February 29, 2012

The truth about lye

There was a time long ago when I might have understood, as soon as I saw it, the new signs posted on the front wall and above the cash register of my local hardware store.
“We no longer sell lye.”

Meth Makeover
I was as puzzled as anyone else might be. Had somebody had an accident and suffered the terrible burns that contact with this potentially dangerous household chemical can cause? Lye, also known as caustic soda, sodium hydroxide, and potassium hydroxide, is the main ingredient of Drano, the drain cleaner. Under the Red Devil brand it’s the only ingredient. It’s also a necessary component in making soap. And it’s been available in hardware stores, grocery stores, and many other outlets for as long as I can remember.

So what’s new?

If I still worked on the streets as a newspaper reporter, I’d likely have known the answer instantly. It was part of my job to keep track of street drugs and their variants, and a good source in “the life” surprised me one day with his description of a new drug that was “everywhere.” It was a cheap version of cocaine – that alone made me skeptical – it was most often smoked, and it was wickedly addictive. It was named for the sound it made when the smoker lit up. I asked the head of the local Drug Enforcement Administration office about this “crack cocaine” hitting the streets of Detroit, and hitting them cruelly. He almost sneered when he said I was “pissing down a dry hole.” Powerful and cheap cocaine, the drug of choice for fey suburbanites with money to burn? Please. He’d never heard of it so couldn’t be true. He was dead wrong. And within weeks of me writing the first news story about crack cocaine in Detroit, he and other local law enforcement authorities were talking about the “crack epidemic.”

The other day, when I asked my hardware guy what his new signs were about, he said, “They use lye to make meth. They were coming in here for it and robbing me blind while they were at it. Most of the hardwares I know have stopped selling it for the same reason.”

From 2003-09, Missouri had the worst methamphetamine problem in the country, evidenced by the number of labs busted and drugs seized. In 2010, Tennessee topped the list. Last year the two states traded places.

Meth Mouth
Before the hardware guy told me what’s what, I’d been aware of our local meth problem only because a sheriff’s deputy told me that a lab had been busted on the lane next to ours a short time before we moved down here. I also know what a tweaker, a meth head, looks like. Teeth burned black and reduced to ugly nubs by the corrosive smoke. Sores covering their faces and arms. Dreadfully skinny. Deep-set eyes profoundly haunted. They shamble. Now and then I see a few gathered outside a nearby gas station looking like displaced extras from The Walking Dead.

I’d also heard about a relatively new method of cooking meth, yet another testament to the ingenuity of addicts looking frantically for their next fix. It’s called “shake-and-bake,” and not only has it made cooking meth easily within the abilities and means of even the dumbest addict, but it has astronomically increased the difficulty of policing the meth problem.

I’m not adding to the scourge by generally describing the method and the ingredients here. I found it with a simple web search like anybody else can.

Shake and Bake Lab
Only one ingredient, the decongestant pseudoephedrine – marketed as Sudafed – is hard to lay hands on. Many states, including Tennessee, now tightly control it. But cooking shake-and-bake meth requires much less than other methods, and determined searchers manage to find it. This is combined in a specific order with the chemicals inside a freezer pack, lye crystals, the lithium strips inside long-life batteries, white gas, iodized salt, and sulfuric or muriatic acid. The “lab” equipment includes two 20-ounce plastic soda bottles, coffee filters, a foot of clear hose, a funnel, two canning jars, and pliers.

Just why anyone would want to smoke, snort, or inject the product of these ingredients may be more understandable if you consider that the methamphetamine rush has been described as “a thousand simultaneous orgasms.”

The procedure is simple enough that it can be done in the back seat of a moving car, one reason meth cooks are getting harder to catch. But they often give themselves away by blowing themselves up. Make just the wrong move at just the wrong time, and your portable little meth lab turns into an incendiary bomb cradled in your lap.

You might say, isn’t that a shame? If you play with fire, you’re going to get burned. But you shouldn’t smirk. We’re all getting burned.

The Associated Press recently surveyed linchpin hospitals in the most heavily plagued meth states and found that as many as a third of those being treated in some burn units were hapless meth cooks, although precise numbers can’t be determined because lots of them lied about how they were fried. Most of them were uninsured. And their treatment cost 60 percent more than other burn patients – $6,000 a day for an average of 22 days.

Burn wards have been closed because of the financial burden. For others, taxpayers – presumably that includes you – foot the bill to the tune of tens to hundreds of millions of dollars every year, by some estimates.

Now add to that the cost of rehab, occupational therapy, blindness, unemployment, some Medicaid coverage, and other related needs and conditions in the most serious cases and you should have a pretty clear picture of why no one should be smirking about meth-related injuries.

You may not bear the scars, but you’re a victim all the same.

No lye.