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‘Crank’ Labs Cooking Up More of Poor Man’s Cocaine

Times Staff Writer

Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies approached the house with caution bred of experience. Inside, they feared, were several heavily armed people surrounded by large quantities of volatile, explosive chemicals.

SWAT team personnel led the assault, followed closely by members of the narcotics squad. Bringing up the rear were the technicians who perhaps had the trickiest job of the night: turning off and tearing down the methamphetamine factory inside without blowing up the neighborhood.

The lab that night was unoccupied--a suspect was arrested as she returned later--but inside, deputies found what they described as an arsenal of guns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, an artillery mortar, several military land mines and a barrel of black gunpowder.

It was hardly the sort of setup one might expect in a sleepy, rural county, but this was the second sophisticated methamphetamine operation that Sonoma County sheriff’s deputies had raided that week.

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With increasing frequency, federal, state and local police in the northern third of California are cracking down on dozens of small illegal laboratories ferreted in farmhouses, tucked away in tract homes and hidden in the forested folds of rugged and remote mountains.

Many of the labs are run by people who once belonged to outlaw motorcycle gangs and supply users--both locally and perhaps throughout the rest of the West Coast--with cheap, potent methamphetamine, according to police.

Known on the street as “crank,” this low-priced, new-wave methamphetamine has come to be considered the “poor person’s cocaine.”

“I think it is as available--if not more available--than cocaine,” said Capt. Rick Oliver of the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department.

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“In the last year or so, we’ve really seen it mushroom (in popularity),” said Joe Doane, chief of the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. “Cocaine . . . is a hell of a lot more expensive, and (with methamphetamine) you can get some of the effects of cocaine for a lot less money.”

The drug is prevalent throughout California, although Doane said it seems to be a particular favorite of both suppliers and consumers in the northern half of the state.

“It would appear that in Southern California, there are more PCP (an animal tranquilizer known as “angel dust”) labs being found,” he said. “In Northern California, there is more methamphetamine.

“That’s not to say there aren’t both (drugs) in both areas, but I’d say there is more PCP down south and more methamphetamine farther north--and the (San Francisco) Bay Area has a lot of both.”

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Authorities in Los Angeles and Orange County agreed, although authorities in San Diego County acknowledged a serious methamphetamine problem with high school students.

A survey of San Diego-area teen-agers revealed that overall drug abuse there is twice the national average and methamphetamine tops the list. As a result, drug “cookers” are increasingly drawn there, authorities said.

“Why not?” said San Diego County Sheriff spokesman Lt. John Tenwolde. “It’s cheap and easy to manufacture, and it has a high rate of return.”

Police said methamphetamine offers a number of advantages to drug dealers.

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For one thing, recipes and raw materials are not difficult to locate.

“It doesn’t take a lot of skill. . . . With about $300 in glassware and a couple of thousand dollars in chemicals, they can be well on their way” to churning out $30,000 worth of the illegal drug each week, Doane said.

Fewer Risks

For another, it can literally be made in backyards, avoiding the costs and risks of smuggling associated with heroin and cocaine, and it is easier to transport than other domestic drugs, such as marijuana.

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And unlike so-called “home-cooked” hallucinogens, such as LSD and angel dust, methamphetamines can be sold as a relatively short-term “high,” with effects that last only a few hours, rather than an entire day, he added.

Illegal methamphetamine became widely popular in capsule form 20 years ago, when it was known as “speed,” but today it is usually produced as a crystalline white powder that is sniffed through the nose or mixed with water and taken intravenously, police said.

Methamphetamine’s reputation for side effects, ranging from hyperactivity to paranoia, prevent it from supplanting cocaine as the drug of choice among most well-heeled users.

“Not too many people up in Pacific Heights are using this stuff,” said Dennis Petrata of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, referring to San Francisco’s wealthiest neighborhood.

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Most “crank” users, police said, are poorly educated and not wealthy and are attracted to methamphetamine by the drug’s relatively low cost, about one-third or one-fourth that of cocaine.

That may account in part for its popularity among white teen-agers. A survey released June 3 by the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic showed methamphetamine to be second only to marijuana among the illegal drugs used by Anglo teens in the San Francisco area.

Authorities say it is difficult to confirm whether there has been an actual increase in either production or consumption of the drug, but statistics do reflect the recent emphasis that law officers have given to “crank cooks.”

In just the first seven months of the current fiscal year, for example, the San Francisco office of the DEA has already seized more than 2 1/2 times the methamphetamine confiscated during all of 1985.

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The number of methamphetamine labs raided also is ahead of last year’s pace: 38 were “taken down” by federal agents in all of 1985, while 29 have been closed in the first seven months of the current fiscal year.

Similar increases have been reported by other agencies in the northern part of the state.

Sonoma County, for example, is known chiefly for its wineries and dairy farms, but it has seen the number of arrests for methamphetamine manufacturing jump from zero in 1985 to six so far this year, with a seventh suspect sought and an eighth under investigation.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface in our eradication effort,” Oliver said.

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“It’s rampant; it’s all over the place,” Doane said. “I’d have to say we are a source state for other states.”

Ironically, while California chemists may be busy exporting methamphetamine to nearby states, they must first import key raw materials from those states. Sales of some of the drug’s important precursors, or chemical building blocks, are tightly regulated here, but the same materials are easier to obtain in Nevada or Arizona, where laws are less restrictive police said.

Less adventurous and more academic “cookers” have tried making precursors themselves at home or, in one case, in a college chemistry laboratory, Doane said.

“There are four, five and six different ways to come up with the same end product, and as soon as we stop the ingredients of one recipe, they come up with another,” he added.

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New “crank” recipes are circulated in underground publications as freely as the latest Jell-O creation makes the rounds of homemaker magazines, he said.

“There are a number of what I call cookbook recipes out now,” Doane said, “and you or I could read them and start right up this afternoon.”

Mini-Toxic Dumps

Illicit labs even pose a threat to people who have never considered abusing drugs, Doane noted. In addition to the explosive danger posed by ether and other chemicals, waste products and other toxic materials are often improperly stored.

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“Literally, you can have a mini-toxic waste dump,” Doane said.

Because of this, law officers who disassemble illegal laboratories usually do so while swaddled in rubber gloves, boots and other chemically impenetrable clothing.

A few unlucky hikers have even reported stumbling across illicit labs hidden in forests or the desert, although there have been no violent confrontations like those seen in the state’s marijuana-growing areas.

Doane said, however, that such murderous mix-ups could only be a matter of time.

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“Any way you shake this stuff,” he said, “it spells nasty, dangerous and awful.”


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