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