The explosion came without warning.
The blast threw him against the wall. Dennis Potter felt the fireball sear into his flesh. He had never known pain like this before. Toxic chemical vapors burned lung tissue. Potter’s only mercy was the dark blanket that snuffed out his consciousness.
Potter, age twenty-nine, woke up in the burn unit of St. Louis’ Mercy Medical Center. There he spent the next five weeks, his body wrapped in restrictive sterile bandages. He underwent numerous skin graft operations (LaCapra, 2012). Potter was the victim of a horrible chemical explosion that took place in December 2009. The accident was triggered after Potter cooked methamphetamine using a dangerous process known as “shake and bake.”
The shake and bake procedure is the same for everyone. Combustible chemicals are emptied inside a plastic drink bottle. The next step is to shake, cool, and vent the mixture. If the procedure works as planned, several grams of meth are produced in less than an hour. But, if the concoction is not vented and cooled properly, an explosive fireball can result.
Potter had been teaching a friend the shake and bake method, an operation he claims to have completed thousands of times. But on this occasion, things turned ugly. The bottle took on an orange glow. Within seconds an explosion blew the walls off the room. Potter, looking into the face of death, was set on fire.
Individuals like Dennis Potter abuse meth because of the rush and resulting euphoria. Meth provides a sense of power that promotes extended periods of energy as well as sexual endurance and prowess. Some use the drug to cope with feelings of depression, social anxiety, low self-esteem, loneliness, and boredom. Some use it to stay awake or to lose weight.
Potter had been using methamphetamine for about fourteen years. The drug is a central nervous system stimulant drug similar in structure to amphetamine. Due to its high potential for abuse, methamphetamine is classified as a Schedule II drug and is available only through a prescription that cannot be refilled. Although methamphetamine can be prescribed by a doctor, its medical uses are limited, and the doses that are prescribed are much lower than those typically abused (NIDA, 2012).
Methamphetamine hydrochloride is used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, along with a psychological, educational, and social treatment plan. It may help increase the ability to pay attention, concentrate, and stop fidgeting. This medication is also used with a doctor-approved, reduced-calorie diet as an aid to help significantly overweight people lose weight. It should only be used for a few weeks in patients who have not lost enough weight with other treatments. It may work by decreasing the appetite. This medication should not be used to treat tiredness or to hold off sleep in people who do not have a sleep disorder (“Methamphetamine,” 2014).
With all of the perceived superhuman characteristics of the drug, there is an equally commanding addictive component. Meth is extremely addictive and has a high relapse rate among people who are able to quit, including individuals who receive treatment. Meth changes the way a person’s brain functions and even after a person has stopped using meth, if they were a heavy long-term user, it may take a long time for the changes to reverse themselves—sometimes they don’t (“How easy,” 2012).
The Combat Meth Act of 2005
The government’s war on drugs has produced curious results. While Mexican drug cartels have flooded the American drug market, domestic super labs have been located and dismantled. The Methamphetamine Reduction Act of 2005 drastically cut down the number of domestic super labs. Known as the Combat Meth Act of 2005, the bill was a legislative attempt to control pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, now listed as Schedule V substances.
The bill requires a distributor or pharmacy that sells such a pseudoephedrine substance to ensure that:
- It is dispensed or sold at retail only by a practitioner, pharmacist or individual under the pharmacist’s supervision as permitted by the state
- Any person purchasing, receiving or otherwise acquiring it, prior to taking possession, provides an approved federal or state-issued photo identification (or alternative form of identification authorized by the Attorney General) and signs or makes an entry in a written or electronic log documenting the transaction date, the name of the person, and the name and amount of the substance acquired
- No person acquires more than 7.5 grams of such substance within any thirty-day period.
It also authorizes the Attorney General to exempt a product upon determining that it cannot be used in the illegal manufacture of methamphetamine or any other controlled dangerous substance; or upon the manufacturer’s application if the Attorney General determines that it has been formulated in such a way as to effectively prevent the conversion of the active ingredient into methamphetamine.
