The costs and dangers of methamphetamine go far beyond users and abusers, extending to children, neighbors and property owners.

Evacuation of an apartment building, law enforcement officers in protective suits and a child removed from a suspected methamphetamine lab – recently Mainers got a glimpse of why some in law enforcement refer to methamphetamine as the “worst” drug they have ever seen.

Not only does methamphetamine create an addiction marked by paranoia and violence and an environment of child neglect and physical deterioration, the users also can become their own suppliers by making the drug themselves, possibly in the apartment nearby.

In retrospect, neighbors said they knew something was wrong in Lewiston, but were unaware of how much danger they were in.

In the fight against methamphetamine, public awareness is key. Maine still has the opportunity to prevent the methamphetamine problem from getting to epidemic proportions. It is critical that neighbors and the community at large know what to look for.

Methamphetamine, commonly referred to as “meth,” is a highly addictive man-made stimulant that alters the chemistry of the brain, possibly permanently, and causes severe damage to internal organs.

The drug damages the part of the brain that allows the user to experience pleasure naturally, making users dependent on the drug to avoid feelings of depression. They no longer feel normal without it. The physical deterioration is dramatic.

Users can go several days without sleeping or eating. It is not uncommon for their teeth to decay and for them to pick at their skin until they develop sores to remove the “bugs” they think are crawling all over them. Additionally, once addicted, users can become a hazard to public safety due to dramatic mood swings, hallucinations, excessive panic and aggressive or violent behavior.

Common locations of methamphetamine labs are cars, barns, storage units, rental properties, wooded areas, hotel or motel rooms. Some can even carry their lab in a backpack. Signs of a lab are evidence of unusually strong, solvent or ammonia like odors, an unusual number of chemical containers, jars or bottles, windows that are covered or blacked out, odd or secretive behavior, and a lot of traffic – especially at night.

The manufacturing of methamphetamine poses a substantial risk of injury or death, from contamination, toxic gases, fire or explosion to those who live in or near the labs.

Methamphetamine is manufactured using common, legal, household ingredients. The mixing of these ingredients produces toxic and potentially explosive fumes. Breathing these fumes harms nasal passages, lungs and the brain. The toxic waste generated is often dumped down drains or wells or simply on the ground, contaminating soil and polluting water for years. It is estimated that 6 pounds of toxic waste are produced for each pound of methamphetamine manufactured.

Of particular concern for landlords or hotel and motel owners is the extensive property damage that occurs during the manufacturing process. The residue contaminates bedding, carpet and even painted walls, and permeates through ventilation systems. A home often cannot be sold or rented until it has undergone an extensive cleaning process.

Lab cleanup is beyond the financial capabilities of Maine communities. The average cost of cleanup is about $5,000, but may cost as much as $150,000. This price, along with increased costs to the criminal justice, social services and health care systems, falls upon taxpayers and property owners.

As was has been alleged in Lewiston, children are often discovered in methamphetamine labs. As methamphetamine use increases, the parent is unable to provide basics needs to the child and loses the capacity to care about anything but methamphetamine. Child neglect and physical and sexual abuse are far too common. Additional risks to children are chemical burns, accidental ingestion, respiratory problems, blood disorders and the increased risk of permanent brain or developmental damage. Weapons and drug paraphernalia are often within a child’s reach, and chemical mixtures are commonly stored in unlabeled food and drink containers. Warning signs that kids are living in a lab are clothes and hair that smell like chemicals, watery eyes, shortness of breath, burns, poor hygiene, secretiveness about their home, hyperactivity and absence from school.

The costs of methamphetamine to Maine will be unlike any we have seen before. You don’t have to be a user to be affected by this drug.

Residents need to be vigilant in reporting suspicious activity to law enforcement. If you suspect methamphetamine-related activity, always put your own safety first and contact your local law enforcement for assistance. Never take the law into your own hands; highly trained law enforcement personnel with hazardous material safety equipment must dismantle these labs. As Maine Drug Enforcement Agency Director Roy McKinney stated, “It just becomes an epidemic.”

If we all know what to look for and partner with law enforcement, we can hopefully avoid the devastation that accompanies this horrible drug.

Megan Rice is the coordinator of the Maine Meth Watch Program, which is an education effort designed to increase awareness about the harm associated with methamphetamine production and use and to increase the capacity of key institutions and community members to prevent the production and use of methamphetamine in Maine.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.