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Meth Labs On the Rise in Cities and Suburbs

The discreet "shake-and-bake" method has led to a massive increase in urban meth production.

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By Bryan Le

12/27/12

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Meth lab seizures are rising in urban and suburban areas, signaling a shift from rural America—where meth makers have long found a safe haven to make and distribute the drug. According to a recent investigation, authorities have seen a massive increase in production of the lethal drug in recent years in cities like St. Louis, which saw a jump from 30 busts in 2009 to a projected 142 busts this year. In Nashville, lab seizures have tripled over the past two years. “No question about it—there are more labs in the urban areas,” says Tom Farmer, coordinator of the Tennessee Methamphetamine and Pharmaceutical Task Force. “I'm seeing car fires from meth in urban areas now, more people getting burned.” Metropolitan areas have seen a spike in meth production as well. Authorities cite the new, stealthier "shake-and-bake" method as the primary explanation for the geographic shift. Whereas the classic meth lab forced cooks to seclude themselves in distant, unpopulated areas to hide the telltale ammonia-like stench, the shake-and-bake calls only for a plastic bottle, pseudo ephedrine (ingredient in cold medicine like Sudafed), poisonous chemicals (like battery acid or drain cleaners) and a willingness to remain in range of a fiery explosion. The procedure is discrete and virtually odorless. “Bad guys have figured it out,” says Rusty Payne of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. “You don't have to be as clandestine—you don't have to be in rural country to lay low.”

The shake-and-bake method means the drug can now be cooked up in such undercover places as backpacks, gym bags, Wal-Mart bathrooms or a cook's own pants, making it difficult for authorities to bust cooks (although this handy guide may help). And recruiting for "smurfing" (the process of dispatching a crew to separately buy pseudoephedrine to prevent raised eyebrows) is much easier in population-dense areas. Authorities also see growing evidence that inner-city gangs are becoming involved in meth, especially in the distribution of pseudroephedrine, which Farmer says "has become as good as currency." The rise in meth lab seizures is especially alarming since the US has also seen an increase in meth smuggled in from Mexico in recent years, making the drug cheaper and more accessible in urban areas.

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