Merchants of Meth: How Big Pharma Keeps the Cooks in Business

With big profits on the line, the drug industry is pulling out campaign-style dirty tricks to keep selling the meds that cooks turn into crank.

—By Jonah Engle| July/August 2013 Issue

meth lab cleanup

State troopers clean up a meth lab found on school board property about a block from a London, Kentucky elementary school. Photos by Stacy Kranitz. See more of her photos from Laurel County, Kentucky.


The first time she saw her mother passed out on the living room floor, Amanda thought she was dead. There were muddy tracks on the carpet and the room looked like it had been ransacked. Mary wouldn’t wake up. When she finally came to, she insisted nothing was wrong. But as the weeks passed, her 15-year-old daughter’s sense of foreboding grew. Amanda’s parents stopped sleeping and eating. Her once heavy mother turned gaunt and her father, Barry, stopped going to work. She was embarrassed to go into town with him; he was covered in open sores. A musty stink gripped their increasingly chaotic trailer. The driveway filled up with cars as strangers came to the house and partied all night.

Her parents’ repeated assurances failed to assuage Amanda’s mounting worry. She would later tell her mother it felt "like I saw an airplane coming in toward our house in slow motion and it was crashing." Finally, she went sleuthing online. The empty packages of cold medicine, the canisters of Coleman fuel, the smell, her parents’ strange behavior all pointed to one thing. They were meth cooks. Amanda (last name withheld to protect her privacy) told her grandparents, who lived next door. Eventually, they called police.

Within minutes, agents burst into the trailer. They slammed Barry up against the wall, put a gun to his head, and hauled him and Mary off in handcuffs. It would be two and a half years before Amanda and her 10-year-old sister, Chrissie, would see their father again.

The year was 2005, and what happened to Amanda’s family was the result of a revolution in methamphetamine production that was just beginning to make its way into Kentucky. Meth users called it the "shake- and-bake" or "one-pot" method, and its key feature was to greatly simplify the way meth is synthesized from pseudoephedrine, a decongestant found in cold and allergy medicines like Claritin D and Sudafed.

Cops are waging two battles: one against meth cooks, the other against wealthy, politically connected drug manufacturers.

Shake and bake did two things. It took a toxic and volatile process that had once been the province of people with Breaking Bad-style knowledge of chemistry and put it in the bedrooms and kitchens of meth users in rural America. It also produced the most potent methamphetamine anywhere.

If anyone wondered what would happen if heroin or cocaine addicts suddenly discovered how to make their own supply with a handful of cheap ingredients readily available over the counter, methamphetamine’s recent history provides an answer. Since 2007, the number of clandestine meth sites discovered by police has increased 63 percent nationwide. In Kentucky, the number of labs has more than tripled. The Bluegrass State regularly joins its neighbors Missouri, Tennessee, and Indiana as the top four states for annual meth lab discoveries.

As law enforcement agencies scramble to clean up and dispose of toxic labs, prosecute cooks, and find foster homes for their children, they are waging two battles: one against destitute, strung-out addicts, the other against some of the world’s wealthiest and most politically connected drug manufacturers. In the past several years, lawmakers in 25 states have sought to make pseudoephedrine—the one irreplaceable ingredient in a shake-and-bake lab—a prescription drug. In all but two—Oregon and Mississippi—they have failed as the industry, which sells an estimated $605 million worth of pseudoephedrine-based drugs a year, has deployed all-star lobbying teams and campaign-trail tactics such as robocalls and advertising blitzes.

Perhaps nowhere has the battle been harder fought than in Kentucky, where Big Pharma’s trade group has broken lobbying spending records in 2010 and 2012, beating back cops, doctors, teachers, drug experts, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. "It frustrates me to see how an industry and corporate dollars affect commonsense legislation," says Jackie Steele, a commonwealth’s attorney whose district in southeastern Kentucky has been overwhelmed by meth labs in recent years.

Map of the US

See more stats on the price of Big Pharma’s pseudophedrine addiction.

Before it migrated east to struggling Midwestern farm towns and the hollers of Appalachia, methamphetamine was a West Coast drug, produced by cooks working for Mexican drug-trafficking organizations and distributed by biker gangs. Oregon was particularly hard hit, with meth labs growing ninefold from 1995 to 2001. Even then, before shake and bake, police had their hands full decontaminating toxic labs that were often set up in private homes. Social workers warned of an epidemic of child abuse and neglect as hundreds of kids were being removed from meth houses.

In despair, the Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association turned to Rob Bovett. As the lawyer for the drug task force of Lincoln County—a strip of the state’s central coast known for its fishing industry, paper mills, and beaches—he was all too aware of the scourge of meth labs. Having worked for the Oregon Legislature and lobbied on behalf of the State Sheriffs’ Association, he also knew his way around Capitol procedure.

Bovett knew that law enforcement couldn’t arrest its way out of the meth lab problem. They needed to choke off the cooks’ supply lines.

Bovett first approached the Legislature about regulating pseudoephedrine in 2000. "The legislative response was to stick me in a room with a dozen pharmaceutical lobbyists to work it out," he recalls. He suggested putting the drugs behind the counter (without requiring a prescription) to discourage mass buying, but the lobbyists refused. They did eventually agree to a limit on the amount of pseudoephedrine any one person could buy, but the number of meth labs remained high, so in 2003 Bovett tried once again to get pseudoephedrine moved behind the counter. "We got our asses kicked," he admits.

Then, in Oklahoma, state trooper Nikky Joe Green came upon a meth lab in the trunk of a car. The cook overpowered Green and shot him with his own gun. The murder, recorded on the patrol car’s camera, galvanized the state’s Legislature into placing pseudoephedrine behind the counter and limiting sales in 2004.

