Kansas State professor uses geography and geospatial technology to study patterns of seized meth lab

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- It seems like a strange combination: geography and methamphetamine, also known as meth.

But a Kansas State University geography professor is using geography and geospatial technology to describe the spatial patterns of seized meth labs in an area of Colorado and parts of Kansas, and to analyze their association with geographic and socioeconomic characteristics.

A research team led by Max Lu, a K-State associate professor of geography, conducted two case studies: one in an urban area, Colorado Springs, Colo., with a population of about 360,000 people; and one looking at county-level distribution of meth labs in mostly rural areas of Kansas.

"We wanted to apply recently developed spatial data analysis tools -- exploratory spatial data analysis and spatial statistics -- and geographic information systems technology to describe and explain the distribution patterns of seized meth labs, and to contribute to our understanding of contextual variables that might underlie criminal behaviors associated with meth production," Lu said. "Inquiry into the spatial patterning of meth labs can yield unique insights into the causal processes such as diffusion, which may in turn help develop strategies to stem the scourge of meth in the United States."

According to Lu, meth has become one of the most dangerous drugs in the United States. By some estimates, more than 12 million Americans have tried this highly addictive stimulant, and 1.5 million people are regular users. The drug was once popular mainly in rural areas and the West Coast. However, in recent decades it has made its way to urban and suburban areas across the country and is affecting people across socioeconomic spectrums.

About half of the meth used in the United States is smuggled from Mexico, while the other half is manufactured domestically by clandestine meth labs that have sprung up all over the country, according to Lu. The ease of making the drug using over-the-counter medicines and household chemicals, as well as readily available recipes on the Internet, has encouraged some people to set up meth labs in their residences, he said.

Determining how many meth-producing operations are in existence is impossible to know, Lu said, judging from the tens of thousands of meth labs seized every year. Meth labs have been uncovered in all 50 states, with the lion's share of meth seizures in the Midwest and along the West Coast.

"Law enforcement agencies in both Colorado Springs and Kansas started to find meth labs in the early 1990s," Lu said. "The number of meth lab seizures in both places increased rapidly after the mid-1990s, but it has dropped significantly after peaking around 2001, probably due to new laws that restrict the sales of cold and allergy medications containing pseudoephedrine."

Lu's spatial analyses on meth labs was on data collected from 1999 to 2005 and included equipment caches and toxic dumps seized in Colorado Springs and Kansas. He discovered that meth labs are not randomly distributed across space; rather, their distribution pattern is shaped by varying factors. In Kansas, for example, while the distribution of seized meth labs has become more diffuse, most are still found in three zones: along Interstate 70 from Kansas City, Kan., in Wyandotte County, to Topeka in Shawnee County; along I-135 from Wichita in Sedgwick County to nearby Cowley County, stretching north to Salina in Saline County and to the west from Great Bend in Barton County to Wichita along Kansas Highway 96; and an eight-county area in southeast Kansas that includes Allen, Bourbon, Cherokee, Crawford, Labette, Montgomery, Neosho and Wilson counties.

"Meth labs are more likely to be discovered in counties with low median housing values and high unemployment rates," Lu said. "They also tend to be in more urban counties, even after adult population size is controlled for.

"The spatial pattern of meth lab seizures could have been affected by differences in local police surveillance, but it also may be telling us under what circumstances an individual would want to start a meth lab and what characteristics make a neighborhood attractive as a place to have a meth lab."

Lu is doing additional work, including interviewing law enforcement officers, to better understand the distribution of meth labs. He also has been invited to submit a paper on this research for possible inclusion in a new book titled, "Geography and Drug Addiction," co-sponsored by the Association of American Geographers and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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