Org Prep Daily

January 17, 2008

The trailer chemistry

Filed under: Uncategorized — milkshake @ 5:43 am

Methamphetamine illicit production is a serious problem not to be made light of in these times when getting hold of precursors is growing more difficult. We prepare ourselves for the start of promising TV series this Sunday by comparing the merits of four popular methods [1, 2]:

1. Heating pseudoephedrine with red P and iodine. This is a dirty method that needs glassware and some practice. The reflux produces a nasty phosphine smell, in the absence of fume hood the cook would want to use a mask. This is the actual method featured in “Breaking Bad”.

2. Pseudoephedrine treatment with Li metal and anhydrous condensed ammonia mixture in ether. Anhydrous ammonia is a common fertilizer that could be pilfered from outdoor storage tanks. This used to be a hillbilly favorite method – the cooks stir the mix in a bucket while throwing in the Li chunks. This is feasible only in open country as the escaping NH3 stinks up the whole area. The method is quick, the average batch size tends to be smaller. The complicating factor is a benzene ring over-reduction. The agricultural liq NH3 is nowadays frequently denatured with inorganic salt additives to ruin its usefulness in meth production.

3. Hydrogenation of chloromethamphetamine hydrochloride solution over palladium. The chloro intermediate is obtained by mixing the hydrochloride salt of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine with thionyl chloride. This is a clean and high-throughput method favored by Mexican cartels. It is best performed in pressure hydrogenators – which makes it less available to most home cooks. (It may turn home-friendly should hydrogen-powered cars become common).

4. Reductive amination of phenyl acetone in the presence of methyl amine. This method, popularized by the Hells Angels cooks, produces a racemic crank product that has only half potency of the pseudoephedrine-derived meth. With advent of ephedrine/ pseudoephedrine –based method the old phenylacetone route fell into disuse. Variation of the reductive amination method is still commonly employed in the production of Ectasy.

I grew up in a communist country and I remember the moment when the enormously popular codein headache pills became prescription-only (just as the enterprising chemists figured how to convert it into a fairly potent street version of hydrocodone). Meanwhile ephedrine remained plentiful, being manufactured in town Roztoky for the entire Eastern Bloc. The meth problem in Prague was getting serious – one bottle of cheap decongestant drops contained enough material to produce several doses of meth. But I never got close to the dope-related issues when I was growing up – I was reading books and articles about it once the censors allowed the information about such antisocial decadent problem to be revealed.

Soon after arriving in US, I was asked by the Maricopa County attorney office to volunteer for 20 hours of a community service (because of some very fast highway driving). I noticed that most of my fellow food bank coworkers happened to be paroled men serving out the rest of their sentences on drug-related convictions. To pass the time, sometimes they would make a coment about quality and availability of “stuff” one to another as we were unwrapping boxes of a cheap infant formula – but this had an unreal movie-like quality for me, soon I completed the service and left their parallel universe behind.

Only when I moved to the Bay Area I got face-to-face with the problem. My next-door neighbor in the checkered San Mateo neighborhood was a terminal-stage meth user. A former construction worker, he has lost his job and he was clearly unable to contain himself. He would alternate the dope with heavy drinking (probably to quell the clenched jaw and jittery edginess of the meth high). He was completely manic and very, very angry about injustices that happened to him – he would scream obscenities all alone and he carried long arguments all by himself in his apartment. Sometimes at night I would hear the screaming coming from outside – I would look out and there he was, running back and forth wearing only his shoes and undies – I guess he had a hyperthermia episode so he did some bare-chested shouting along the train-tracks next to our tenement. I remember he also brought a boyfriend over to his place once and they were having a vicious argument next morning and he stood there punching the other guy in the face, right there in the hallway as I was leaving for work. One night the police came over, broke through the window of his apartment and took him away. Unfortunately my neighbor soon posted bail and returned, mad as hell and convinced that I ratted him out (I sure complained to the landlord repeatedly but not to the police – in reality it was his failure to appear in court on a preceding possession charge that got him re-arrested that night). Yet he was sure that I was somehow responsible for his troubles, and he wrote “SNITCH ASSHOLE” on my car and he also threw some eggs at my door – at that point I did call the police and then promptly moved out; my meth-head neighbor was almost 7 feet tall and must have been quite muscular before his habit got better of him.

At that time (six years ago) there was plenty of folks with a growing meth problem in the Bay Area: The dope was cheap, provided a long-lasting high and acted as a great add-on for the active party lifestyle (with Viagra compensating for the most annoying side-effect). One could keep at it for quite some time and feel empowered by it, before washing out as a madman.

Note 1: The manufacture-related information discussed here is available to any unmotivated reader
Note 2: Pseudoephedrine has been phased out in OTC medications, ether is becoming permit-only, red phosphorus and iodine are flagged and so is hydroiodic acid, methyl amine, thionyl chloride, acetic anhydride, phenyl acetone and benzyl chloride. Home possession of hydrogenation equipment is illegal in US. The mandated sentences for meth production and conspiracy to manufacture are harsh; and the unauthorized possession of a sep funnel together with a tubing and aqueous HCl suffices as a proof of intent to manufacture in many jurisdictions.
Note 3: For sordid paranoia-rich bust stories, the reader is encouraged to look up what happened to Hobart Huson aka Strike and to Leonard Pickard + Clyde Apperson



  1. I can’t believe they will use real reagents, not fanciful multicolored solutions.

    Comment by liquidcarbon — January 17, 2008 @ 6:45 am

  2. They probably did not film the episodes with baking trays full of the real crystal :). But reportedly they got someone at DEA labs consulting, and he also did a complete cookout for them with the real stuff filmed for them on video. They just re-created it.