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The pharmaceutical industry fought the bill, saying it was unlikely to curb meth labs. But Oklahoma saw an immediate drop in the number of labs its officers busted, and Oregon followed suit later that year.

But the meth cooks soon came up with a work-around: They organized groups of people to make the rounds of pharmacies, each buying the maximum amount allowed—a practice known as smurfing. How to stop these sales? Bovett remembered that until 1976, pseudoephedrine had been a prescription drug. He asked lawmakers to return it to that status.

Pharma companies and big retailers "flooded our Capitol building with lobbyists from out of state," he says. On the eve of the House vote, with the count too close to call, four legislators went out and bought 22 boxes of Sudafed and Tylenol Cold. They brought their loot back to the Legislature, where Bovett walked lawmakers through the process of turning the medicine into meth with a handful of household products. Without exceeding the legal sales limit, they had all the ingredients needed to make about 180 hits. The bill passed overwhelmingly.

Industry’s motto has been "stop meth, not meds." One lawmaker likens it to the NRA’s "plea to people who own weapons that they are coming for your guns."

Since the bill became law in 2006, the number of meth labs found in Oregon has fallen 96 percent. Children are no longer being pulled from homes with meth labs, and police officers have been freed up to pursue leads instead of cleaning up labs and chasing smurfers. In 2008, Oregon experienced the largest drop in violent-crime rates in the country. By 2009, property crime rates fell to their lowest in 43 years. That year, overall crime in Oregon reached a 40-year low. The state’s Criminal Justice Commission credited the pseudoephedrine prescription bill, along with declining meth use, as key factors.

For Big Pharma, however, Oregon’s measure was a major defeat—and the industry was not about to let it happen again. "They’ve learned from their mistakes in Oregon, they’ve learned from their mistakes in Mississippi," says Marshall Fisher, who runs the Bureau of Narcotics in Mississippi. "They know if another state falls, and has the results that we’ve had, the chances of national legislation are that much closer. Every year they can fight this off is another year of those profits."

On a sunny winter afternoon, narcotics detective Chris Lyon turns off a country lane outside the town of Monticello in southeastern Kentucky, the part of the state hardest hit by the meth lab boom. In a case that shocked the state in 2009, a 20-month-old boy in a dilapidated trailer nearby drank a cup of Liquid Fire drain cleaner that was being used to make meth. The solution burned Kayden Branham from inside for 54 minutes until he died.

This afternoon, Lyon is following up on a call from a sheriff’s deputy about several meth labs in the woods. His Ford F-150 clambers up a steep muddy slope turned vivid ochre by the night’s rain. In the back are a gas mask, oxygen tanks, safety gloves, and hazmat suits, plus a bucket of white powder called Ampho-Mag that’s used to neutralize toxic meth waste. Cleaning up labs is hazardous work: In the last two years, more than 180 officers have been injured in the process. The witches’ brew that turns pseudoephedrine into meth includes ammonium nitrate (from fertilizer or heat packs), starter fluid, lithium (from batteries), drain cleaner, and camping fuel. It can explode or catch fire, and it produces copious amounts of toxic gases and hazardous waste even when all goes well.

Halfway up Edwards Mountain, Lyon pulls over in a clearing along the forested trail. Scattered over 50 yards are a half-dozen soda bottles, some containing a grayish, granular residue, others sprouting the plastic tubes cooks use to vent gas. Lyon snaps on black safety gloves, pulls a gas mask over his face, and carefully places each bottle in its own plastic bucket. Further up the mountain he finds more outdoor labs and repeats the procedure.

Police cleaning up a meth lab

Cops in Laurel County, Kentucky, work a meth lab—or, as they put it, a "glorified garbage pickup."

Lyon will drive his haul back to the Monticello Police Department, where a trailer is jam-packed with buckets he’s filled in the past few days. "No suspects, no way of making an arrest—it’s pretty much a glorified garbage pickup," he says with an air of dejection. "We have all kinds of information of people selling drugs," but there’s no time for investigations. "About the time that we get started on something, the phone rings and it’s another meth lab to go clean up."

It’s a problem Lieutenant Eddie Hawkins, methamphetamine coordinator for the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, was all too familiar with before his state passed its prescription bill in 2010. Since then the number of meth labs found in the state has fallen 74 percent. "We still have a meth problem," Hawkins says, "but it has given us more time to concentrate on the traffickers that are bringing meth into the state instead of working meth labs every night." Now, he says, they go after international criminal networks rather than locking up small-time cooks.

The spread of meth labs has tracked the hollowing out of rural economies. Labs are concentrated in struggling towns where people do hard, physical work for low wages, notes Nick Reding, whose book Methland charts the drug’s rise in the Midwest: "Meth makes people feel good. Even as it helps people work hard, whether that means driving a truck or vacuuming the floor, meth contributes to a feeling that all will be okay." But the highly addictive drug can also wreak havoc on users, ravaging everything from teeth and skin to hearts and lungs. And the mushrooming of shake-and-bake labs has left its own trail of devastation: hospitals swamped with injured meth cooks, wrecked and toxic homes, police departments consumed with cleaning up messes rather than fighting crime.

Meth-related cleanup and law enforcement cost the state of Kentucky about $30 million in 2009, the latest year for which the state police have produced an estimate. That doesn’t include the cost of crimes addicts commit to support their habit, of putting out meth fires, of decontaminating meth homes, of responding to domestic-abuse calls or placing neglected, abused, or injured kids in foster care. Dr. Glen Franklin, who oversees the burn unit at the University of Louisville Hospital, says his unit alone sees 15 to 20 meth lab burn patients each year, up from two or three a decade ago. They are some of his most difficult cases, often involving both thermal and chemical burns to the face and upper body from a bottle that burst into flames. Many, he notes, have also been abusing OxyContin or other prescription opiates, "so it makes their pain control that much more difficult." According to a study coauthored by Franklin in 2005, it costs an average of nearly $230,000 to treat a meth lab victim—three times more than other burn patients—and that cost is most often borne by taxpayers. Meth use as a whole, according to a 2009 RAND Corporation study, costs the nation anywhere between $16 billion and $48 billion each year.

