“Breaking Bad” and Current Meth Lab Laws in California

Posted by mpolkabla On December - 11 - 2012

The popular AMC Television series Breaking Bad depicts the story of a struggling chemistry teacher who begins producing and selling methamphetamine to secure his family’s financial future before he dies of lung cancer.  The lead character Walter White lives a life of crime which takes many twists and turns in this “addicting” TV drama.  However, this drama, which is glamorized on this TV series, resembles very little to the real life struggles of those who are addicted to methamphetamine with its firm grasp of dependency and suffering.

As a Senior Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) with BioMax Environmental located in Northern and Central Coast California, I have performed hundreds of sampling assessments of methamphetamine lab sites following law enforcement activities where methamphetamine drug residues have existed in concentrations far exceeding current California cleanup criteria levels.  As both an environmental professional and a father myself, it always saddens me when I find such elevated levels in residences I evaluate which have been occupied by small children and toddlers.  These kids are also exposed to the extremely harmful effects of this powerful drug through dermal (skin) exposures to surface residues, inhalation of vapors from those who are free-basing the product, and even through ingestion via the hands-to-mouth exposures so common with young children and babies who routinely touch surfaces which are “loaded” with drug residues far exceeding regulatory limits.

In fact, due to a number of factors currently present within today’s society, an increase in the use and distribution of illegally manufactured drugs has been experienced over the recent years.  According to information provided by law enforcement agencies, the most commonly synthesized illegal drug produced today by far, is methamphetamine (also commonly known as “crank”, “ice”, “crystal” or “speed”).  It is widely understood that the chemicals, materials, and techniques needed in the synthesis of methamphetamine products are readily available to illegal manufacturers from common sources.  Generally, the chemical reactions used to produce such illegal drugs involve the use of ephedrine extracted from many common over-the-counter non-prescription drugs (such as Sudafed), red phosphorous (from matches), Iodine, and pool acid.   Other common methods such as the One Pot Method or Shake & Bake method of synthesis utilize Lithium metal (from Batteries), fuel/solvent, ammonium nitrate (from fertilizer and ice cool-paks), and lye (drain/pipe cleaner).   As you can see, either process of synthesis and production of methamphetamine uses several extremely hazardous chemicals, which generate a number of highly toxic residues, products, and wastes.

Common waste materials typically include corrosive acids and bases, flammable solvents, reactive chemicals, and debatedly, the most hazardous…  the final synthesized methamphetamine drug product.  It is widely accepted that abandoned chemical products and/or drug product residues themselves present significant health risks and hazards to individuals through, potential explosions and exposures to surface residues and/or hazardous vapors when entering or unknowingly occupying an area previously used to manufacture and store such materials.   Based on such concerns, the California State Legislature has enacted and written into law the “Methamphetamine Contaminated Property Cleanup Act of 2005”.  This law was proposed under Assembly Bill 1078, signed by our State Governor, and is now codified under Chapter 6.9.1 Section 25400.10, Division 20 of the Health and Safety Code (Regulatory Standard).  Under this current law, specific requirements have been established in the assessment and mitigation of properties found to be contaminated by the manufacture, conversion, and/or storage of the illicit drug known commonly as methamphetamine.  This law also contains very strict disclosure requirements wherein information relative to the existence of a methamphetamine synthesis laboratory must be disclosed by the owners (in writing) to the purchasers and/or tenants of properties contaminated by illegal methamphetamine synthesis activities.  (Civil codes 1102.18 and 1940.7.5, Chapter 466, SB189)

In fact, California law prohibits the production of methamphetamine during any stage of the manufacturing process, including compounding, converting, manufacturing, extracting, or storing. The law also forbids offering to engage in any stage of the meth manufacturing process. (California Health and Safety Code Section 11379.6)  A person involved in “cooking” meth, mixing the chemicals to make meth, or buying equipment to manufacture meth may also be charged under California Conspiracy Laws or aiding and abetting laws.

Conducting such operations in California is classified as a felony offense, punishable by up to seven years in state prison and a $50,000 fine.  Offering to help in an operation carries a possible sentence of up to five years in prison. Aggravating factors may increase a defendant’s sentence if convicted of operating an illegal meth lab, where the production of “crystal” meth is conducted in the presence of children, or in the same structure as children, causing another person to suffer death or great bodily injury and/or where certain prior drug-related convictions have existed.  In fact, to be convicted of operating a meth lab in California, it is not necessary to completely finish the meth manufacturing process.  Simply the performance of some meth related activities, such as purchasing ingredients commonly used to manufacture meth, may be insufficient to sustain a conviction for operating a meth lab.