    From the parts that I have seen in the trailers, the action is little too over-the-top in a humorous way – but the setup looks pretty realistic.

    Comment by milkshake — January 17, 2008 @ 6:54 am

  3. Milk,

    Good story, in a “holy crap” kind of way. I cannot say that I have ever come face to face with anyone who has a nasty meth habit. The closest I have come is seeing some of the billboards advertising to dentists who specialize in meth mouth.

    It is actually quite amazing what you can cook up at home given the time and a little bit of cleverness.

    Comment by Milo — January 17, 2008 @ 7:53 am

  4. I was more amazed that a college enthusiast without any formal chemistry training managed 3 step procedure starting with safrole without any analytical methods and he was also experimenting with some tricky synthetic alternatives such as Wacker oxidation. “There is nothing you can’t do, young man, once you put your mind to it.”

    This is from a story about the bright English major college boy in Florida that used to go under a nick Zwitterion/Eleusis. He was totally into “Now let’s see what else I can make in my rented appartment”. He would celebrate each succesful batch by throwing a tasting party for his many admiring friends.

    He did not get turned in by his buddies or GF as it usually happens – he got busted because the chemical shipment from a lab supply company by UPS somehow got opened by the authorities, the authorities then checked with the company what else he was buying – and then they visited him with a warrant. As they showed up at his parents’ house first, Zwitt managed to flush down some incriminating materials in his appartment. His mom put up their house on bail; by pleading down some things with help of a good lawyer – and being convicted on intent to manufacture charge rather than the actual manufacturing and as a first-timer geeky boy unconnected to any gang, he ended up doing 4 years. (This happeed in late 90s. He would easily get 10 years nowadays).

    Comment by milkshake — January 17, 2008 @ 8:23 am

  5. The last thing… THE LAST THING I would ever want is a 7 foot wacked-out-on-meth nutjob chasing me or threatening me. Holy Crap. I personally know three people in law enforcement who have had to shoot someone totally smashed on meth who went crazy and started attacking them and bystanders. It is a terrible situation to be in.

    In one incident the person was handcuffed. He flipped out and broke both of his wrists and hands getting out of the handcuffs. It didn’t seem to phase him.

    Comment by Chemgeek — January 17, 2008 @ 10:37 am

  6. I mean “faze”…(good grief)

    Comment by Chemgeek — January 17, 2008 @ 10:54 am

  7. Looks like an interesting show. To bad I don’t have cable : /

    Comment by tom — January 17, 2008 @ 5:02 pm

  8. Re: method 3

    why can’t you use hydrogenolysis on pseudoephedrine directly instead of the chloro derivative?

    Comment by squirmy — January 20, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

  9. and by “you” i mean “one” 🙂

    Comment by squirmy — January 20, 2008 @ 10:43 pm

  10. Pd hydrogenolysis of the ephedrine benzylic OH does not work too well for some reason (unlike the reduction with Na or Li in liquid ammonia). In late 80s SWIM in Prague was asked by his colleagues to produce a batch of Deprenyl MAO inhibitor for some neurobiology project so he needed the opposite (inactive) methamphetamine enantiomer as a starting material. Without bothering to spend any time in the library he promptly set up a direct (+)-ephedrine hydrogenation – and nothing happened, so searching a little in the Beilstein compendium (in those days Beilstein was long shelves of books and indexes) provided a reference to an old paper that said the hydrogenation worked a lot better with the chloroderivative under acidic conditions, with over 90% overall yield from ephedrine.

    I think he hydrogenated it under baloon overnight, nice and clean. The chloroderivative preparation was trivial – if I remember correctly after all these years one would just stirr the solid hydrochloride salt with neat SOCl2 under reflux, then evaporate the whole damned thing and was ready to hydrogenate.

    Comment by milkshake — January 21, 2008 @ 1:59 am

  11. The last thing i want to say….

    its awesome … no need to be trained in chemistry for all this things.

    Comment by star — January 22, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  12. Man your a dumbass, i doub’t youve ever cooked any meth in your life to be honest. The phenylacetone route is not only the route used by the pharmaceutical industry because it is the most efficient and professional, it is also the route used by the biggest illicit drug-distributors on this earth today.

    So if you want to talk about meth production, then fine, do so at all costs, but please get your facts right first. Okay. Thank you.

    Comment by WhatThe — January 17, 2009 @ 8:13 am

  13. Whoever suggested to you that I did? (And you are not Zwit…) Get off my lawn, punk

    Comment by milkshake — January 17, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

  14. Quite probably the most ironic picture I’ve seen in a long time. Also rather amused by the SWIM I noted above:P

    IIRC there are several papers where various substituted cathinones are made (FC with alanine) and reduced @55psi to the desoxyephedrine, but they are unlikely to be either read or understood by the people being referred to.

    Comment by aaron1975 — April 5, 2012 @ 8:53 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: