6 Realities of Cooking Illegal Drugs (Not Seen on TV)

Some drugs grow right out of the ground, because Mother Nature is one of those "cool moms" who would rather have you do it in a safe environment. But of course, that isn't enough for humanity. Over the last century and change, we've cooked up more super-drugs than a college student has ramen. And everybody knows what happens to those daring chefs: They're pushed into it by necessity, soon are completely overcome by greed, and ultimately brought down by their own hubris and a hail of bullets (but mostly the hubris). But even drug cooks can wear a blue collar. We sat down with an illegal drug chemist who wasn't forced into it by tragedy, didn't succumb to greed, and ultimately came down with only a mild case of hubris poisoning. Here's what he had to say about his former career:

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6
You're Not Always Pushed Into It By Desperation; Sometimes It Just Sounds Fun

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I was just a wee teenager when I took my first dose of Ecstasy, with a girl whom I was madly in love with. It made me fall deeper in love with her, and also deeply in love with a drug that flooded my brain with a Burning-Man's-worth of Oxytocin. That's kind of what Oxytocin does.

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It's no Oxycontin, but it's pretty great.

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A few months before that, I'd done 2CB, a powerful hallucinogen that wasn't technically illegal at the time. It wound up getting banned, and the whole supply dried up. This terrified me; E was already illegal, and I knew there was no guarantee that the feds wouldn't bust whoever was making it for my state. I wasn't willing to live in a world where I couldn't roll my balls off a cliff at a moment's notice.

One day, a friend of mine mentioned in idle conversation that you could use nutmeg to get high. It's true -- I looked it up. Nutmeg contains a psychoactive chemical called myristicin, but what caught my eye was that it's also about 2 percent safrole. It was a revelation. Safrole happens to be one of the main reagents for MDMA (Ecstasy). I thought to myself, "Oh. These aren't manufactured out of thin air. These are from plants."

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Eat about 200 of these, and you'll be ready for Bonnaroo.

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I resolved to learn how to make it -- mostly out of idle curiosity rather than criminal intent. I suspect a lot of nerdy kids get into this business because they love drugs and fall down the rabbit hole of studying how all these wacky chemicals affect their brains. One thing leads to another and then, boom, you're committing felonies in real life than most kids barely dare in Grand Theft Auto.

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5
Breaking Bad Got the Whole "Drug Sponsorship" Bit Right

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The problem was the price. I added it up, and it'd take more than $2,000 to buy all the materials involved. And I had two things going for me: a minimum wage job and a morphine habit. Nobody was cashing out a 401k to fund a fun drug hobby here.

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Not every plant is as cheap as nutmeg.

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I was at a grocery store one day, dejected and bordering on sober, when I ran into a friend I'd known for years. I'd just started studying chemistry, and I was definitely too lippy about my drug brewin' plans. I lamented that I didn't have the cash necessary to fund my psychedelic start-up. Rather than being properly sketched out, he got really excited and said, "I've got somebody you should meet." And, rather than being properly sketched out, I had him set up a dinner.

He and I met with these Asian guys who didn't speak much English. I'll be referring to them simply as "the Asians" from here on out, because I don't think all of them wound up in prison and it's probably best to not be super specific with this sort of story.

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To the guys who did end up in prison ... best of luck?

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So I walked them through what I'd need, while one took notes. He checked the list out with some other cooks, and it seemed legit. So they came back and offered to shotgun me what seemed like a shitload of money. I later found out they were big into the cocaine trade, and the few grand they were throwing my way might as well have been couch change, but at the time, I felt pretty important.

I rented a house and started setting up my lab, buying the best equipment I could and going as overboard as you'd go if a bunch of rich dudes offered to fund your hobby. Whenever I ran out of money, I went back to the Asians and said, "I need something more." I wound up buying a condenser that cost two grand by itself. I bought a high-end Rotovac. I built my own playground, filled with everything I'd ever wanted. In the end, I even had the stuff to start assembling a gas chromatograph. That's like, the Charizard of drug chemistry.

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"I choose you, expensive science box!"

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4
We're Not All Unethical Scumbags; We Test Drugs on Rats...And Ourselves

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It was difficult to get sassafras oil for the E. So I started with a small batch -- five grams of safrole -- in case I fucked it up. I had a few issues, so I wound up going to the Hive (an Internet forum full of helpful drug chemists) and asking questions. It worked, because the Internet will help you do anything, even if you shouldn't be doing that thing at all. I wound up with about 2.5 grams of MDMA; enough for ten or fifteen normal doses, or five crazy-ass-teenage-raver doses.

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Above: substantially more than 2.5 grams, via some guy on Wikipedia who listed it as "own work."

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I was worried about using it or selling it, though. The final reaction involved elemental aluminum as a reducing catalyst. To get the aluminum oxide off the aluminum, you use mercury. You have to put the mercury into the reaction vessel, and you clear it out with sodium hydroxide. I wasn't sure if I'd done it right, and since I'd used powdered mercury, it had been invisible from the get-go, so I had to take it on faith that I'd gotten the poison out.

Drug chemists don't exactly occupy an elevated position in society. Some of you might even think I'm a terrible person for getting involved in this at all. But I got into making drugs because I'd had so many good times on drugs. I wasn't about to take the risk that the chemicals I made might hurt people. I had to find some way to test this stuff before I let it out onto the streets.

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I wanted to "test" it via some safer method than, well, this.

