Methology 101: Old-school meth labs give way to "shake and bake"

Methology 101: Old-school meth labs give way to "shake and bake"


Sgt. Jason Grellner of the Franklin County Narcotics Enforcement Unit explains "shake and bake."

That methamphetamine remains so prevalent in Missouri and other states is due in part to the sheer ingenuity and persistence of meth cooks, despite government restrictions on some of the drug's key ingredients, most notably pseudoephedrine cold medicine (sold as a generic or under the brand name Sudafed). Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.

Here's a quick primer on the two most common meth recipes* and their various explosion hazards, as explained by Jason Grellner, commander of the Franklin County Narcotics Enforcement Unit. To see video of Grellner explaining the processes in more detail, click here.

It should go without saying, but please don't try this at home.

Anhydrous Ammonia Also known as the "Nazi method," after the German soldiers who were given meth to stay alert during World War II, the most popular technique gets its more scientific-sounding label from the common nitrogen farm fertilizer that is a key ingredient.

Chemically speaking, pseudoephedrine is just one oxygen atom different from meth, and a skilled cook can transform up to 98 percent of the substance into pure methamphetamine.

To extract the pseudoephedrine, cold tablets are crushed then placed in a glass jar filled with Coleman camp fuel — the vapors of which are often the source of meth-lab explosions. The mixture is combined with anhydrous ammonia (inhalation of which wreaks havoc on lung tissue), lithium (gleaned from camera batteries) and ether (in the form of engine starting fluid, a quart of which, Grellner says, "has the explosive power of four sticks of dynamite"). Then hydrogen chloride gas — made by combining sulfuric acid with table salt — is bubbled through the ether mixture, precipitating out methamphetamine.

The process takes about two hours and produces up to a pound of toxic byproducts per six ounces of meth.

Shake and Bake A new and increasingly widespread technique also known as "one pot," this condenses the anhydrous method's many steps and requires only a plastic soda bottle, the size of which depends on the quantity of meth the cook intends to make. Besides pseudoephedrine, the ingredients are lithium, a small quantity of water, Coleman fuel (or ether) and ammonium nitrate (found in chemical ice packs and a common component of improvised explosive devices such as the one used in the Oklahoma City bombing).

The ammonium nitrate combines with sodium hydroxide (a strong base), and the ensuing chemical reaction produces anhydrous ammonia. Lithium works as a catalyst with the anhydrous ammonia to remove the pseudoephedrine's extra oxygen molecule. As with the anhydrous method, hydrogen chloride gas must bubble through the mixture to produce methamphetamine, which is finally obtained by pouring the liquid through a coffee filter.

The chemical reactions cause pressure to build in the container, the cook must "burp" the bottle, allowing more oxygen in — and increasing the likelihood of an explosion, especially given that lithium sparks when it comes in contact with water.

The technique requires only a few packets of cold tablets, takes about 40 minutes from start to finish and leaves a noxious brown residue inside the bottle, which is often discarded along the roadside, as cooks tend to work in cars as they drive from one pharmacy to another, "smurfing" for Sudafed.

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