Epidemic: Mom and pop meth labs dominate SC drug manufacturing

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - In quiet, sleepy neighborhoods across the state of South Carolina, a chemical poison is rotting the core of suburbia.

It's crystal meth, and you'd be surprised where you'd find it.

Recently, we were allowed to ride along with the Drug Enforcement Agency as part of an undercover investigation into the meth manufacturing trade.

And it didn't take long to find something on a Monday morning.

"With a little research, less than one hour, using some resources provided to me, I was able to substantiate that there was more likely than not a meth lab at this residence," said an undercover agent. "Certainly within a few minutes of being here we confirmed it."

It's not what you might expect a drug lab should look like -- it's a regular home tucked away in a normal neighborhood. But this is the reality of meth production in South Carolina.

After 15 years with SLED, Lt. Max Dorsey has seen labs like this time and time again.

"All the cooks don't have PhDs in chemistry," said Dorsey. "Very few of them have high school diplomas.

"Meth in South Carolina is being manufactured in these mom and pop labs and they have been refined to these drink bottles. These two-liter, one-liter, or sixteen-ounce drink bottles, you put these ingredients in these vessels, you let the reaction occur, and you let it dry, and then you consume it, you smoke it, you snort it, you inject it."

"You need some type of ether, whether it's Coleman fuel or charcoal lighter fluid, ice packs, fertilizer, lithium," said an undercover agent. "I mean these are all items that are fairly inexpensive and you can pick them right up at any pharmacy or Walmart."

More and more of these portable meth labs are being found in motel rooms, cars, and quiet homes. In 2010, authorities busted just 125 labs in South Carolina. This year, that number has more than tripled to 479.

"The month of October was the highest month of meth lab seizures in South Carolina," said Dorsey. "I believe the Upstate has had the taste of meth for a lot longer than the rest of the state. I think it has been up there longer and there has been a larger customer base for that."

Meth may be the one of the only drugs that not only endangers the user, but all those around it due to its volatile and corrosive chemical formula.

"One of these reaction vessels that produces hazardous gases and has the potential to burn their skin or catch on fire, so they have specialized equipment to filter the air they breath and greatly increases their chances of being exposed to a hazardous environment," said an undercover agent.

The average lab clean up can cost up to $6,000, and that money comes from the taxpayer.

"A lot of times these environments are just terrible," said Dorsey. "They're dirty, they're nasty. You find the worst things you could ever imagine in these environments. Many times, well, sometimes you find children in those environments who have been abused, mistreated, not fed, sexually abused, and so it is some of the most horrific environments you could ever imagine."

Twelve agencies in the Upstate concentrated their efforts over a two-day period earlier this month to 13 labs. As a result, 31 people were arrested and 7 children were taken into protective custody.

"We've put, just from this particular incident, two people in jail that we feel are responsible for manufacturing the meth, and that's a benefit to the community because we don't have to worry about these two individuals making meth at least for the next few weeks."

We'll continue this story on Tuesday night at 11 p.m. Stay tuned.

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