HATZIC PRAIRIE, British Columbia – Alex Hanson stood outside an abandoned farmhouse one evening in June, preparing to enter what he describes as the superlab that ended his drug career.

Three months before, Hanson said, he was here working with a group that converted 110-pound barrels of ephedrine from India and China into methamphetamine. Hanson walked away and went on Canadian television to describe the operation. The crew fled.

What remained were the crystals, caked to doors and crunching underfoot. Hanson stopped to scrape up a pile of remnants with a hunting knife.

“Can you smell, in the air, that sick, sweet aroma?” said Hanson. “That’s how you smell production. That’s the smell of money.”

While crime organizations in Asia have begun to operate meth megalabs using bulk ephedrine from India and China, Canadian criminals of Indian and Chinese ancestry are now tapping some of these same sources of chemicals to mass-produce meth in Canada.

The development is of concern to the United States, where Canadian drug traffickers have a strong presence. Asian organizations in Canada already have displaced Europe as the main U.S. supplier of the club drug Ecstasy, according to U.S. officials.

Now, those traffickers are moving into production of crystal meth. Authorities in British Columbia last year seized four working labs that met the U.S. definition of a superlab, said Staff Sgt. Mike Harding of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Harding estimated there also were six chemical dump sites with enough meth waste to have come from superlabs.

‘Conduit exists’

“The groups that are moving the Ecstasy, the groups that have moved marijuana in the past, are the same ones that are producing meth,” said Detective Constable Jim Fisher, intelligence coordinator for the Vancouver Police Department’s drug unit. “So why would we not expect it to go down south? The conduit exists.”

In India, authorities say suspicious purchases of ephedrine have spiked since early 2006.

“The Chinese-origin Canadians and the Indian-origin Canadians have joined together now,” said A. Shankar Rao, director for the New Delhi office of India’s Narcotics Control Bureau. “They have formed a cartel, and they are working very hard to procure this material.”

The U.S. State Department’s 2006 drug report said production of synthetic drugs “appears to be on the rise in Canada, particularly methamphetamine” and Ecstasy. Canadian labs, the agency said, “are becoming larger and more sophisticated.”

The drug has multiple destinations. Karen Tandy, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told an international drug conference in Montreal in May that methamphetamine trafficking organizations in the U.S. and Canada have begun exporting meth to Japan.

Canadian meth also reaches the United States under a different name. Sgt. Scott Rintoul of the RCMP said about 70 percent of the Ecstasy pills seized in Canada today contain some quantity of crystal meth. Tandy has termed this formulation “bait and switch marketing,” geared to create “a new host of unwitting meth addicts at potentially younger ages.”

Prices double

Although DEA officials say they have not seen traffickers moving large quantities of crystal alone across the northern border, incentives to enter the U.S. market have risen this year. Meth prices have doubled as Mexican traffickers struggle with new government restrictions on ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

“We’re seeing a lot more Chinese involvement in labs with Ecstasy specifically, and methamphetamine,” said Inspector Dave Nelmes, former head of the Vancouver police drug unit.

One meth lab in a $1 million Vancouver rental home last year contained 130 pounds of ephedrine, 180 pounds of red phosphorus and seven round-bottomed flasks.

Extracting pseudoephedrine from cold medicine is rare here, Nelmes said, because bulk chemicals are widely available in the port city. Ton shipments of Ecstasy ingredients have been seized in crates of Chinese soy sauce, and ephedrine and Ecstasy ingredients have been found in the same consignments.

At the farmhouse in Hatzic Prairie, Hanson’s guided tour moved to a 10-foot-square room in the basement. “OK, here’s where it all starts, right here,” he said. “The table, the scales, the ephedrine.”

In the storage room, he rattled off the correct ratios of ephedrine, red phosphorus and hydriodic acid to pack into a 22-liter round-bottom flask. Place six of the flasks on hot plates in a semicircle. Turn up the heat.

A half-barrel of ephedrine, or 55 pounds, took 12 hours to cook. The crew removed the product for further processing, cleaned the flasks and started a new batch. Hanson said he was told the lab was in operation for more than a year.

“Everything would show up at once,” Hanson said of the ephedrine barrels and other material. “There’d be a week where you’d do two barrels. And then, it shut down for a week. All the product gets sold. Acquire two more barrels, and then come back.”

All the ephedrine came from China and India, he said.

“It usually lands in Montreal or Vancouver,” Hanson said. “Once it’s there, it just disappears and gets converted into meth.”

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