Drug lab rats lurk in suburbs

By Balzafire · Jul 23, 2010 ·
  1. Balzafire
    THE smoke cleared and those highly flammable gases were gone, burned up in the explosion that lifted the roof off the walls.

    Charlie Sukkar, the cook trying to extract pseudoephedrine from the Sudafed, was in a hospital with burns that would eventually kill him.

    In the unit next door the explosion had collapsed the roof on to a baby's cot. Thankfully the baby wasn't in it.

    And as old Charlie suffered with his burns, the police investigation got under way and the cops walked around the little unit above a shop in St Marys, looking at all those cigarette butts on the ground and wondering how Charlie ever made it this far.

    Charlie Sukkar remains the only Australian death from running an illegal drug lab. That, of course, looks at only one side of the ledger.

    The true body count is in the thousands, once the drug is extracted and evaporated and cooked and distilled and pressed into a tablet and sold to the young innocents on the street and, if they are unlucky, their hearts stop.

    Drug labs are on the rise in NSW.

    "We're probably close to seizing up to 100 labs this year," said Nick Iorfino, an investigator with the Drug Squad's Chemical Operations Unit.

    Last year 67 drug labs were raided in Sydney. The year before it was 55.

    Already this year the Drug Squad has shut down 54 drug labs.

    But increasingly, the danger of the drug labs is not to the cooks but to you - and your children and your neighbours and their children.

    As Charlie with his cigarette butts failed to acknowledge, the "pseudo extraction" involves a highly flammable process - putting the tablet in a solvent such as methylated spirits or similar, the kind of stuff that can take your eyebrows off right there.

    To quicken the process the cook will often put it in a frying pan or a wok, or in a microwave until the powder separates and the solvent dissolves to leave the pseudoephedrine powder behind.

    All sorts of toxic chemicals are released. In Sukkar's case, those drugs could have drifted through the air and into the baby's room next door.

    They could be coming through your window right now, the only sign being a slight, chemical smell.

    It happened when a duplex in Leichhardt went blooey in March this year and a mother and her young daughter were asleep in the unit that adjoined it. The mother later claimed she often smelt something funny.

    The cook got away until the following day when, police will allege in court next month, a man with his face heavily bandaged arrived at Leichhardt police station to turn himself in.

    The dangers don't end there.

    "These drugs are dangerous because they are toxic and poisonous chemicals," Mr Iorfino said.

    "The issue is not just the drugs. They are also creating a toxic environment."

    Indeed, police investigators have turned up at drug labs years after they have been shut down and found toxic residue in the carpet. Or on the walls.

    It stays behind for years.

    So what do you know about the history of your house? Now, after every drug lab is shut down, police contact the local council to inform them so the property can be cleaned.

    Already some states in the US have begun issuing certificates guaranteeing new tenants that their house is clean.

    It is another front in crime's never-ending war.

    In 2000 a Castle Hill man was arrested and charged for cooking drugs.

    Detectives also found precursor drugs they believed would eventually be used to manufacture more drugs.

    This bloke had no idea he was about to be responsible for his own downfall. Legislation was introduced following his arrest to criminalise precursor drugs.

    "That's the charge we used against him in 2005," Mr Iorfino said.

    As the policing changes, so do the crooks' methods.

    Australian police are constantly monitoring evolving drug manufacture around the world, where methods soon drift to Australia.

    In Europe, cooks have set up drug labs in the back of constantly moving semi-trailers, making detection difficult.

    Police in Queensland have uncovered mobile labs in car boots.

    In America the crooks are pioneering a highly volatile method whereby something as small as a Coke bottle can be used as a drug lab.

    Called the Nazi method, the drugs are put in the bottle and sodium or lithium is dropped in to cause a chemical reaction.

    The cooking process is highly volatile meaning it can, quite literally, blow up in their face. Yet they're still trying it.

    A big advance in detection in Australia has been proactive policing, namely the tracking of "pseudo running". Pressure is being mounted for the Government to introduce real-time video tracking so pesudo runners can no longer buy a packet of Sudafed, for instance, at a pharmacy in Baulkham Hills and then run around the corner to another pharmacy to buy another packet, before running across town for another packet.

    While laborious, pseudo running is one of the surest methods of obtaining enough pseudoephedrine for a drug cook in a lab. That is where it all begins, this danger to you and your children and your neighbours.

    "These drug labs could be anywhere in Sydney," Mr Iorfino said.

    By Paul Kent July 24, 2010 12:00AM

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