By Ray Downs
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He remembers the phone call he received on September 11, 2001, following the attacks on the World Trade Center.
"I was contacted, as were most burn-center directors around the country, to get an idea of how many patients we could accept if there were hundreds or thousands of burn casualties," he says. "Unfortunately, there were very few survivors. But if something like that happened again — our extra capacity is a pretty narrow margin."
A few weeks after James Johnson was released from St. John's, he paid a visit to his parole officer. Given the circumstances, she was not happy to see him. In the months leading up to his accident, he'd persuaded her to sign paperwork that allowed him to leave the state. He'd had her — along with most of his family and friends — believing that he had kicked his meth habit.
"She told me, and I quote, 'You're the fuckin' poster child for shake and bake,'" Johnson recalls. "She said 'fuckin'' too. It kinda freaked me out how she said it like that."
Missouri law-enforcement officials say they first encountered shake and bake about two years ago. The most popular meth-cooking method (then and now) involves anhydrous ammonia. That mode of manufacture requires several hours, not to mention a heat source such as a stovetop or a blowtorch, an improvised home-chemistry set of glass jars and plastic tubing, and, most essentially, multiple packets of medicine containing pseudoephedrine.
Shake and bake yields smaller (though equally pure) quantities of meth with fewer pills and takes less than 40 minutes from start to finish. The formula is widely available online. Johnson says a friend taught him how to do it.
"All I heard was shake and bake this and shake and bake that," he remembers. "I didn't know what it was. I was used to anhydrous ammonia. I had a friend that knew how to do it. I begged and begged, and he didn't want to show me. But he finally showed me how to do it. It didn't look dangerous. [But] some of that stuff [ammonium nitrate] is what they used in the Oklahoma City bombing."
Between 2000 and 2007, police busted 16,189 meth labs in Missouri. According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, 330 of those labs — about 2 percent — involved incidences of explosions or fire.
Jason Grellner, commander of the Franklin County Narcotics Enforcement Unit, says the low ratio of fires to meth labs seized is due to the high percentage of cooks working almost exclusively with anhydrous ammonia.
"Basically," Grellner explains, "if you've got a few brain cells left snappin' and know your own name, you can make meth from the anhydrous method pretty quickly."
Johnson seconds that opinion. "It's simple," he says. "If you can make cookies, you can do it."
Even so, the process involves a number of highly flammable liquids and gases that can be touched off by something as simple as a lit cigarette.
"The problem is that they get impatient," Grellner explains. "They start adding heat to the process in different areas. They boil off the Coleman fuel rather than let it evaporate. They use heat guns to dry out the meth quicker. Then things start to go haywire."
Grellner knows from personal experience that anhydrous ammonia's hazards aren't limited to explosions. He lost 22 percent of his lung capacity after accidentally inhaling fumes during a meth bust in 2002. There are also the cooks who attempt to manufacture their own ammonia and store it in crudely modified propane tanks. "That's where we're seeing the really violent explosions," he says. "Leveling houses, twisting houses off of their frames and that sort of thing."
Shake-and-bake explosions are tame by comparison, making them much more difficult for law enforcement to track. Police found 1,774 meth labs in Missouri last year (up from 1,487 in 2008) and counted 17 explosions.
This year, for the first time, police in Missouri are able to differentiate between shake-and-bake and anhydrous labs when they fill out incident reports. Because the former often takes place in cars and the evidence can be discarded easily, Grellner and other law-enforcement officials suspect the statistics — which have not yet been compiled by the Missouri State Highway Patrol — will not reflect how widespread shake and bake has become.
"Coolers, garbage bags, nylon sports bags — you name it," Grellner says. "We get a dozen calls a week for dumped meth labs along the roadway. We also had two people pass out on I-44 from the ether fumes and hit bridge abutments."
Whereas old-school meth cooks often perished when things went explosively wrong, shake-and-bake mishaps tend not to be fatal. That translates into more meth addicts staggering into emergency rooms.
"It causes a pattern of burns that is more focused on the upper body, the face and the hands — as if somebody was working on a device or some equipment," Smock says. "It generally causes an explosion plus significant alkali injuries to the face and eyes. It's both thermal and chemical burns."
Adds UC Davis' Greenhalgh: "We've had people who were wearing nothing but Speedo-style underwear. And unfortunately, everything that's not covered is burned."