The Combat Meth Act of 2005 restricts the sale of large quantities of over-the-counter decongestants, cold, and allergy medicines. Because of those restrictions, the total number of clandestine meth lab incidents reported to the DEA fell from almost 17,400 in 2003 to just 7,347 in 2006 (DEA, 2013).
Unfortunately, meth cookers have now switched to the easier, albeit more dangerous, “one pot” or “shake and bake” method, which has become a huge problem for law enforcement. A recent Internet search “How to cook meth” resulted in a staggering 9,040,000 sites. Yet another search, “How to make shake and bake meth,” came up with 145,000 videos and instructional articles on how to manufacture the substance (Furek, 2015).
The problem is widespread and how-to information is easily obtained. By 2010, about 80 percent of labs busted by the federal DEA were using shake and bake recipes (Associated Press, 2012a). Because it uses less pseudoephedrine and yields meth in minutes rather than long arduous hours, the process has become popular. Meth cookers place chemicals such as drain cleaner, brake fluid, red phosphorous, lithium batteries, and other easy to purchase items in a two-liter bottle. The product is then shaken to create a chemical reaction that produces a crystalline powder that can be smoked, snorted or injected. Ingredients are mixed in the bottle and eventually poured through a coffee filter and dried (Ramirez, 2013).
The equation has rapidly changed. Meth production is not centered in sophisticated domestic labs, capable of supplying numerous users, but in clandestine operations where cookers produce meth for their personal use. The operation is easily concealed. Meth cooks, like Dennis Potter, can transport all of the volatile ingredients in a backpack or in the back seat of a car and then cook the product on the run.
Even the manufacturing and distribution network has evolved into a more clannish grouping. According to Berwick, Pennsylvania Police Chief Ken Strish, the drug users have learned that
it is easier to steal common household chemicals from retail stores and work in concert with others in the “smurfing process” to secure their drug rather than risk getting robbed by others in the drug trade. There is no need to go to the urban street corner to collect drugs. That is obviously dangerous. Now they just work together and collect the necessary items needed to manufacture methamphetamine and once the synthetic drug is made it is shared with only those who helped create it (2014).
Porter confessed that he began using meth when he was sixteen years old. Two years later he began to make his own product. “It’s so easy,” he said. “Any person can do it. You can go to Walgreens, Home Depot, and Wal-Mart, and they sell every bit of the ingredients” (LaCapra, 2012).
Methamphetamine lab seizures rose nationally again in 2011, further evidence the powerfully addictive and dangerous drug is maintaining a tight grip on the nation’s heartland, according to an Associated Press survey of the nation’s top meth-producing states (2012a). Missouri regained the top national spot for lab seizures in 2011 with 2,096, the AP confirmed through the survey that also found Tennessee was second with 1,687, followed by Indiana with 1,437, Kentucky with 1,188 and Oklahoma with 902 (Associated Press, 2012a).
Methamphetamine production is dangerous. Simply being exposed to the toxic chemicals poses a variety of health risks, including intoxication, dizziness, nausea, disorientation, lack of coordination, pulmonary edema, serious respiratory problems, severe chemical burns, and damage to internal organs. Other problems include the following:
Inhaling chemical vapors and gases resulting from methamphetamine production causes shortness of breath, cough, and chest pain. Exposure to these vapors and gases may also cause intoxication, dizziness, nausea, disorientation, lack of coordination, pulmonary edema, chemical pneumonitis, and other serious respiratory problems when absorbed into the body through the lungs.
The chemicals used to produce methamphetamine may cause serious burns if they come into contact with the skin.
Toxic chemicals can be ingested either by consuming contaminated food or beverages or by inadvertently consuming the chemicals directly. Young children present at laboratory sites are at particular risk of ingesting chemicals. Ingesting toxic chemicals—or methamphetamine itself—may result in potentially fatal poisoning, internal chemical burns, damage to organ function, and harm to neurological and immunologic functioning.
