What if, along with finding restaurants and displaying driving directions, Google Maps could predict the most likely places to find crank? 

This summer, geographers at Kansas State University used sophisticated mapping tools to study the distribution patterns of seized methamphetamine labs in the Midwest. Though long thought to be a rural problem, the “meth” labs throughout the state were discovered mostly in urban areas with low housing values, educational levels, and employment rates.

Geographer Max Lu, who led the new research, hopes it will one day help law enforcement. 

“If you know one county to have lots of meth labs, you’d want to know which of the neighboring counties are most likely to have them too,” he said. “Instead of ignoring the spatial distribution pattern, we used it as part of our statistical analysis.” 

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant that is used regularly by 1.5 million people in the United States, according to some estimates. Like cocaine and heroin, a lot of meth is smuggled in from Mexico. But meth is also easy to make with the right combination of cold medicines and household cleaners. 

“You find the recipe on the Internet and can get all your ingredients at Walmart,” Lu said.  It is hard, however, for police to predict where they’ll find a meth lab, he said. Take, for instance, the western part of Kansas, which is sparsely populated and relatively isolated from urban centers. 

“You’d think it’d be an ideal place to make meth,” Lu said, “but not many meth labs have been found there.” 

Moreover, Kansas police have recently noticed more meth labs in urban houses and apartment buildings. 

So Lu’s team set out to study whether there were any geographic or socioeconomic factors that could be reliably correlated with the locations of meth labs. The researchers asked authorities for the locations of meth labs seized from 1999 to 2005 in Colorado Springs, Colo., a predominantly urban area that had about 500 seized labs in the six-year period. They also studied the entire state of Kansas, which seized about 4,400 labs in that same timespan.

Lu found some unexpected patterns in Kansas. Some variables were not at all correlated with the lab locations—including, to his surprise, population density.

The factor most highly correlated with the number of labs seized was urbanization. Even after controlling for population size, urban areas had more seized meth labs than rural areas, refuting the stereotypical picture of the meth shed in the middle of a cornfield. 

Lu is still studying his results but says a full analysis will be published in 2007 in a chapter of a new book “Geography and Drug Addiction.” He hasn’t yet shared his findings with local or state law enforcement.

Ivan Cheung, the director of Geographic Information Science Programs at the Association of American Geographers, said Lu’s research is useful because it makes complex patterns visual and illustrates how certain demographic information may contribute to meth-lab hotspots.

Drug policy experts warn that police must consider factors besides lab location, especially as the meth trade evolves. 

“Labs are showing up in car trunks, at highway rest stops; they’re more mobile now,” said Janet Wood, who oversees the Drug and Alcohol Abuse division of the Colorado Department of Human Services. 

Though the number of seized meth labs has decreased since its peak in 2001, actual use of the drug has been climbing steadily, Wood said. 

A comprehensive approach that includes prevention, intervention, and treatment programs, she said, “is the only way I think we are going to find a solution with this drug.”

Originally published September 19, 2006

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