With silver hair, glasses, and a gentle manner, Linda Belcher looks like the retired grade school teacher she is. Though her district, just south of Louisville, has a meth lab problem, she didn’t know much about the issue until Joe Williams, the head of narcotics enforcement at the Kentucky State Police, invited her and a few other lawmakers to state police headquarters. After a dinner of barbecue, coleslaw, and pork and beans, the guests descended to the basement to be briefed about key public safety issues. One was meth labs, whose effects and increasing numbers were depicted in a series of huge charts. One of Williams’ officers laid out the startling facts. Meth labs were up for the second year in a row in Kentucky, and they were spreading eastward across the state. They were turning up in cars, motel rooms, and apartment buildings, putting unsuspecting neighbors at risk. Police had pulled hundreds of children from meth lab locations. Prisons were filling up with cooks, and officers were being tied up in cleanup operations.

Belcher had been aware of methamphetamine, but she’d had no idea how bad things were getting. She set about learning more. "I went to a meeting and there was a young lady there who had been on meth," Belcher recalls. "During the time she was on it, she didn’t care about anything—not her daughter, not her parents. All she wanted was to get money and get meth. That convinced me."

A man and a woman kissing

Theresa Hall kisses her boyfriend goodbye. For being caught with meth paraphernalia and violating house arrest, she faces a year in jail.

Belcher asked Williams and other law enforcement officials what they thought should be done. They told her about what had happened in Oregon. It could work in Kentucky, they said. In February 2010, Belcher filed a bill to require a prescription for pseudoephedrine.

Soon her phone started ringing off the hook. The callers were angry. If her bill passed, they said, they would have to go to the doctor each time they were congested. It wasn’t true—more than 100 cold and allergy drugs made without pseudoephedrine, such as Sudafed PE, would have remained over the counter. And for those who didn’t like those alternatives, doctors could renew prescriptions by phone.

Members of the House Health and Welfare Committee, the key panel Belcher’s bill had to clear, were also getting calls. Tom Burch, the committee’s chairman, says the prescription measure garnered more calls and letters than any he’s dealt with in his nearly 40 years at the Capitol, except for abortion bills. "I had enough constituent input on it to know that the bill was not going to go anywhere."

Yet the legislation had gotten hardly any media coverage. How had Kentuckians become so outraged?

In April of that year, Donnita Crittenden was processing monthly lobbying reports at the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission when a figure stopped her in her tracks. A group called the Consumer Healthcare Products Association reported having spent more than $303,000 in three weeks. No organization had spent nearly that much on lobbying in the entire previous year.

Curious, Crittenden called CHPA. It was, she learned, a Washington-based industry association representing the makers and distributors of over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements—multinational behemoths like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. CHPA had registered to lobby in Kentucky just weeks before, right after Belcher filed her bill. But it had already retained M. Patrick Jennings, a well-connected lobbyist who’d earned his stripes working for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and GOP Rep. Ed Whitfield.

The bulk of CHPA’s record spending, though, was not for lobbyists. It was for a tool more commonly used in hard-fought political campaigns: robocalls, thousands of them, with scripts crafted and delivered by out-of-state PR experts to target legislators on the key committees that would decide the bill’s fate.

CHPA’s Kentucky filings don’t show which firm made the robocalls, but the association’s 2010 and 2011 tax returns show more than $1 million worth of payments to Winning Connections, a robocall company that typically represents Democratic politicians and liberal causes such as the Sierra Club’s campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline. On its website, the company boasts of its role in West Virginia, where it helped defeat a pseudoephedrine bill that had "strong backing among special interests groups and many in the State Capitol" via focused calls in key legislative districts. CHPA’s former VP for legal and government affairs, Andrew C. Fish, is quoted as saying that Winning Connections helped "capture the voice of consumers, which made the critical difference in persuading legislators to change course on an important issue to our member companies." Nowhere does Winning Connections’ site mention the intent of the bill or the word "methamphetamine." CHPA spokeswoman Elizabeth Funderburk says the association used the calls, which allowed people to be patched through directly to their legislators, to provide a platform for real consumers to get their voices heard.

Belcher’s bill never came up for a vote. Over the ensuing months, the number of meth labs found in Kentucky would grow by 45 percent, surpassing 1,000.

Belcher had learned a lesson. When she reintroduced the prescription bill in 2011, it had support from a string of groups with serious pull at the Capitol—the teachers’ union, the Kentucky Medical Association, four statewide law enforcement organizations, and Kentucky’s most senior congressman, Hal Rogers. Belcher also had bipartisan leadership support in the Legislature, and the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, Tom Jensen—whose district included the county with the second-highest number of meth labs—introduced a companion bill in the state Senate.

But the pharmaceutical industry came prepared, too. Its team of lobbyists included some of the best-connected political operatives in Kentucky, from former state GOP chairman John T. McCarthy III to Andrew "Skipper" Martin, the chief of staff to former Democratic Gov. Paul Patton. In addition to a new round of robocalls, CHPA now deployed an ad blitz, spending some $93,000 to blanket the state with 60-second radio spots on at least 178 stations. The bill made it out of committee, but with the outcome doubtful, Jensen never brought it up for a vote on the Senate floor.

Soda cans and an ice pack laying on the ground

Meth cooks often set up shop in the woods.

