After uncovering two methamphetamine labs in the past four months, the Anne Arundel County Police Department is beefing up its ability to dismantle the often dangerous sites where the drug is "cooked."
"We want to be out in front and not playing catch-up with meth if this becomes a bigger problem," said Lt. Glenn Shanahan, who heads the Police Department's narcotics unit. "We don't know if we'll be dealing with four or five labs a year, or if it will be more."
There have been six meth labs raided in Maryland this year - and two of these have been in Anne Arundel County, according to Ed Marcinko, a spokesman for the Baltimore office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. Four labs were busted in 2004.
Because of the hazardous nature of the chemicals used to manufacture methamphetamine, officers must wear oxygen tanks and protective gear, and test the air for explosive chemicals to determine whether the scene is safe.
"You can flick on a light switch, and the place can blow up," Marcinko said. Officers who have graduated from the DEA's Clandestine Laboratory Training in Quantico, Va., can safely assess the volatility of the labs, Marcinko said. The weeklong training course is paid for by the DEA. Officers who graduate from the school also receive about $2,000 worth of safety equipment, Marcinko said.
"With the onslaught of meth cases through the country, and since it is picking up in the state of Maryland, more and more law enforcement agents are obtaining this training," Marcinko said. Forty police officers and two fire officials are certified in Maryland, according to the DEA.
The most recent Maryland meth bust was last week, when officers in Anne Arundel County's Southern District arrested three people in connection with a meth lab in Lothian.
In August, a man was arrested on drug charges after a meth lab was found in a garage at a Severna Park home. These were the first two labs found in the county in the past 10 years, Shanahan said.
After the Severna Park arrest, Shanahan sent an officer to Quantico for the training. One Arundel officer already had been certified before the August bust, and a third is set to attend shortly. Shanahan said he hopes that ultimately his 30-member narcotics team will include four clandestine lab-certified officers.
Without trained officers, the county has to wait for DEA officers or certified officers from other jurisdictions to assess the scene before investigating.
"We don't want to have to wait to get [chemicals] out of the neighborhood," Shanahan said.
Methamphetamine has been in the national spotlight because of the devastating effect that the addiction has on some users and families, and the financial drain it has had on social services programs and police resources in Western and Midwestern states.
The sites where meth is manufactured can vary from "super labs," where large quantities are created, to the "mom and pop" operations.
In Lothian, police found evidence of a portable lab according to police documents. The equipment - including Pyrex bowls, a propane stand, breathing apparatus, goggles and funnels - was found in suitcases and bags, according to the documents.
"Meth is easy to make. It is cheap. It is the same high as cocaine, but it lasts longer," said Det. Ryan Fraiser, who attended the training in October and used those skills in dismantling the Lothian lab.
"It is one of those things where I'm glad our department has stepped up," Fraiser said. "We're trying to be proactive instead of reactive."