Saturday, December 13, 2008

Speed Smells

In many states, the legal doctrine of “in plain smell” allows a police officer who smells pot smoke during a traffic stop to search the vehicle for marijuana. Pot smoke is strong and distinctive—it doesn’t take much training to recognize and it can be detected at quite a distance. But, as I describe in What the Nose Knows, identifying the faint, vaguely vegetative scent of a fresh marijuana plant is a different matter. Scientists have recreated the conditions of actual criminal arrests, and find that it’s unlikely police could, as claimed, pick up the scent of pot plants in a distant grow house, or of bricks of marijuana wrapped in plastic and hidden in the trunk of a car.

Smell can be an early clue in drug busts of another kind. Yesterday, for example, neighbors in Hartselle, Alabama, called the sheriff’s department to complain of a bad smell coming from a nearby home. According to News Channel 19 in Huntsville, officers discovered a methamphetamine lab in the house. They arrested the three occupants (pictured above) and charged them with unlawful manufacturing of methamphetamine.

There was a bumper crop of stinky meth lab stories in the media this summer. In July, in suburban Houston, neighbors reported a foul odor.  Firefighters tracked it to the detached garage of a nearby house where they found a big meth lab.

Around the same time, a lady living on Pine Island, near Ft. Myers, Florida, thought she had been smelling burning garbage for the past week. Then sheriff’s deputies busted a couple living two doors down from her for having a meth-making operation in their living room.

Also in July, a lady in Mitchell, Illinois—across the river from St. Louis, Missouri—found a smell from down the block so offensive that she couldn’t stand to stay outdoors and barbecue. A month later U.S. Marshals and the Illinois State Police raided three adjacent houses in the neighborhood and found meth labs in each.

And then there were the folks in Casa Grande, Arizon, just south of Phoenix, who told a reporter how bad-smelling houses with blacked out windows were making people in the neighborhood very nervous.

Cooking meth in a makeshift lab generates lots of intense, unpleasant odor. I’ve been told, by a person whose family lived downwind from a rural meth house, that it resembles burning insulation or plastic. Other people describe it as smelling like ammonia, which can lead to some unexpected results. Again in July, police got a call from residents of an apartment complex in Charlotte, North Carolina complaining of a bad smell from an empty apartment. A haz mat crew arrived expecting to dismantle a meth lab—instead they found boxes of kitty litter soaked with cat urine and feces.

Oh well.  Better safe than sorry.

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