In addition, methamphetamine production threatens the environment. Shake and bake leaves behind discarded bottles containing toxic sludge. The abandoned materials are often strewn along highways and unpopulated rural roads throughout the country. The average methamphetamine laboratory produces five to seven pounds of toxic waste for every pound of methamphetamine produced. Operators often dispose of this waste improperly, simply by dumping it near the laboratory. This can cause contamination of the soil and nearby water supplies (NDIC, 2006).
The shake and bake method has proven to be a major concern throughout the country. The easily obtained chemicals are extremely hazardous. Some are highly volatile and may ignite or explode if mixed or stored improperly. Fire and explosion pose risks not only to the individuals producing the drug, but also to anyone in the surrounding area, including children, neighbors, and passersby.
An Associated Press survey of key hospitals in the nation’s most active meth states showed that up to a third of patients in some burn units were hurt while making meth, and most were uninsured. The average treatment costs $6,000 per day and the average meth patient’s hospital stay costs $130,000 – 60 percent more than other burn patients, according to a study by doctors at a burn center in Kalamazoo, Michigan (Salter, 2012).
Furthermore, burn units are closing due to the excessive cost of treating uninsured patients. At least seven burns units across the US have shut down over the past six years, partly due to consolidation, but also because of the cost of treating uninsured patients, many of whom are connected to methamphetamine. Burn experts agree that the annual cost to taxpayers is well into the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars, although it is impossible to determine a more accurate number because so many meth users lie about the cause of their burns to avoid arrest.
Larger meth labs have been bursting into flames for years, usually in basements, backyard sheds or other private spaces. But those were fires that people could usually escape. Using the shake and bake method, drug-makers typically hold the flammable concoction up close, causing burns from the waist to the face (Smith, 2012).
Pain is not always the sage teacher.
Soon after leaving the burn center, Dennis Potter regrettably started making meth again. He told a reporter that he hates the drug, but still misses it every day. “I wish I had never learned how,” he said. “It haunts me daily because I do know how to do it” (LaCapra, 2012).
Dennis Potter provides an important, albeit unfortunate, lesson about the dangers of cooking meth. As he bartered for his fifteen-minutes of fame, he received instant gratification and notoriety from National Public Radio and other media outlets. And, in what may have been the harshest lesson of all, Potter traded away the anonymity and hope of a Twelve Step fellowship for his raw public confession. That mistake will haunt him the rest of his life.
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Associated Press. (2012b). ‘Shake-and-bake’ meth fills hospitals with uninsured burn patients, leading to closure of some burn units. Retrieved from http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/shake-and-bake-meth-fills-hospitals-uninsured-burn-patients-leading-closure-burn-units-article-1.1010381
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Furek, M. W. (2015). “How to make shake and bake meth.” Yahoo search results.
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LaCapra, V. (2012). ‘Shake-and-bake’ meth causes uptick in burn victims. NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2012/02/07/146531937/shake-and-bake-meth-causes-uptick-in-burn-victims
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National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). (2012). Methamphetamine. Retrieved from http://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/methamphetamine
Ramirez, D. (2013). “Shake-and-bake” meth making has a dangerous side. Star-Telegram. Retrieved from http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/09/09/201554/shake-and-bake-meth-making-has.html
Salter, J. (2012). Methamphetamine accidents fill US hospitals with uninsured patients, strain burn units. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/23/methamphetamine-burns_n_1222925.html
Smith, G. (2012). Revealed: The extreme dangers of cheap but highly combustible ‘shake-and-bake’ method for making deadly crystal meth. Daily Mail. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2090553/The-extreme-dangers-new-cheap-shake-bake-method-making-deadly-crystal-meth.html
Strish, K. (2014). Methamphetamine: Swallowing rural communities. Paper presented at a meeting of the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble/ Berwick Middle School Drama Club.