John Schaaf, the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission’s counsel, describes CHPA’s strategy as a game changer. "They have completely turned the traditional approach to lobbying around," he says. "For the most part, businesses and organizations that lobby, if they have important issues going on, they’ll add lobbyists to their list. They’ll employ more people to go out there and talk to legislators. CHPA employs very few lobbyists and they spend 99 percent of their lobbying expenditures on this sort of grassroots outreach on phone banking and advertising. As far as I know, nothing’s ever produced the number of calls or the visibility of this particular effort."

In other words: Rather than relying on political professionals to deliver their message, CHPA got voters to do it—and politicians listened, in Kentucky and beyond. There has been no major federal legislation to address meth labs since 2005, when pseudoephedrine was put behind the counter and sales limits were imposed (see "The Need for Speed," page 37). Lawmakers in 24 states have tried to pass prescription bills since 2009. In 23 of them, they failed.

The single exception was Mississippi, where a prescription measure supported by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour passed in 2010. The head of the state Bureau of Narcotics, Marshall Fisher, says one key to the bill’s passage was making sure it was not referred to the Legislature’s health committee, where members tend to develop close relationships with pharma lobbyists. Fisher has testified about prescription bills before health committees in several other states. "It seems like every time we’ve done that, the deck is stacked against us," he says. "You can’t fight that." Following the bill’s passage, the number of meth labs busted in Mississippi fell more than 70 percent. The state narcotics bureau, which tracks the number of drug-endangered children, reported the number of such cases fell 81 percent in the first year the law was in effect.

Next Page: Everywhere else, industry has prevailed.

Democrat will run as independent in Kentucky Senate race



 Aaron Blake, Published: September 23 at 1:57 pmE-mail the writer

Democrat Ed Marksberry, who told Post Politics two months ago that he was considering running for Kentucky’s Senate seat as an independent, is now taking steps to do just that.

Marksberry told WFPL-FM that he will drop out of the Democratic primary against Alison Lundergan Grimes and file as an independent.


Saying Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes isn’t speaking to progressives or their issues, Kentucky U.S. Senate candidate Ed Marksberry is dropping out of the primary to run as an independent.

Marksberry is an Owensboro building contractor who has been running a decidedly liberal campaign to take on Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell in next year’s election.

In a telephone interview with WFPL, Marksberry, who ran for Congress in 2012, says he plans to speak to the environment, poverty and gay rights in particular.

Marksberry says Grimes is a good Democrat, but she has given up the most important fights against McConnell to pander to special interests.

"I want to give empowerment back to those that are impoverished, back to those who understand what the environment is experiencing right now and back to those who created the middle-class," says Marksberry. "And the only way to do that is to speak about the issues. And I hope that Alison Lundergan Grimes one day will open up and talk about the issues."

Marksberry had been suing the state party, alleging it has favored Grimes’s campaign despite bylaws requiring it to stay neutral in primaries.

While the meagerly funded Marksberry stands virtually no chance of winning the Senate seat, independent and third-party candidates can steal votes from major-party candidates and affect close races. In this case, Marksberry would be running to Grimes’s left and, to the extent he can win votes they would likely come at Grimes’s expense.

Marksberry ran for Congress in 2010, taking less than one-third of the vote as the Democratic nominee against Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.).

McConnell is the Democrats’ top target in the 2014 election.

Aaron Blake

Aaron Blake covers national politics at the Washington Post, where he writes regularly for the paper’s Post Politics and The Fix blogs. A Minnesota native and graduate of the University of Minnesota, Aaron has also written for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and The Hill newspaper. He joined the Post in 2010. Aaron, his wife, Danielle, and his dog, Mauer, live in Northern Virginia. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronBlakeWP.


Kentucky Nerve Gas Arms Show Destroying Weapons Not Easy

Weapons armed with the same nerve gas used on Syrian citizens last month sit in grass-topped concrete bunkers at an Army depot in Kentucky, 20 years after the U.S. government promised to destroy them.   VIDEO LINK

Canisters of GB gas, commonly known as Sarin, are shown at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, Ky., in this Sept. 6, 2001 file photo. Photographer: Nancy Taggart/The Richmond Register via AP Photo

Sept. 19 (Bloomberg) — Secretary of State John Kerry speaks about United Nations and U.S. reports showing chemical weapons were used in Syria. Kerry, speaking in Washington, says the UN Security Council “must be prepared to act next week” to pass a resolution requiring President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to abide by terms of the U.S.-Russian agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. (Source: Bloomberg)

The bunkers, in a field at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, house rockets and other artillery holding 523 tons of the nerve agents VX and sarin in addition to flesh-blistering mustard gas. A partnership including San Francisco-based Bechtel National Inc. is building a plant to destroy them. It will open seven years from now and will dispose of the last weapon there three years later.

This week, as international monitors learn the size and makeup of the chemical weapons stockpile Syria has pledged to destroy by next year, the Blue Grass stash stands as a warning: Safe destruction of chemical weapons isn’t easy.


Syria’s promised pace would be ambitious even in a country without a civil war, said Michael Kuhlman, chief scientist for national security at the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio which is working on the Blue Grass project 30 miles south of Lexington, home of the University of Kentucky.

“I found the time frame for Syria surprising,” Kuhlman said in an interview. ‘They are presumably starting from scratch in terms of destruction capability and the security situation there certainly isn’t going to expedite matters.’’

Syrian Commitment

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad affirmed his intentions in a Sept. 18 televised interview with Fox News. He said he would dispose of the weapons in about a year, with the guidance of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, based in the Hague, Netherlands. The group enforces the international chemical weapons treaty that Syria joined last week. The U.S. joined the accord in 1993.

Assad said he understood the destruction process is complicated and he’s been told it will cost about $1 billion.

The Syrian project’s speed will hinge on how much of its chemical agents are already inside weapons, as they are in Kentucky. The job is easier if they aren’t, Kuhlman said.

