First responders get drug lab lesson

Gary Kean
Published on January 26, 2013

CORNER BROOK  One of the many hazards associated with a clandestine drug lab is the production of phosphine gas.

Anyone who inhales that nasty chemical does not get the chance to exhale. They would essentially drop to the ground, never to take another breath again.

Now, picture a firefighter, police officer of paramedic responding to an emergency where a drug dealer has breathed in that killer gas while cooking up their latest illegal batch of methamphetamine. Unaware of the lurking danger, that first responder’s instinct and duty will be to try and help the fallen criminal.

By performing CPR, that same deadly substance could be released from the dead drug dealer’s lungs and the first responder could be exposed. If they inhale it, it will likely be their last breath too.

Sgt. Steve Conohan is a clandestine drug lab expert with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in St. John’s. He has shared his in-depth knowledge of the dangers of homemade chemical drugs like methamphetamine, crystal meth, ecstasy and hashish oil in 17 countries, including Pakistan and Colombia.

On Wednesday and Thursday, the drugs and organized crime awareness coordinator was in Corner Brook to help educate local first responders. It was an update of training he did across the province a few years ago for people who put themselves in risky situations, such as firefighters, front-line police officers, emergency medical services responders, social workers and drug addiction counsellors.

“We are just doing a familiarization of the harms that can come,” said Conohan. “There are explosive hazards, flammability hazards and inhalation hazards. We are just letting everyone know, recognition-wise, what they could possibly encounter and, if they do see something, know what it is.”

In one of the drug-making processes Conohan described, a heated mixture is rapidly cooled in a deep freeze. He said the light bulb on the deep freeze door can be enough to cause that particular mixture to explode.

While most of these manufactured substances are produced by organized crime outside of the province and then imported for sale on the street, Conohan said anyone can attempt smaller-scale drug labs with household chemicals purchased at the local hardware store.

It’s not just the hazardous chemicals first responders need to worry about. Drug labs could also be guarded by dogs or booby traps such as hanging fish hooks or maybe power painters filled with bear spray and operated by motion detectors. There could also be weapons present.

“Usually those things are not there to harm firefighters or EMS personnel,” noted Conohan. “Those things are usually there to keep these drug dealers from getting ripped off.”

Conohan also taught responders some of the symptoms of a drug-addicted person that they should look out for. Recognizing the warning signs could help alert police of the possible presence of a clandestine drug lab.

Fortunately, said Conohan, other than the odd marijuana grow op or marijuana oil extraction setup — which can also present an explosive hazard, most drug manufacturing operations in Newfoundland and Labrador do not involve the more dangerous chemical concoctions.

Still, these kinds of drug laboratories are being seen more and more along the eastern seaboard of the United States, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Although there was evidence of a drug lab found in St. John’s last September and a more dated instance of a PCP lab in Blaketown years ago, Conohan said other reports of drug labs in Newfoundland and Labrador have been mostly anecdotal so far.

Twitter: WS_GaryKean

Sgt. Steve Conohan is a clandestine drug lab expert with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He was in Corner Brook this week to educated local first reponders about the dangers of homemade chemical drugs.

©Geraldine Brophy