Calcium Nitrate Foils Methamphetamines

New "chemical lock" prevents methamphetamine labs from utilizing anhydrous ammonia.

Published on: Oct 10, 2006

A new chemical tool to combat illegal production of methamphetamine nationwide was announced October 9 at a press conference on the steps of the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines. The announcement took place in front of an anhydrous ammonia fertilizer nurse tank bearing a STOP METH sign.

Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack says Iowa State University researchers have found that calcium nitrate works as an effective meth inhibitor when added in prescribed amounts to anhydrous ammonia nurse tanks. "This new method to help us in the fight against meth will be used in other states in addition to Iowa. This compound along with other meth-fighting strategies will benefit our nation."

"As co-chair of the House Meth Caucus, I've spoken with lots of experts on the drug problem," says Iowa Congressman Leonard Boswell. "This discovery has great potential for reducing meth production across the U.S. As a farmer who's pulled many anhydrous tanks across a field in my day, it's great to learn that this meth inhibitor, calcium nitrate, is itself a fertilizer. It won't harm the environment or the nurse tanks or the application equipment."


Good news for farmers too

"We need anhydrous ammonia fertilizer available for corn production," says Boswell. "Banning or restricting the availability of anhydrous ammonia to farmers isn't an option. This remarkable work by these ISU chemists in coming up with this compound is good news for farmers too."

Use of the new inhibitor will be on a voluntary basis for fertilizer dealers in Iowa beginning this fall. Ag retailers who participate will receive a formula for injecting calcium nitrate into anhydrous ammonia, as well as signs from the Agribusiness Association of Iowa to put on the nurse tanks. The signs say STOP METH.

"Drug enforcement agencies and officials in other states have already contacted us about this new additive, and it will be used in other states in addition to Iowa," says Marvin Van Haaften, Iowa's Drug Policy Coordinator and Director of the Governor's Office of Drug Control Policy.


Added to anhydrous nurse tanks

The ISU research, confirmed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's forensics lab, found that people who cook meth who use untreated anhydrous ammonia typically get a 42% yield of pseudoephedrine for conversion to meth. However, that yield drops to 2% or less when the calcium nitrate inhibitor is added to the ammonia in a nurse tank.

Anhydrous ammonia is used in one of two primary meth production methods, and is the method of choice in agricultural states where anhydrous is commonly used as a fertilizer. In Iowa this year, 93% of the state's 259 meth labs that have been discovered by law enforcement officers have been the anhydrous ammonia type.

"Despite a 77% drop in Iowa's meth labs, we know meth cooks continue to go to multiple pharmacies to get enough pseudoephedrine to produce the drug," says Van Haaften. "There is no silver bullet to totally eliminate meth, but this new inhibitor will help get us closer."


Proven to work in Iowa tests

"This compound when used as a meth inhibitor has already proven effective in field tests at three Iowa sites," says Dave Coppess, vice president of Heartland Co-op in West Des Moines, chairman of the National Ag Retailers Association and a leader in the Agribusiness Association of Iowa.

He adds, "In each case where we've tested it at fertilizer dealerships or co-ops where nurse tanks are parked, the meth cooks have abandoned the treated anhydrous ammonia. They don't fool around trying to steal from the nurse tanks that have the treated ammonia in them."

In recent years, meth cooks have been breaking into fertilizer dealerships or stealing anhydrous ammonia from parked nurse tanks in fields-dangerous not only for the thieves but also for the community. Thieves often can't get the tanks shut off or they break a valve and a toxic and potentially lethal anhydrous ammonia cloud develops over the community. Recently in eastern Iowa, 63 head of cattle died from a nearby tank that was left leaking by thieves in the night.


This was a 6-year research effort

Professor George Kraus is the ISU chemist who led the 6-year research effort to find a workable compound. "We tested a lot of compounds," says Kraus. "The chemical reaction between anhydrous ammonia and calcium nitrate also means more is less. Because the meth cooks who try using more of the treated anhydrous ammonia to defeat the inhibitor will actually produce even less meth."

Money for the ISU research to develop the meth inhibitor compound came from federal funds secured by Iowa's two U.S. Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley, and on the U.S. House side by Congressman Leonard Boswell.

Harkin, who was present and spoke at the press conference, says this compound will help. But it isn't the total answer in the battle against the illicit drug methamphetamine. He pointed out that a large portion of the meth entering Iowa today is coming from Mexico.


Not total answer, but is big step

"Ten years ago most of the methamphetamine distributed in Iowa was made here," says Harkin. "Since then other efforts such as Iowa's program to get Iowa fertilizer dealers to voluntarily install locks on anhydrous tanks, has helped deter the meth makers. Many fertilizer dealers now use the locks. That helps, but it isn't the total answer because the thieves cut the locks off. But at least we are making it harder for them to steal the anhydrous."

"Together with rigorous enforcement efforts, anhydrous ammonia tank locks and strong regulatory controls on the key meth ingredient—pseudoephedrine—the calcium nitrate meth inhibitor is one more powerful tool to help cut illegal meth production," says Harkin. "The message for would-be meth cooks where the meth inhibitor is used in the anhydrous ammonia nurse tanks is 'Don't Bother.'"