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Drug 'Cooks' Leave Health Hazards Behind : Toxics: The methamphetamines, feared quickly becoming the drug of the '90s, ravage their users. Their makers also poison the environment.

November 19, 1989|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — When police raided a white wooden house on Pasadena Avenue early this year, they found a dozen guns and rifles, one pit bull, a couple of boa constrictors, two small children and enough toxic chemicals to blow up the block.

Unbeknown to the neighbors on the residential street, William Odom was in the business of manufacturing methamphetamines, otherwise known as speed. The pipes under the kitchen sink were rotted to nothing from corrosive chemicals poured down the drain. The walls and carpeting were saturated with poisonous fumes. By the time Odom moved into his new residence in state prison, the house on Pasadena Avenue was a miniature toxic wasteland, local police and prosecutors said.

Experts warn that methamphetamines, a highly addictive stimulant long confined to outlaw motorcycle gangs, will replace crack cocaine as the drug of the 1990s. Already, the 15 clandestine drug labs uncovered in Long Beach this year are more than the two previous years combined.

But unlike the cocaine that is processed beyond American borders, police said drug dealers are "cooking" methamphetamines right here--in motel rooms, atop toilet seats, in storage sheds, garages, camper shells and rental houses--using some of the most explosive and carcinogenic chemicals known to science.

As its popularity soars all over California, the drug not only threatens to ravage its addicts but to poison the environment, contaminate police officers and imperil the public health, law enforcement and health officials warn.

"These manufacturers are leaving toxic waste dumps behind them that you cannot smell or see," said Long Beach Deputy Dist. Atty. Barbara Channell, who has prosecuted 15 cases in a little more than a year, "the tip of the iceberg," in her assessment.

"Imagine you're in Room 212 of the motel while he's in Room 211 and it all blows up?" she asked. "Why should people have to live in an environment like that with no means of knowing what's going on next door?"

In 1981, police seized 184 drug labs nationwide. In 1989, they took 1,000, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Forty-four percent of the labs were in California, more than any other single state, the DEA reported.

Known on the street as crank, methamphetamines have long been considered the drug of poor white men, injected, snorted, smoked and sold mostly by outlaw motorcycle gangs like the Hell's Angels.

But as diplomats and drug agents move to shut down the pipeline of cocaine from Colombia and other Latin countries, methamphetamines are moving in to take its place, experts warn. The price is said to be cheaper, the high is said to be longer and the source is local.

Six months ago, only 2% of the addicts who sought help at a city-run drug rehabilitation clinic were methamphetamine addicts. Today 20% are, the majority of them women, said Jane Reddick, a unit supervisor at the Pine Avenue facility.

Worse, a new concentrated form of methamphetamines known as "ice" has already overtaken crack on the Hawaiian Islands, offering a high that is said to last up to 12 hours. While drug experts statewide have yet to encounter that potent form in California, they predict it is only a matter of time.

"Law enforcement is standing on the beach watching a tidal wave and it is going to hit soon," said Long Beach Police Sgt. Gerry Roberts, who investigates drug labs full time. "Once they realize they can get more for their money with methamphetamines, there is nothing doctors, parents, husbands, wives, sisters or brothers can do to stop them. We will be off to the races."

The recipe for methamphetamines includes an array of acids and explosives known to cause cancer, birth defects and blindness. One of the byproducts of the cooking process is phosphine gas, similar to mustard gas used during World War I.

Police say it is cooked by "chemists" usually high on the drug themselves. Their crude laboratories are stocked with crock pots, turkey basters and Pyrex pie plates. Police find them in the same motel rooms businessmen frequent--the smoke alarms disconnected and the toxic waste poured down the drain--and in rental homes, the poisonous runoff dumped into back yard soil.

"Are there children playing in the soil? Is it getting into the drinking water? Are there vapors under the house?" asked Dick Smith, chief of the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services hazardous materials unit.

"Cops treat this stuff like something that could blow up the block. You start thinking, 'What did I breathe? Did it stick to my clothes?' " Roberts said. "I went through two pairs of Levi's, two pairs of shoes and two shirts on two cases. I just took them off outside my house and threw them away."

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