 1st Class Matthew Partington of New Hampshire State Police.
Partington, a member of the state police bomb squad, estimated investigators have busted 40 to 50 one-pot labs over the past year. In fact, he said, "New Hampshire leads all the other New England states in lab seizures."
In recent headlines:
-- A Thornton man was arrested after allegedly cooking meth just feet from a child's portable crib.
-- A 56-year-old Gilford man was arrested on felony drug charges after a raid by local, county, state and federal authorities.
-- A three-story apartment building on Manchester's West Side had to be evacuated after deputy sheriffs serving a warrant discover a meth lab inside.. And a routine traffic stop in Bristol led to the discovery of a large amount of meth, cash and drug-related items and the arrest of the driver.
Partington is on the state's Clandestine Laboratory Enforcement Team, a multi-agency effort overseen by the Drug Enforcement Administration. He attended specialized training in handling meth labs in 2005, when police in many states were confronting large-scale labs.But after a new federal law regulated the sale of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in both decongestants and meth production, the problem seemed to disappear here, Partington said.
Then, on April 6, 2010, authorities encountered an entirely new way of producing meth, during a raid at a Franklin apartment building. "They call it the one-pot or the shake-and-bake method," Partington said. "It's a much easier process but a lot more volatile."
The Franklin raid, during which a fire broke out, was believed to be "the very first one-pot incident in all six New England states," he said. "That's where everything started."
But what began as a Lakes Region problem has spread across the state, Partington said. "One person will teach a few of their friends how to do it. Those friends teach other people. It's like a pyramid," he said.
Sgt. Chris Jacques of Gilford police said once meth comes into a community, it spreads like a virus. "A lot of people are doing it just to supply themselves," he said.
"We're not talking about the 'Breaking Bad' traditional or older-school labs that are creating large amounts of meth, clearly for distribution," he said, citing the popular TV show in which a chemistry teacher becomes a drug kingpin. "You can make this stuff in a very small bottle at this point."
While the amount of meth produced in any one batch may be small, the risks to the public are great, officials say.
Users typically mix chemicals, which produce toxic gases and are extremely volatile, in plastic bottles. When the "cook" is finished, he or she often tosses out the evidence along roadways or in wooded areas, where road crews or children could encounter it.
State Fire Marshal J. William Degnan said meth labs have started fires in New Hampshire in recent years, including a 2010 blaze that destroyed a barn and attached apartment in Hill. "We've had it from the smallest towns in the state to the large cities," he said.
The danger is of "great concern" to those involved in protecting the public from fires and hazardous materials, Degnan said.
"You can have materials that are discarded on the side of the road, and somebody's picking up the trash on the side of the road, and they could shake up a bottle that ends up exploding on them," he said.
Poses general danger
This new kind of meth production also poses a risk to first responders - and unsuspecting neighbors - who may be exposed to toxic chemicals or flash fires, if the materials ignite, he said.
"It's put it in places that you normally would not have seen that, and it puts it where a large part of our population is," Degnan said. "It knows no boundaries."
"I don't think most people realize how dangerous the chemicals are and how volatile they can be," said Thornton Police Chief Aimee Moller, where police discovered a one-pot lab just four feet from a child's crib.
Part of the danger lies in how mobile these operations are, she said. "People have been known to drive around in their cars while they're making this. It can be hidden in a backpack."
Meth use is not confined to one demographic, Moller said. "We're seeing some early 20s up into 40s and 50s," she said.
Laconia Police Chief Christopher Adams said meth had largely disappeared in his city, but started making a comeback two or three years ago because of the one-pot labs.
The toll on the community can be enormous, Adams said, from the costs of health care and the justice system to the local businesses that have to be evacuated while first responders clear a dangerous scene.
Then there's the human cost, how it wrecks the lives of addicts and their families, he said. "Meth takes over their life, and that's all they care about.
"They don't care about eating. They don't care about taking care of themselves. It's just their next hit."
Bristol Police Chief Michael Lewis said meth "appears to be the choice drug as of late." He, too, worries about the risk to the public and to first responders.
"When an individual is using this drug, his or her mindset is certainly not where it should be in the first place," he said. "And to have these chemicals being mixed in apartments - not in laboratories, not under the supervision of technicians - it is a recipe for disaster."
Partington said he doesn't watch "Breaking Bad."
"On a personal note, I take a stand against watching it, having seen in real life what it does," he said.
"Methamphetamine is one of the most addictive drugs that is out there. It breaks down the human body. I've seen that. I've seen it break apart families," he said.
Seeing the children of meth users is the most heartbreaking part, police said.
"To see these young kids sitting in apartments where drugs are spread out all over the place in the middle of the day...," Adams said. "Not only is it dangerous - they can grab these drugs and consume them - but this is their life. This is the environment that they're living in.
"And guess what? In 10, 15, 20 years, where are they going to be? The exact same thing their parents are doing."