Police: Meth labs scaling down size

Julie Gifft

Methamphetamine operations are becoming smaller and more numerous in Page and Shenandoah counties, the head of the Northern Virginia Regional Drug Task Force said Thursday.

Sgt. Jay Perry of the Virginia State Police said the arrests of two people Wednesday at a residence near Mount Jackson appeared to be the latest in a trend toward meth “cooks” choosing smaller scale production methods.

The defendants, Joseph Malachi Michael, 36, and Julie Mae Gifft, 30, both of 8275 Orkney Grade, were arrested at their residence in mid-afternoon. Authorities executed a search warrant at the residence and found what they believe to have been a methamphetamine laboratory.

Michael and Gifft have both been charged with manufacturing methamphetamine and conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine.

Perry said law enforcement officials have not seen a surge in the overall levels of meth production and consumption in the region, but the laboratories are becoming smaller and more numerous.

Joseph Michael

Cooks are producing methamphetamine with no more than the shaking of a single plastic soda bottle containing a mixture of chemicals and precursors, Perry said. The mixture typically includes the cold medication pseudoephedrine, drain opener, lithium, a small amount of water, Coleman camp fuel and ammonium nitrate.

“They’ll teach their friends how to do it, and so we’re not running into really big laboratories any more, but we’re running more frequently into these smaller labs,” Perry said.

But even smaller laboratories require an expensive and labor intensive clean up to rid properties of the toxic chemicals used to brew meth.

Perry said the residence raided Wednesday yielded five buckets of chemicals that will cost the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the state government a total of $1,000 in disposal costs.

Perry said the chemicals are taken to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office in Front Royal, where they are stored until a contractor carries them away to a disposal site.

The hazmat suits for protection against contact with toxic chemicals during clean-up operations are another expense for law enforcement, Perry said. The suits are not reusable, which requires each member of a clean-up team to don a new suit whenever a meth lab is shut down.

Perry said the cost of new suits is sometimes recovered as part of court-ordered restitution if a defendant is convicted on meth-related charges.

Anybody in or around a meth lab is at risk from inhaling fumes or from fires and explosions caused by improper handling of volatile chemicals.

Despite the risks, hazmat suits remain out of fashion for those who live or work under the same roof as a meth lab.

“We have not come across anyone who has taken any of those precautionary measures,” Perry said. “Anybody in there, any pets, any children or any adults is just exposed to these chemicals, and that’s what makes it so dangerous.”

Under a state law that took effect July 1, home sellers and landlords are required to disclose past use or production of methamphetamine in a residence if they know of such activities and if the property has not been cleaned up in accordance with state guidelines.

“When you go sell a property that’s had a meth laboratory in it, it can definitely cause your property value to go down,” Perry said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com