Listen: Mainstreet Radio series: Meth in Minnesota, Pt. 1 of 7

As part of the Mainstreet Radio series “Meth in Minnesota,” MPR’s Tom Post reports on the various new challenges methamphetamine creates for Minnesota law enforcement.

Law enforcement officials say methamphetamine is the drug of choice in rural Minnesota. It's easy to get and it's easy to make. Cops are trained to deal with drugs and drug users, but meth users can be aggressive and can turn violent. Materials are a danger as well, as people use caustic chemicals to make the drug, and that makes meth labs a health hazard.

This is part one of a seven-part series.

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 2:

part 3:

part 4:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:


2004 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Series - Large Market Radio category


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TIM POST: It's a Saturday night. And Minnesota State Patrol trooper Rich Homan is looking for a reckless driver. He finds him. This time, it's a familiar traffic stop for Homan. The drug of choice is alcohol.

RICH HOMAN: I'm going to go and talk to one of those, either one of those, and see how much they've had to drink also. And if they've had the same amount of you, then none of you three are going to be driving that vehicle.

TIM POST: Dealing with drunken drivers, speeding drivers, or even people who don't buckle up is a big part of Homan's job. But he's always digging deeper. Trooper Homan knows almost any traffic stop could turn into a search for drugs. In recent years, Homan has seen more and more drugs here in rural Minnesota. And most often, what he finds is meth.

RICH HOMAN: It's all over out here. meth is now probably the drug of choice. It's so easily available. They're popping up these meth labs all over. They're portable. You can pop them up real quick, cook up some meth, and they're gone in no time.

TIM POST: Officials estimate 20% of the meth here is made in Minnesota. Most of that is made in rural locations where there are fewer nosy neighbors who might smell the solvents and chemicals involved. The recipes for meth vary, but they all start with over-the-counter cold medicine. The pills are crushed, mixed with various kinds of acids or solvents, and filtered down to make meth. The process is called cooking.

For trooper Homan, the increase in meth means more than just extra work. Meth makes his job more dangerous. Meth affects people differently than other drugs. Cops say meth just makes people crazy. Homan says he can tell when someone has been using meth. They're on edge. They look like they haven't slept for days. Often, they have scratches on their face and arms.

The drug affects the nervous system, so some meth users think they've got bugs under their skin. They scratch themselves until they're covered with open sores. If Hoffman suspects someone is on meth, he uses a calm voice and makes no quick movements. He says it's tough to know what will set a meth user off.

RICH HOMAN: People on meth are very paranoid. They think everybody's watching them or everybody's after them. You have to be careful with those people because you don't know what they're going to do, especially if it's someone that's been on a meth binge for four or five days without any sleep. It could be a dangerous situation.

TIM POST: It's a situation some Minnesota cops have faced. Sergeant Todd Hoffman is one of them. Hoffman works in Wright County, with the Drug Task Force. Three years ago, he and another drug officer were investigating a meth case in Eden Valley. A man was making some suspicious purchases, like solvents and large amounts of cold medicine. Local officials thought he might be cooking meth. Hoffman went to question the man. The man ran into his house. The officers followed him. But by the time they got to the kitchen, the suspect had grabbed a loaded 357 Magnum.

TODD HOFFMAN: He grabbed at the gun and turned to shoot. But luckily, somehow, I got my hand around the hammer of the gun and we fell to the floor. He was trying to squeeze back the trigger, but it wouldn't go back because my hand was covering it.

TIM POST: Hoffman, his partner, and the suspect wrestled on the floor. Hoffman was losing his grip on the gun. It was pointed directly at his chest. He did the only thing he could to end the tussle.

TODD HOFFMAN: So I bit through his elbow, and he let go of the gun. Cuffed him up, and we got the search warrant for the house. And sure enough, there was a active methamphetamine lab in a hidden room in the basement. And that's what he was trying to protect.

TIM POST: Once an arrest is made, there's a new problem. A meth cook creates a cloud of chemicals that can cause serious health problems. In 1999, Hoffman was called to a Wright County lake. Anglers could smell a strong chemical odor coming from a fish house and suspected a meth cook. When Hoffman arrived at the fish house, he found a thermos bottle on the frozen lake. The bottle was full of anhydrous ammonia, one of the critical compounds for making meth. When Hoffman picked up the bottle, it released a cloud of gas.

TODD HOFFMAN: When the fumes hit my face, my skin immediately began to burn. My throat closed. I wasn't able to breathe for five, ten seconds. And then I put my hands on my face, I was wearing gloves. And as I pulled my hands away from my face, my gloves were covered with liquid. Basically, I thought my face was dissolving. It turns out that it was anhydrous ammonia. And when anhydrous ammonia touches your skin, basically it draws out the moisture. Basically, your whole skin, all your mucous membranes are starting to flush.

TIM POST: He was rushed to the emergency room. He wasn't badly injured, but he's not sure how or if that exposure will affect him later in life. The incident taught Hoffman a lesson.

TODD HOFFMAN: Don't handle any of the chemicals that you find, or glassware, or items from the meth lab. If you're not trained in it and if you're not certified by OSHA in dismantling them, stay away from them because you're going to get injured.

TIM POST: That's a message the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension are trying to get across too. The DEA and the BCA joined up recently in Saint Paul to teach police officers from across the state the dangers of meth labs. In this group, about a dozen people are dressed from head to toe in white chemical suits fitted with an oxygen tank. They're headed into the pitch black basement of a concrete house used to train firefighters.

JOHN COTNER: You guys are going to go first. And what we're going to have you guys do is go through the obstacle course first. That way, we can swap out your bottles and get them charged up. Everybody ready? All right, come with me.

TIM POST: The exercise prepares officers for the kind of conditions they might find in a meth lab. They're loaded down with safety equipment. And they're warned this is the only safe way to enter a meth lab. The DEA's John Cotner says for too long, police officers have been sent into meth labs without the proper training.

JOHN COTNER: We're finding more frequently than not that as we go out and do awareness training and different levels of training, we're seeing people with that aha feeling. Hey, I've seen this before. I remember a couple of years ago, I saw something that looked like that. They were in a meth lab and didn't even know it.

TIM POST: Cotner says they teach police to watch for the ingredients and equipment needed to make meth. Alarms should go off for an officer if they see excessive amounts of chemicals like brake cleaner or drain cleaner, phosphorus from matches, alkaline batteries, coffee filters, and empty natural gas tanks. That's information deputy Tom Myers with the Pine County Sheriff's Department wishes he had long ago.

TOM MYERS: I can think of one time I walked in, and there was quite a few lye bottles on the counter. And I didn't think nothing of it. You know, they're cleaning their drains or whatever. Nobody's going to go through that much red devil lye unless they're cooking. So I'd placed myself in jeopardy there. I didn't know.

TIM POST: Teaching cops to spot signs of meth is simple, compared to the other goal of this training. The BCA's Paul Stevens says in the case of meth labs, police and other first responders need to ignore one of their deepest instincts.

PAUL STEVENS: We have too many officers across the country who are getting very, very sick from going into too many meth labs and not taking the appropriate safety measures. Because firemen, and policemen, and first responders have always, in the past, rushed in to do the right thing. But this is one of those times that we have to rethink our actions, or there can be very serious consequences for themselves and their families.

TIM POST: Law enforcement officials say that's a hard line to take, but a necessary one in the battle against meth. They say if there's any hope of fighting the drug, Minnesota police officers can't become victims of meth themselves. Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio.


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