Who'd have ever thought Farmer Brown's tank of anhydrous ammonia would be the subject of a federal law? Yet, thanks to a rash of nighttime thefts by backwoods entrepreneurs siphoning anhydrous from isolated farm tanks to crank out the illicit drug methamphetamine, legislation has been passed to establish federal penalties.

President Clinton was expected to sign the bill, which caps a two-year effort by the Agricultural Retailers Association, and imposes felony penalties for theft or transport of anhydrous ammonia across state lines for use in the manufacture of methamphetamine. It also authorizes $500,000 to Iowa State University for continuation of research into development of inert agents that would render anhydrous useless as an ingredient in manufacturing methamphetamine, but would not diminish its value as a fertilizer.

Paul Kindinger, ARA's president and chief executive officer, said the legislation will help to address the problem of meth traffickers who cross state lines to steal anhydrous from farms in adjacent states.

Clinton was also expected to approve a children's health initiative, to which was attached a measure authorizing $65 million to help deal with the methamphetamine problem, including $20 million to states to help clean up meth labs, $15 million for law enforcement officials and training, and unspecified grants for treatment and prevention of meth addiction.

Methamphetamine, also known as "crystal meth," "crank," "ice," etc., is made from a witches' brew of ingredients that can include some over-the-counter cold, cough, and weight-loss medicines containing ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, or phenylpropoanolamine; hydrochloric acid; lithium batteries; Drano; ether; you name it almost. It can command up to $2,000 per ounce on the street, which accounts for the mushrooming number of people cooking up the stuff in old barns, garages, basements, abandoned houses. The craze that started in California and the Pacific Northwest has now spread nationwide, and is most predominant in the rural areas of the Midwest and South (in 1997, Missouri led the nation in the number of meth labs busted by authorities).

Even before the latest federal legislation, some states had passed tougher laws for possessing anhydrous or other ingredients with the intent to manufacture methamphetamine. An Arkansas man convicted of operating a meth lab, firearms possession, and other violations, was slapped with three life sentences.

A number of retailers have voluntarily imposed limits on sales of the over-the-counter drugs favored by the manufacturers (in the news recently here in the Mid-South, arrests were made when a convenience store clerk sicced the police on a couple buying several dozen packages of a cold medicine). Cash registers in many Wal-Mart stores are programmed to flag attempted purchases of more than a certain number of packages of the drugs.

Law enforcement agencies and farm organizations are working with farmers, co-ops, and dealers in a number of areas to set up Neighborhood Watch-type programs to more closely monitor anhydrous ammonia tanks, and both farmer-inventors and equipment manufacturers are working on locking mechanisms to make thefts more difficult.

Aside from the illegalities involved, the dimwits who steal anhydrous risk not only harm to themselves - it can cause serious burns and even death - but escaping fumes can be harmful to farm workers, people in nearby houses, and even cars passing on adjacent roads. Explosion is always a risk during the meth "cooking" process, and the toxic wastes produced are highly dangerous to those who may accidentally come in contact with them.

Needless to say, quality control is not an overriding concern of the meth manufacturers, and those who use it face not only the dangers of the highly addictive drug itself, but from traces of the poisons used in its manufacture. Prolonged use of meth can cause brain damage, intense paranoia, extreme irrationality, and even death. It has been described by one medical expert as "the most malignant drug on the planet."