Jeff Pearce & Sara Tatelman
corporate risk
Meth labs in motel rooms | Canadian Insurance

Meth labs in motel rooms

It’s called “puffing the bag”— arguably one of the most senseless and treacherous risks a hotel manager may ever have to deal with. Consider for a moment a guest or a maid coming across what looks like a trash bag at your Motel 6. They grab to open it or pick it up to throw it away, and it shoots out toxic fumes in their face. This is the nasty, unexpected checkout charge of methamphetamine production.

“Most of our meth labs were these clandestine little box labs you could have in a car, in a hotel room,” says Dan Rubinstein, chief deputy district attorney in Colorado’s Mesa County. Back in the late 1990s up to 2008, Rubinstein’s patch was trying to cope with an epidemic of methamphetamine production and dealing. “We were also dealing with a lot of issues where hotel maids were getting stuck with needles,” because mattresses and couches are very common places “to hide needles when somebody comes into a room.”

So Mesa County sent in a cop to teach local hospitality staff about telltale signs of meth labs. For starters, meth chefs are more likely to set up shop in a motel where they can haul equipment from their car to their room without passing through a lobby, and may ask for out-of-the-way rooms with lots of ventilation options. They also often cancel maid service, pay with cash and have no photo ID.

Once they close the deadbolt behind them, methamphetamine producers start cooking right away. And they have several options of how to go about it, all using pseudoephedrine, commonly found in cold meds—and most are so highly volatile, there’s a good chance the chemical mix could explode.

To extract pseudo-ephedrine from over-the-counter pills, meth producers mix the meds with certain chemicals and strain the concoction through coffee filters, so filters with white powder instead of coffee grounds are a giveaway. Managers should also keep an eye out for Pyrex dishes covered in white film, denatured alcohol and crystal iodine.

In Mesa County, the most popular recipe is based on red phosphorus, usually extracted from striker plates on matchbooks. That leads to pink discoloration on the walls, which Rubinstein says “some pretty toxic stuff that might require tearing out all the drywall.”

Of course, that’s only if you want to clean up the room and rent it out again. The Economy Inn in Augusta, Georgia let a room stay empty for more than four months because they didn’t want to pay for its decontamination and are not required by law to.

Back in Mesa County, the meth lab problem died down by 2008. In the early 2000s, Mexican drug cartels started sending meth to the U.S. on cocaine runs. Twinned with restrictions on buying meds containing pseudo-ephedrine, “it became so difficult [to cook meth in Colorado] that the labs pretty much just went away,” says Rubinstein.

If there’s a meth lab problem for Canadian hotels, it’s not high profile. “This typically is not a major concern for us because we already have security procedures in place in the hotels wherein we’re able to keep a very close eye on things like this,” says Tony Pollard, president of the Hotel Association of Canada. True, perhaps, but for years, we didn’t recognize a growing problem with gangs. Some risks can stay quiet for a while… then explode, just like those chemical mixes. But for meth and hotels, “Frankly,” says Pollard, “I don’t think there’s much of an issue in this regard.”

Copyright 2014 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the March 2015 edition of Corporate Risk Canada magazine