Chemical makes meth blush

Tuesday, February 8, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:22 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

A new product that stains methamphetamine users’ skin is being touted as the latest tool in Missouri’s efforts against the drug.

But questions remain about the environmental safety of the compound and whether evidence of its effects will be viable in court.

State Rep. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, filed a bill in the state House of Representatives Jan. 31 that would compensate farmers for using GloTell, a liquid additive for anhydrous ammonia fertilizer tanks that ionizes the gas so that it appears bright pink.

“This GloTell product is pretty cool,” Shoemyer said. “It causes anhydrous to glow fluorescent under a black light. It reduces the yield of drugs that can be made, and it actually turns the users’ skin pink when they inject it.”

All of that makes it easier for law enforcement to spot meth cooks who steal the tanks and users who ingest the substance after the fertilizer has been cooked into the drug. It stains people and equipment that come into contact with treated anhydrous and reduces the drug’s euphoria.

“I’ve seen this stuff,” Shoemyer said. “No meth user wants to be that color.”

Shoemyer has a 2,500-acre family farm that straddles Monroe and Shelby counties and considers farming his first profession. His proposed legislation would offset the cost for farmers who help law enforcement combat meth.

“It’s a giant problem,” said Sgt. Jason Clark of the Missouri State Highway Patrol. In 2004, there were 433 reports of stolen anhydrous which were investigated by the highway patrol, Clark said.

The Northern Missouri Drug Task Force oversees narcotics law enforcement in meth-prone counties like Shelby, Monroe, Randolph, Scotland and Clark, some of which are in Shoemyer’s district. The task force had 242 reports of stolen anhydrous, Clark said. Combined with the highway patrol’s numbers, there were at least 675 reports of stolen fertilizer.

“There’s probably hundreds more reported to other state police agencies,” Clark said.

Russ Cramer of the Missouri Farmers Union said almost all grain farmers use the gaseous fertilizer anhydrous ammonia as a source of nitrogen for their crops.

Almost all meth cooks use it as well, said Maj. Tom Reddin of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department.

“Anhydrous ammonia theft is a problem in any rural community,” he said. “It is often used in the ‘cold cook’ method, one of the most predominant ways methamphetamine is created.”

Clark said, “Thieves get into these tanks, and they come back and fill up coolers and other unapproved containers several times until they are exposed. Sometimes they just break locks on tanks and take them.

“That is such a dangerous part of that operation, when they are tapping into those anhydrous tanks, it is something that can overwhelm a person and cause major medical problems immediately,” he said.

Royster-Clark, which makes GloTell, asserts on its Web site ( that the material is environmentally safe. It doesn’t decrease the effectiveness of anhydrous ammonia as a fertilizer, and it breaks down in soil after 24 to 48 hours, according to the Web site.

But George Hess, senior specialist with the seventh region of the Environmental Protection Agency, isn’t so sure. GloTell’s ingredient information is proprietary, making it hard to research its effects, Hess said.

GloTell was invented by an Illinois farmer in early 2002, said Scott Spellman, a sales representative for the product.

Spellman, who deals mostly with distributors of anhydrous ammonia, said that his division ships a “quite a bit” of the product to Missouri.

While GloTell is the only anhydrous additive currently on the market, competitors are coming, Spellman said.

“Other products are being developed as we speak,” he said. “Everyone is trying to find a solution.”

Dale Woolery of the Governor’s Office of Drug Control Policy in Iowa said that research on another chemical additive for anhydrous ammonia has been going on for almost four years at Iowa State University.

“This additive seems to reduce the yield and purity (of meth) to a level that law enforcement says will act as a deterrent,” Woolery said.

The additive, which is a type of calcium nitrate, has proven effective in lab research and is undergoing field tests.

“More tests are being conducted to satisfy lingering questions and hurdles that need to be overcome,” Woolery said. Existing concerns include questions of the additive’s effect on transportation and application systems for the fertilizer, Woolery said.

He also suggested that questions remain with GloTell as well. “Does it really reduce the yield and purity of meth, or is it just pink coloration?” Woolery said. He added that farmers and co-op workers are afraid of being stained.

“They don’t want to be accused of stealing by accident,” he said. “Many Iowans are anxious to see if it works. If this significantly deters anhydrous ammonia theft and meth manufacturing, it could be a great tool.”

Evidence of residue from a compound like GloTell could not stand alone in court, said Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane, who added that he wasn’t familiar with the specific product.

“It would have to be accompanied by other evidence,” Crane said. “We would have to show (defendants) possessed precursors for methamphetamine with the intent to produce it.”

John Whipple of the Iowa Department of Agriculture agreed, saying that it is hard to prove guilt with dye like GloTell. “Nobody has ever prosecuted a case where dye helped determine who did it,” he said.

Shoemyer estimated that it costs a farmer about $1 an acre to use GloTell in fertilizer.

“The biggest issue is who pays for it,” Hess said. “Even if the government is going to pay for it, it has to get its money somewhere.”

Shoemyer said, “We want to create a repository fund to reimburse dealers who sell anhydrous treated with GloTell so that cost isn’t passed on to the farmers. We need to shift this war (on meth) to where it makes the most sense.”

But Shoemyer emphasized that his measure doesn’t mandate the use of GloTell. He hoped that the bipartisan support he received for the bill would move it through the General Assembly and help reserve $3.5 million per year for retailers of anhydrous.

“No other drug breaks the nurturing parental tie like meth, no other drug causes so much violence,” Shoemyer said. “That is why this issue is so important. This is a societal war, and we’re all strapped in together.”

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