It will also depend on how the nation disposes of them. After the first Gulf War ended in 1991, Iraq burned its chemical weapons in a ditch. The U.S. imposes environmental discharge rules, and destruction of the Blue Grass weapons was delayed in large part because local residents opposed incinerating them and Congress forced the Defense Department to find another way.

U.S. Stockpile

The U.S. chemical weapons stockpile contained more than 30,000 tons of lethal chemicals when the country signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993, agreeing to destroy all of the weapons by last year. By comparison, Syria is estimated to have about 1,000 tons, Kuhlman said.

The U.S. chemical agents were stored at depots in Maryland, Arkansas, Utah, Indiana, Alabama, Colorado and Johnson Atoll, a territorial island in the South Pacific, in addition to the 14,500-acre Blue Grass site.

The Defense Department had been experimenting with ways of destroying the weapons before the U.S. signed the treaty, including dumping some of them at sea. In 1984, the Pentagon and the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, endorsed incineration as the best method.

That, too, is a slow process, said Kuhlman. Construction on an incinerator at Deseret Chemical Depot in Utah, which held 45 percent of the nation’s chemical weapons stockpile, started in 1989. Testing began in 1994, and it became operational in 1996, he said. It took two years to destroy a supply of nerve-agent weapons that was similar to the size of Syria’s estimated stockpile. The entire Utah project took 15 years.

Last Stashes

The U.S. met the treaty deadline at seven of nine sites, destroying 90 percent of its chemical stockpile. Most of the work was completed within the past few years.

The Blue Grass depot and a second depot near Pueblo, Colorado are the two left with chemical arsenals.

The cost of the entire disposal process, once completed, is estimated to be $35 billion, $10.6 billion of which will be spent in Kentucky and Colorado, according to Defense Department spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea and the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives website, the agency responsible for destroying the weapons at the remaining depots.

The Colorado site has 2,600 tons of mustard gas inside more than 800,000 weapons. The 523 tons of mustard gas and nerve agents in Kentucky are inside 101,000 weapons, according to Craig Williams, 65, who is co-chairman of the Chemical Destruction Citizens Advisory Board for the Blue Grass project.

Railroad Delivery

The Kentucky site has been storing mustard gas for years. The first shipment of nerve-agent rockets arrived in 1961, said Lloyd Anglin, of Berea, who worked on the depot’s engineering staff at the time.

The rockets came in a locked boxcar, which sat on a railroad spur for four days under armed guard as the engineering team rushed to build a facility “to unload whatever it was,” said Anglin, now 90. “The armed guards were there 24-7. Nobody knew what it was except the brass.”

The shipments arrived regularly after that and the team learned that they contained agents that would kill on contact. Anglin helped seal some of the rockets in concrete-filled caskets, which were then put on a ship in Wilmington, North Carolina and dropped into the Atlantic Ocean. Most stayed in the earth under grass-topped, domed concrete bunkers called igloos, which are laid out in a widely spaced grid. Deer grazed there and some died, Anglin said, if they ate too close to a monitor vent at a bunker with “leakers.” Security fencing around the area has since been improved.

Rabbit Air-Monitors

A bunny hutch housed a critical part of the monitoring system. A trio of rabbits spent the night in any bunker scheduled for human inspection, which went forward if they survived.

“I would put one in the back, one in the center and one in the front, then leave them there overnight,” Anglin said. “The next day, if the rabbits were OK, we’d go in. Once in a while, you’d get a dead rabbit,” Anglin said.

The government no longer uses animals as air monitors, Elzea said in an e-mail.

Most depot neighbors knew nothing of the weapons. They learned of their existence after the Defense Department announced plans to incinerate the deadly chemicals in 1984, according to Williams, 65, the advisory board member.

Convinced that burning them could spread contaminants accidentally, the community fought with the Army for the next 12 years. Houses and a school were a little more than a mile from the depot site, Williams said: “It’s not like we’re in the middle of the desert here.”

Congressional Action

The fight ended in 1996 when Congress passed a law requiring the Pentagon to investigate alternative technologies. Williams blames the Defense Department for the delay. “They decided how they were going to do it without consulting with the community,” he said.

Alternative disposal technologies now are on track to be used at both the Kentucky and Colorado depots.

In Colorado, a factory that will destroy the mustard gas arsenal will be complete in 2015, and the last weapons will be annihilated in 2019.

In Kentucky, the partnership of Bechtel National and Parsons Infrastructure and Technology Group Inc., of Pasadena, California, is building a robotized plant that will separate the chemicals from the weapons, then turn them into water, carbon dioxide and salts, using a combination of heat, water, caustics and pressure. The last weapon will be gone in 2023.

To contact the reporter on this story: Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta, Georgia at [email protected]

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at [email protected]


Fear and loading in Kentucky

by Andy Kopsa@andykopsa

September 19, 2013 9:00AM ET

$350 buys you a bump fire stock to turn a semiautomatic rifle into a machine gun

Barrel assemblies for weapons on sale during the semi-annual Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot at the Knob Creek Gun Range in West Point, Kentucky.

My first night in Louisville, Jim showed me his guns. The born-and-bred Kentucky boy stores them in a hulking safe with a keypad lock, hidden inside a walk-in closet. Over 5 feet tall and almost 4 feet wide, it easily holds Jim’s collection of pistols, rifles and handguns, with room to spare. Lining the back of the door is a leather organizer with more guns snugly tucked in its pockets.

