Clandestine drug laboratories are increasing in numbers in various parts of the United States, according to federal drug-enforcement agents. One apparent reason for the increase: growing demand for many of the drugs.
These illegal labs have become the main source of illicit drugs other than heroin, marijuana, and cocaine, which are mostly imported, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
In some cases the labs are run by college students or graduates trained in chemistry. But often operators lack such training. And frequently the labs are operated under unsanitary conditions: One in Augusta, Ga., was run out of a filthy chicken shack.
But as the number of labs has been increasing over the past several years, so have law enforcement efforts to crack down on them.
Within the past few years, the DEA has formed teams in several cities -- including Atlanta, Houston, Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, and Detroit -- to trace leads to the labs and make arrests.
And DEA agents in various cities speak highly of the growing cooperation of state and local police in cracking down on these labs.
The number of clandestine drug labs seized by the DEA has increased from 33 in 1975 to 237 last year.
Clandestine labs on the West Coast date back to the 1960s. But they have been "spreading," says Caron B. Durel, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA's Atlanta office.
The assessment that there is an increase in the number of labs is not based simply on the number of seizures (which could be expected to increase as more agents are assigned to find them).
"We're getting more positive information from many sources that there is an increase in the New England area," says Josph Crowe, who heads the DEA's clandestine lab team for that area.Most of the new labs in that region are in the Greater Boston area, he says.
There has been a "significant" increase in the number of illegal drug labs in Houston, says a DEA agent there. And agent William Norsworthy here in Atlanta notes a "definite increase" in labs in the ATlanta area over the past two years.
"We're not catching all the labs, but were making a dent in them," says another DEA agent in Atlanta. "I don't think there's that much getting past us."
Among the frequently produced drugs in clandestine labs are amphetamines, methamphetamines, MDA, PCP (often sprayed on marijuana in a liquid form known as Angel Dust), LSD, and methaqualone.
There has been a "growing trafficking" in methaqualone, according to the DEA. And over the past few months, a DEA spokesman says, there has been a "surprising resurgence" in use of LSD in New England, the north-central states, and the West Coast.
The formulas for these drugs are widely available in drug culture magazines and chemistry books, DEA agents note. Clandestine operators can purchase the ingredients legally without disclosing the intended use.
The "cooking," or actual mixing of the ingredients to make the drugs, is usually done within two to three days. Drug-enforcement agents must show cause to get a court-ordered search warrant and then make their raid after the mixing has begun since possession of unmixed ingredients is not illegal.