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So I injected a small amount into a rat. It lived! And it staggered out of the experience with a whole new appreciation for electronic music. I tried it on myself next: 10 mg, then 20, then 50, then 100.

I was with one of my long-time associates when we first realized it worked. We both ran out in the yard, jumping up and down. It was celebration time. We were overcome by the realization of what we'd done, what we were capable of doing. We also may or may not have been on E.

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Probably a little from Column A, a little from Column B.

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3
Being Dramatically Gunned Down Is The Least Of Your Worries

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I got obsessed with the chemistry. I started cranking out things I didn't want, and which there was no market for -- the 2cb, a few different mescaline compounds. These drugs weren't economical (the dose required was so high and the demand was quite low), but my friends wanted to try them, so I made a lot of weird shit and gave it away. The scariest thing I wound up making was called DOB. It's an insanely powerful chemical, active at 1-3 mg. For reference, a small hit of Ecstasy is 100 times that size.

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Above: the drug DOB, next to the Cracked DOB, who is painted blue, for reasons that should be obvious.

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I ended up destroying that stuff, because I didn't really want to take it, and having anything that powerful is terrifying. Imagine if I'd sneezed on the pile -- a dusting of that stuff gets in your nose, and you're hallucinating for days. Unlike Acid, it's got a low LD50, so a high enough accidental dose could have killed me.

I was also a bit reckless with the dichloromethane. It is a fairly common solvent, but back then, I wasn't aware of how dangerous chlorohydrocarbons could be. It rapidly evaporates, and because I was a lazy teenage drug addict, I wound up leaving it out. It got into my air and, well ... now my vision is pretty bad and I sometimes can't distinguish colors. I found out later that these are classic symptoms of chlorohydrocarbon inhalation.

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Don't huff, kids. It fucks up laser light shows forever.

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Eventually I started making MDA. That's basically a faster, off-brand version of Ecstasy. You can go from safrole to MDA in a mere five hours if you use a dangerous reagent named tetronitromethane (TNM). It's more explosive than TNT and it is very, very unstable. You had to make this shit behind a blast shield. The safe temperature range was around 160 degrees Celsius. If the temperature went up slowly, you chucked ice on it. If the temperature jumped abruptly, you had to run like hell, and maybe try to time your slow motion jump with the resulting house explosion.

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You know what they say -- "It's not a drug lab if it can't explode."

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2
The Money Is Good, But You Can Never Really Use It

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The Asians were big into cocaine, supplying kilos and kilos of the stuff. They were reckless about it. They owned a restaurant for money laundering, and it was obvious to anyone who came around that no one went in there to eat. People would go in for 15 minutes and walk out with no food ... and this restaurant is doing $500,000 a year? More? So unrealistic -- nobody leaves an Asian restaurant with less than eight pounds of to-go boxes.

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Dinner for tonight, tomorrow, and the next night (followed by severe stomach pains).

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I got half the money from what I made. That's a pretty big cut, but the amount doesn't really matter. It's dirty. You can't buy a car with that, you can't put it in the bank, and you can't save up and buy a house. So I went out every day and bought game systems, every game that sounded even remotely interesting (even Ubisoft -- that's how little it mattered), or clothing. As long as it was under $500, no one cared that you paid in cash.

Once, after coming down from a roll, I was struck with the sudden idea to set up an agility course for my dog. I went to several stores and spent about $900 on pieces and equipment, even though I didn't have a good yard for it, nor was my dog particularly agile. I did it because I looked at him lying on the carpet while I was rolling and thought "I want to create a wonderland for you." He sniffed it once and resolved to never go near it again.

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Dogs usually have fairly low standards for "wonderland."

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I talked to one Asian about laundering. I was under the Hollywood impression that it was really easy, but it's far more complicated and much, much slower than the movies make it out to be. I'd have to take whatever money I wanted to cycle through a bank and become an investor and equity partner in their business. It seemed like a really bad idea to stick my name on the same legal paperwork as some drug kingpins', so I declined. Better to waste my money on shovelware and abandoned dog parks than provide the DEA with a paper trail.

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1
The Hammer Will Come Down Eventually, But It May Not Even Hit You

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There was a house where the lower-level dudes associated with the unrestaurant/drug syndicate would occasionally gather to get high. A girl was pulled over leaving the house with four E pills in her purse. She squealed. The DEA rented the house next door and wound up busting the place, and eventually the rest of the operation, too. Right around this time, I got a DUI. When I woke up in the cell, I thought for sure that's what I was in for. But nope! The local cops were just pissed at my drugged driving.

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I was the happiest anyone's ever been to get a DUI.

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I was staying with my parents when all this went down (most landlords ask that you provide verification of income and employment; surprisingly few of them accept Playstations instead of checks). I had some of my chemicals and equipment and a lot of my notes there. They'd known I was an addict, so when I said "I need your help to destroy everything right now," they gave it. We lived in a semi-rural area, so we went out behind the house and burned it all. Later, I cleaned the cook house with a friend. We put all those thousands of dollars' worth of glass into a bag, shattered it, and threw it in the woods. Somewhere in that forest is a half-burnt Charizard.

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I've been sober for nine years now. The whole experience was humbling. It was a lesson that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. And now that I look back on it, this whole journey was motivated by my ego. I thought I was brilliant, so much smarter than everyone else. The fact that I can't always tell colors apart anymore should testify otherwise.

For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Adventures of the World's Biggest Pot Smuggler and 6 Unexpected Things I Learned From Being a Drug Dealer.

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