One by one, Jim pulled out gun after gun, explaining the provenance of each one. There was his grandfather’s Browning SA .22, an antique handgun of gray polished metal. I could tell by the way he handled it that it was heavy. His grandpa "kept it on his nightstand," Jim said, and called it a "squirrel shooter." There was the precision Anschutz target rifle of the finest craftsmanship. And the semiautomatic AR-15, bought prior to the 1994 federal assault-weapon ban (which expired a decade later). Jim’s AR-15 looked like a cheap plastic toy, but he assured me his gun was far superior to the ones made now.

In the gun-friendly culture prevalent in Kentucky, Jim’s multigenerational collection of guns isn’t unusual. What makes him stand out in the community, however, is his stance on gun control. (In fact, his views on background checks and waiting periods — he’s for them — are so contentious that he asked me not to use his real name so he wouldn’t be recognized at the gun ranges where he is a regular.)

During a phone conversation with him this January, with the shadow of the Sandy Hook shooting massacre in the background, he told me that the variety of guns and gun accessories readily available in his state should frighten me. Within a 20-minute drive of his house, he said, he could legally purchase everything he needed to convert an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, or SAR (which, each time the trigger is pulled, fires once, ejects the empty casing and immediately loads another round), into a fully automatic weapon capable of shooting 100 rounds a pop. All Jim needed was a device known as a bump fire stock, available for purchase online and at gun retailers, gun shows and ranges for $350 to $500.

"I betcha didn’t know [you could do that]," Jim said. He was right. I didn’t. That’s how I found myself in Louisville, Ky., handling Jim’s AR-15 — the weapon I would modify with a bump fire.

Jim instructed me to handle the rifle and familiarize myself with the different parts and the sequence of actions required to shoot it. I was surprised how quickly I became proficient at flipping the safety, sliding the bolt open and closed and clicking the ammunition chamber shut with my right index finger. Within 15 minutes I was running through the pre-firing routine smoothly.

A good state for gun owners

The magazine Guns & Ammo ranks Kentucky as No. 5 on its list of best states for gun owners because of its lax gun laws. The state’s concealed-carry laws cover all kinds of guns, not just handguns. There is no permit needed to carry a weapon in public (called open carry) and no waiting period to purchase a gun. (Kentucky used to have a wait, also known as a cooling-off period to protect against impulsive acts of violence, but it was abolished recently, along with other restrictions.) And Kentucky has a "stand your ground" law — as made infamous by the Trayvon Martin case in Florida — and there are no restrictions on purchasing SARs or on magazine capacity.

Unsurprisingly then, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence puts Kentucky near the bottom in its 2011 survey of states’ regulation policies. It scored just 2 out of a possible 100 points. Only Arizona, Utah and Alaska scored lower, coming in at zero.

In Kentucky, it is entirely legal to purchase a machine gun, which spits out bullets for as long as the trigger is pressed and there is ammunition in the chamber, allowing hundreds of rounds to be fired in a matter of minutes — as opposed to single-shot or semiautomatic weapons, which only fire one bullet each time the trigger is pulled.

The buyer has to clear a background check by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: disqualifiers include a felony conviction, a dishonorable discharge from the military or a record of domestic violence. Then a $200 tax stamp is all that separates the buyer from the machine gun, which typically ranges in price from $12,000 to $16,000 for a new model.

In recent months, gun-control laws have become even looser. In March, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law Senate Bill 150, which repeals the six-month state residency requirement to acquire a concealed carry permit. The National Rifle Association praised its passage, saying it was "critical" to one’s inherent right to self-defense and that the residency requirement was in fact "discriminatory."

The next day, Jim and I headed out to Knob Creek shooting range, about a 25-minute ride from Louisville. We arrived around noon and went inside to pay our $20 range fee. The Knob, as it is known, is featured in the Country Music Television reality series "Guntucky," about the family-owned and -operated outdoor range famous for letting a person shoot almost any object. If you can drag it out onto the 350-yard range, you can shoot it. The rules have changed slightly over the years because some items, for example, an old toilet, once destroyed, spewed shrapnel that pierced the tires of the range’s maintenance vehicles.

The office is in a large aluminum outbuilding with a snack shop, with several lunchroom-style tables where customers can order a hot dog or popcorn, and the main office area in the back, which is more gun store than office.

The Knob’s walls are lined with long guns (firearms with long barrels such as rifles and shotguns) and draped with flags — American and Confederate and those of the armed-services branches — and glass cases filled with handguns pack the room’s perimeter. Customers can rent a .50-caliber machine gun like ones mounted on armored vehicles for use in war. Pay the $100 fee and, under the close supervision of Knob staff, you can squeeze off 10 rounds from this tremendous weapon.

But the gun range isn’t only for serious shooters. Several gun ranges in and around Louisville have family memberships, family-centric events and classes for young shooters. Other ranges host ladies’ nights and lunchtime shooting specials with reduced fees. According to its website, the Knob "strives to provide a safe, friendly atmosphere for families to enjoy firearms."

After paying our range fee, we set up on one of the 20 or so shooting tables facing downrange. The range master, an older man with a revolver on his hip, cautioned us to make sure that all gun barrels were pointed downrange and that we had chamber flags (small plastic orange flags inserted in the firing chamber of a gun to show it is unloaded) in and the safety on when not shooting.

The Knob is an outdoor range not far from Louisville famous for letting a person shoot almost any object. If you can drag it out onto the range, you can shoot it.

Jim placed the AR-15 on our table, balancing the barrel on a sandbag for support. I laid out magazines of 20 and 30 rounds next to me; my thumb and forefinger were stained black from loading more than 600 rounds the night before.

I looked through the laser sight, which Jim called a doughnut sight because a red "doughnut" appears on the glass screen to zero in on the target. The first shot I took was maybe 50 yards out: a soda can we set up to watch it blow. I don’t remember if it was the first or second shot that sent the can spraying in the air, but it was a rush. I wanted to shoot more things — watermelons, pineapples, proper targets set up farther out.

