“The Drums of Ether”
By Mort Laitner
Ring, Ring, Ring, I picked up the receiver. “Good morning, Legal Department, How may I help you?”
“Hi, I’m the principal of Homestead Elementary School. I need your help. Two days ago the Miami-Dade Police Department raided a cocaine laboratory that is located one block away from my school. They arrested the owner of the house and the coke lab’s criminal chemists. Did you read the story in yesterday’s Miami Herald?”
“I’ve read numerous articles in the Herald about cocaine cowboys, major drug busts, and even attorneys losing their licenses for abusing the substance; but I haven’t heard about this coke lab next door to a school.” I replied.
The principal continued, “About a week ago, I drove past that house and I smelled ether. I’ll never forget that nauseating sweetish smell because when I was a kid, I had my appendix removed. The anesthesiologist put me under using ether. I thought those doctors were trying to gas me to death. I’m no Sherlock Holmes but that pungent odor— my nose told me that the bad guys were processing cocaine. I read how it was manufactured or do they say processed in Newsweek. So I called the police and suggested that they put the house under surveillance and get a search and seizure warrant. Boy was I right! The cops confiscated baggies full of coke. Who knows what the street value of that stuff was.”
“I don’t have a clue.” I replied.
I thought the cops did a great job until I personally inspected the premises and saw forty ether-filled metal drums. The property now is a hazardous waste dump. They used ether to process that toxic stuff.”
As the principal spoke, I wondered, “How is this — a public health emergency?” Having never been to a coke lab, my curiosity got the best of me.
The principal continued, “I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but ether is flammable, volatile, and a highly explosive substance. I’ve seen a number of fifteen-year-old scavengers hanging out at this coke lab. I’ve also seen these same teenagers smoking cigarettes as they rummage through the property. Now, I fear those dumb-cigarette-smoking kids will light up near those drums. Do you know the ether fumes are colorless?
I nodded my head indicating I had no clue.
“One flicker of flame and the coke lab explodes and my school will be blown to smithereens. We have over 200 students and 20 staff members at Homestead Elementary”, said the Principal.
“Sir, let me assure you that I am going to give this matter my highest priority. I have to research the law to determine the health department’s authority to handle this case. I’ve got to draft and file pleadings with a criminal court judge, the state attorney, and the public defender asking the court’s permission to have these drums of ether hauled away.”
The principal sighed in relief, “Thanks for working on this project. I don’t want my students or teachers to die. Please keep me posted as to you actions. Here’s my phone number.”
I proceeded to do the research and determined that these cocaine cowboys had created a sanitary nuisance that threatened the health and lives of children and staff. I drafted a search and seizure warrant authorizing the Health Department to enter the property, seize the drums of ether, and properly dispose of them. As I dictated the pleading to my secretary, I wondered if I would see any cocaine on the premises.
This is what I told the judge: “Your Honor, the Miami-Dade County Health Department is here today to protect the lives of over 200 children and 20 staff members housed at Homestead Elementary School. There is a potentially explosive situation on our hands; one that could blow the roof off an elementary school. Next door to the school there are 40 drums of ether with each drum holding up to 55 galloons. The drums of ether were left abandoned in a busted coke laboratory. I need your permission and an order to have these highly explosive canisters of ether removed from this former drug lab and safely placed in an area where children’s lives will not be harmed.”
The judge asked, “Counselor, do you have a warrant ready for my signature?”
I said, “Your honor, I do.” as I approached the bench and handed the judge the order.
She examined the document and asked, “Mr. Public Defender, do you have any objections to the issuance of this warrant for the seizure and disposal of these drums?”
“No your honor, my clients have no objection.” the public defender replied.
“Ms. Assistant State Attorney, do you have any objection to these drums being confiscated by the Health Department and disposed of prior to going to trial?”
The assistant state attorney responded, “No objection your honor.”
As the judge signed the warrant, she expressed her appreciation, “I want to personally thank the Health Department for taking on this serious problem and protecting the lives of these children.”
As I left the court room, I was accompanied by an environmental health worker named Thorn. As I gripped the court order in my hands, Thorn looked me straight in the eyes and snorted, “Wipe that victory smile off your face. This wasn’t the trial of the century.”
“Thorn, you’re absolutely right; but save your comments for someone who cares. We have to figure out how to wrap this case up.”
After calling numerous hauling companies, we found one willing to pick up and clean out the drums at no cost—in exchange for ownership of the drums. We arranged to meet the hauling company at the site.
As Thorn drove me to the coke lab, I wondered if we would see any cocaine.
As we walked in the partially destroyed laboratory, I said, “Thorn, it is really an interesting set up. It reminds me of chemistry in high school with the Bunsen burners, the beakers and the baking trays.”
With his lips shut Thorn pointed with his index finger to a baking tray containing small quantities of coke buried in its crevices. “You know what that is?” he queried.
“Yeah, that’s cocaine! Why didn’t the cops destroy it.?”
I continued to inspect the building, Thorn stayed in the room with the coke samples. A few minutes later Thorn joined me as we watched the haulers lift the last of the metal drums on to their 18 wheeler Mack truck. I pondered if he had tasted the coke, but did not ask.
Alone, I reentered the lab, walked over to the baking tray, and scraped my finger across the white powder. Slowly I moved my index finger toward my nose while staring at the substance. Then I flicked the coke into the air and watched it snow down. As the flakes floated toward the floor, I breathed a sigh of relief as a victory smile gripped my face.