For the second time in a month, state narcotics officers busted a suspected drug lab in Kootenai County.
Officers found three children at the State Line home where it appears methamphetamine was being manufactured for sale, said Wayne Longo, supervisor of the Idaho State Criminal Investigation Bureau in Coeur d’Alene.
The children’s play area, scattered with toys and electric cars, was in the basement next to the room where the illegal stimulant was being manufactured, Longo said.
Toxic chemicals used to make the drug were found in the freezer next to a bowl of ice cream with a spoon in it, Longo said. And the near-finished product was being dried in a microwave where it appeared food also had been cooked.
“The smell from the solvents (used to make the drugs) was overwhelming until we vented the place,” Longo said, referring to Thursday’s drug bust.
Dallas D. Johnston Jr., 28, was charged Friday with manufacturing methamphetamine. He is being held at the Kootenai County Jail on $50,000 bail.
In February, officers arrested Tammy Knight, 29, of Coeur d’Alene, after finding what they believe was a meth lab in her home just four blocks away from the Coeur d’Alene Police Department.
She too has been charged with felony drug manufacturing.
In both cases, the suspected labs were small, Longo said. He said that follows a trend officers from around the state have noticed - smaller labs putting out smaller quantities of the drug.
The problem, officers say, is they are finding more of the labs.
Narcotics officers served a search warrant at Johnston’s home at 6150 W. Seltice in State Line Thursday evening.
They found the stimulant ephedrine - used to make methamphetamine - drying in a microwave. They also found a small amount of the finished drug and numerous cans of chemicals and pieces of glassware in the basement.
The children, between the ages of 2 and 5, were taken out of the home with their mother.
“You’ve got these chemicals that are extremely poisonous,” Longo said. “There were chemical cans all over the basement. The children’s play area is in the basement. And you know how little kids are.”
The woman was not arrested and was allowed to leave with the children.
The number of meth labs busted in Idaho has increased steadily in recent years from three in 1994, to 23 in 1995 to 44 in 1996.
In 1996, 82 arrests made by the Kootenai County Drug Task Force involved methamphetamine. That’s more than double the 31 arrests involving methamphetaimine in 1994.
“It is a rapidly growing problem,” said Ann Thompson of the Idaho Department of Law Enforcement. “Part of it has to do with the ease with which one can produce the drug and the lack of expertise or training required.”
Many of the chemicals used to make methamphetamine are not illegal.
Red phosphorus can be obtained from the striker plates on matches. Ephedrine can be obtained from diet pills sold at nearly any convenience store. Solvents such as acetone and toluene that can be bought in any hardware store.
“It’s a highly portable business when you compare it to marijuana farms,” Thompson said. “A meth lab can be in a solid structure or in the back of the car. We are seeing vans and pickup trucks being used for meth labs.”
The Pocatello office of the Criminal Investigation Bureau busted 15 labs last year.
“The majority of them seemed to be smaller,” said Ed Gygli, the bureau supervisor. “It’s getting more difficult for them to get the precursor chemicals…required to make the drug.”
As the meth problem takes an increasingly prominent place in the public’s eye, it is becoming harder for meth cooks to buy the large volumes of diet pills or matches needed for the process without raising suspicion, Gygli said.
So instead, smaller labs are putting out smaller amounts of the drug.
Gygli said he believes the growing number of meth lab busts has to do with both the growing popularity of the drug and the increased law enforcement focus on stopping it.
“This is a terrible drug,” he said. “We prioritize these cases.”
The price for taxpayers hasn’t been cheap.
The acids and solvents used to make methamphetamine can be highly toxic. There also is the danger of explosion as heat often is used to “cook” the chemicals while making the drug.
Officers must suit up in special clothing and use breathing equipment to investigate and dispose of meth labs safely.
Longo said it cost about $3,000 to clean up the suspected lab last month. He said the price from Thursday’s raid will be closer to $7,000.
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