After the AR-15, I tried a larger-caliber SAR called a .302 and a couple of single-shot rifles. Jim and I shot until our clothes were ringed with sweat and most of our ammo spent. In the 96-degree Kentucky heat, four hours had passed in what seemed like an instant.

At the close of that first day, I asked one of the range workers where I could buy a bump fire. He disappeared from the cash register for a few minutes and returned to present us with small, dusty box containing a bump fire, manufactured by a company called Slide Fire. I paid the $350, slipped the box into my shoulder bag, and Jim and I were on our way.

3 minutes to a machine gun

The only reason to own a Slide Fire or any bump fire stock is for the pleasure of shooting 20 or 30 rounds in mere seconds. No one attaches a Slide Fire to a gun to go deer hunting. Not only is it considered a breach of hunting etiquette; the modified weapon is inaccurate. Someone who is not properly trained or very familiar with its firing style could spray bullets everywhere.

Modifying Jim’s AR-15 with my Slide Fire took all of 10 minutes the first time we tried it. The Slide Fire box contained only three objects: a plastic Slide Fire stock (or butt, which is placed against the shoulder when firing), a small square adapter to join the Slide Fire to the body of the weapon and an Allen wrench. We didn’t need the wrench. The only tool we required was a long-handled flat-head screwdriver to remove the original pistol grip.

I slid the original stock off by lifting a simple lever, unscrewed and removed the pistol grip, put the Slide Fire adapter where the pistol grip had been, slid the Slide Fire stock into place on the gun, screwed the pistol-grip screw back in and was done. After a couple of tries, following the simple directions on the box, I could make the switch effortlessly in about 3 minutes.

The next day we took the modified SAR back to the range. I asked Jim to try it first, and in a few short bursts Jim emptied a 20-round clip into the dirt 30 yards away.

He turned to me with a surprised smile and yelled, "Well, goddamn!" Clearly, the device didn’t disappoint.

It was my turn. The shooting, I found, started in short bursts. Firing the weapon was counterintuitive. Instead of pulling the trigger with my right finger, I had to hold my right hand steady on the pistol grip. My left hand, which was holding up the barrel, became my trigger finger. The movement felt like drawing an arrow back in a bow; the left hand, with pressure, pushed forward while the right hand pulled back.

I got the hang of it in short order. I emptied two 20-round magazines in about a minute, including the time I took to change out the magazines. The power I felt shooting it and the fear of the damage it could do were the recipe for an overwhelming adrenaline rush. It was at once one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences of my life.

The modified SAR looks almost exactly like an unmodified SAR, with only a slight difference in the stock profile. Unless someone knows what to look for, the difference isn’t obvious. But the sound is different; it doesn’t make the familiar pop-pop-pop of an SAR. A few people approached us on the gun range to tell us they had heard us shooting our "toy," and man, that sounded like fun.

The camaraderie on the range was evident when I took a break from shooting in the snack bar and was approached by Rose, an elderly woman who had come out to the Knob with her son-in-law and grandson. The boys had come to shoot, she said, but Rose just wanted some advice from the range shop’s guys about her new .12-gauge shotgun.

Rose also owns a .38-caliber handgun. Both of her guns she keeps for protection, she said. To stay sharp, she practices at home. "I have a little target range set up in my basement," she said. All you need is a bullet trap, she explained, a metal box about 2 feet square that a target is affixed to for shooting practice. The device captures, or traps, the bullets, preventing them from ripping into walls. But the new gun had been giving her trouble, she said.

"I wanted to hold [the shotgun] like this," she said, as she motioned an invisible gun into her armpit, "but they told me I can’t hold a gun like that," as it was too big for her. They suggested she get a smaller-caliber gun, one she could hold properly with the butt against her shoulder.

I asked her if she could return the gun. She couldn’t, but she wasn’t worried about getting her money back, she said, since "there is always someone willing to buy it from you."

The gun show loophole

Rose may not have specifically had gun shows in mind when she spoke about selling her shotgun, but they are notorious for person-to-person sales in which gun owners sell their weapons. Because the guns are considered their property, they are not legally required to perform a background check as licensed dealers must to sell weapons. This is commonly known as the gun-show loophole.

Gun shows are an integral part of the gun culture of the South. They provide meeting places where gun enthusiasts and die-hard Second Amendment supporters gather. A single gun-show aisle might showcase weapons, ammunition, black powder to make your own ammunition and literature as well as supplies to prepare for end-times such as water purifiers, meals ready to eat and a 40-gallon drums of beef jerky.

While I was in Kentucky, there was a gun show at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, only an hour and a half away by car. It used to fill five exhibition halls but this year filled only one at the south edge of the grounds. There was a modest line to get in when I arrived on the opening day, and a huge orange sign out front instructed people to "unload weapons now." A woman staffed a plexiglass ticket booth; the cost of entry was $12. A row of Indianapolis police officers sat at a folding table, checking weapons to ensure they weren’t loaded. They also ran zip ties through firing mechanisms to guard against accidental discharge.

The licensed gun dealers there came in all sizes. Some booths consisted of just a folding table set up on the concrete floor, while others had elaborate exhibition spaces to show off their products. Each booth I saw was outfitted with a laptop to run instant background checks so people could legally purchase firearms on the spot.

But if I had wanted to evade a background check, I could just as easily have purchased someone else’s gun, checked and zip-tied by a policeman, if the price was right, no questions asked.

It took only about 10 minutes at the show before a private seller, an SAR slung over one shoulder, approached me about his weapon. I stood at a booth reading a book on how to modify an SAR into a fully automatic weapon with some minor machine work. "I’m asking $1,000 for this one," he said, gesturing to his rifle. "I built it myself."

And he wasn’t alone. Scores of people (the ones I saw were men and mostly white) were walking up and down the aisles, selling their guns. Some would-be sellers even put handwritten flags with an asking price "or best offer" in the barrels of their guns. These were cash-only transactions, I was told, but if I didn’t have that much on me, there were ATMs conveniently flanking each of the hall’s entrances.

But according to the NRA and other gun-rights advocates, the gun-show loophole — sellers offloading their guns informally in the aisles of guns shows like the one at I attended in Indiana — is a myth. (The NRA didn’t respond to my request for interview or comment.)

John Malcolm, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Edward Meese Center, a conservative think tank, said in a phone interview that what was a so-called loophole to some could as easily be seen by others as the right of a person to sell his or her personal property, a right that must not be infringed. In a February blog post for the foundation website, he wrote that the data that the gun-show loophole argument is based on — that roughly 40 percent of gun purchases are made at gun shows in private sales — is outdated and unreliable, akin to "citing data about current seat belt usage that is derived from a limited sample taken years before a mandatory seat belt law went into effect or before cars were even required to have seat belts."

If I had wanted to evade a background check, I could have easily purchased a firearm from a private seller at the gun show, no questions asked.

The night before I left Kentucky, Jim removed the bump fire from his AR-15 and replaced it with the original stock. "I could try and sell this for you, if you want," he said, putting it back in its box. But it was just as likely to end up in the corner of his gun closet. He wouldn’t be using it again.

I won’t be shooting one again either. As this story was being put to bed, the news broke about this week’s mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. Twelve people dead, eight injured.


Kentucky Ag Commissioner Gives Farmers Green Light To Grow Hemp

Reported by: Aaron Adelson

Email: [email protected]



Agriculture Commissioner James Comer says he hopes Kentucky farmers plant hemp in April.

"We used to grow tobacco on the farm and now basically we just have cattle and grow hay, and it just

seems like a good alternative crop," said Steven Albert, a farmer from Green County. 

Albert came to a Hemp Commission meeting to learn more. 

The state legalized industrialized hemp if federal law would allow it.

Well, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would not prosecute the two states that legalized marijuana.  Furthermore,

Comer says the man who wrote the memo testified the government would not prosecute hemp farmers.

Comer says this gives Kentucky the green light.

"This is a very exciting first step, and we’ll just have to see.

History will decide whether this was a defining moment in Kentucky agriculture, or not," said Comer.

He and Senator Rand Paul plan to send the DOJ a letter announcing the state’s intent to move forward.
"I can’t imagine why they would be opposed to it," said Comer.
Things are moving quickly, but farmers like Albert need to learn how to grow hemp.

"Farmers in Green County know how to grow tobacco, tomatoes, anything you can think of,

but when I ask them how do you grow hemp?  How do you harvest hemp?  Most of them say they don’t know," said Albert.

The state needs to work out some regulatory issues before anybody puts seeds in the ground.


Illinois man charged with selling hallucinogenic mushrooms faces 20 years in prison



PORTAGE — A Glencoe, Ill., man is accused of selling $180 worth of psychedelic mushrooms to undercover officers Aug. 29.

Mark Edward Mikolajczyk, 33, now faces up to 20 years in prison on a Class B felony of dealing drugs and has also been charged two misdemeanors, possession of marijuana and possession of paraphernalia.

An informant told the Porter County Drug Task Force that he knew of someone who dealt in “molly,” also known as Ecstasy, and psilocybin mushrooms.

Mikolajczyk told undercover agents he was out of “molly” but drove to Portage to deliver the mushrooms.

Portage police pulled him over after the deal and found the money used to buy the drugs (serial numbers had been recorded so the cash could be tracked), as well as another $703 and the marijuana.


Comer says decision greenlights Kentucky hemp




Ralph B. Davis [email protected]

FRANKFORT — Kentucky’s agriculture commissioner says a recent decision by the U.S. Department of Justice now clears the way for Kentucky farmers to once again grow industrial hemp.

Last week, the Justice Department announced it would not seek to challenge state laws regarding the medical or recreational use of marijuana. On Friday, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said he interprets that announcement as an opening for Kentucky to begin implementing Senate Bill 50, which sets guidelines for the production of industrial hemp, that passed earlier this year.

“It’s about time!” Comer said in a statement released Friday. “This is a major victory for Kentucky’s farmers and for all Kentuckians.”

Comer said the DOJ announcement marks a major change in policy.

“Two years ago, the Obama administration would not even discuss the legalization of industrial hemp,” Comer said. “But through a bipartisan coalition of Kentucky leaders, we forced their hand. We refused to listen to the naysayers, passed a hemp bill by a landslide, and our state is now on the forefront of an exciting new industry. That’s called leadership.”

Comer also announced that Brian Furnish, chairman of the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission, has called a meeting of the group for Sept. 12, at which Comer and Furnish will urge the commission to move forward with the administrative framework established by the hemp bill.

“My hope is that we can issue licenses and get industrial hemp in the ground within a year,” Furnish said.

Comer said he believes the passage of the hemp bill will allow Kentucky to be proactive, rather than reactive, in creating jobs.

“Had we not passed the framework to responsibly administer a program, we would be lagging behind right now, rather than leading the pack,” Comer said. “I am so grateful to our federal delegation for its support, especially Sen. Rand Paul and Congressmen John Yarmuth and Thomas Massie, who courageously testified in support of this job-creating legislation.”

On Wednesday, Sen. Paul issued a statement, supporting Comer’s move.

“I support Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer in his efforts to move forward with the production of industrial hemp in the Commonwealth,” Paul said. “This fight has always been about jobs and providing another opportunity for Kentucky’s farmers, and I expect the Obama Administration to treat all states equally in this process. I will continue to fight at the federal level to enact legislation to secure this new industry for Kentucky.”