An Interview with a Clandestine Chemist
In the popular imagination, the landscape of clandestine chemistry is a monotonous one, peppered with pastures of GBL saponification and bluffs of pseudoephedrine reduction. But there exist lone experimenters, tinkerers, gentlemen scientists, who seek to further the field of psychoactive-drug synthesis in the privacy of their own homes. For their participation in the ignominious marriage of proscribed neucleophile and electrophile they often pay a dire price: their freedom. Here I present an interview with a clandestine chemist acquaintance whose curiosity regarding forbidden molecules left him locked in a cage.
VICE: I wanted to talk about clandestine chemistry and what it’s like to operate an underground laboratory. How did you first get started?
Anonymous chemist: In the early 90s, there was a massive outpouring of information on psychedelics. You had Terence McKenna parading around in a DMT t-shirt, talking about salvia, yet nobody knew where to get either salvia or DMT. It seemed criminal to have to go to a Grateful Dead concert or a rave – these awful scenes – to try to acquire interesting and unusual drugs, but there were few other choices. There were some compounds that had always been commercially available from chemical-supply companies, but most of the phenethylamines were really hard, if not impossible, to get.
I was a scientific kid and I followed my curiosity to its natural end. My first actual synthesis was DMT. In retrospect, that seems ridiculous, but it was something that I just could not find. Nobody was doing extractions; these were the days before the widespread availability of botanical sources. I studied the synthesis and decided to go the classical route, via indole, but my first DMT synthesis was pretty shitty – literally, indole smells like crap – and it just reeked up the building I was living in. This was pre-meth-lab hysteria, so while it wasn’t normal to have your apartment smelling like shit and solvents, it didn’t ring any alarm bells.
By the time I successfully produced DMT, I’d learned enough chemistry that I had a much broader synthetic palette to work with. This was probably 1993 or so and there was all this hype around MDMA. Like I said, the terrible raves were in full force. It started out as a very expensive hobby and I gave away whatever I made, but that’s not sustainable in the long term, so I began to sell the material as well.
What was your motivation for distributing the chemicals in large quantities?
You hear all this messianic bullshit from chemists. My motive was very clear: I just wanted the opportunity to try drugs that were unobtainable otherwise. I tried MDMA and moved to DOM, mescaline, 2C-B and various others. I really enjoyed watching the ripple effect of throwing these things out there, to see question marks stretched across people’s faces, and it became my primary source of income for about seven years.
It’s interesting how things have changed. Now most of these drugs can be obtained without much effort, but the precursors for their syntheses are closely guarded.
It’s different. Back then, trying to get any of the substituted benzaldehydes was a serious bitch; those aren’t exactly linchpins of chemical commerce. The straight-to-consumer international chemical trade was in its infancy. But now there’s also a lot more heat on certain things – back then you could buy a 55-gallon drum of camphor 1070 or ocotea oil for £1,900. There’s just no way you could do that kind of thing anymore. I wouldn’t say it’s harder or easier, it’s simply different and it’s always evolving.
I’ll give you an example: Around 1998, there was a group of us that were trying to work on some of Shulgin’s thio-compounds, the 2C-Ts. They were a lot more difficult than the standard phenethylamines and we just couldn’t do it effectively. So, eventually, a private group of chemists and investors pooled their resources and commissioned a laboratory in Poland to produce a kilogram of 2C-T-7. It was ridiculously expensive and the entire process felt like a really extreme measure. To the best of my knowledge, that group effort was the first instance of custom syntheses of a grey-market drug by the end users.
Less than two years later, the chemical took off and was introduced as Blue Mystic in the Netherlands, then as a pure chemical in the States. 2C-T-7 was one of the first “research chemicals” in the modern designer-drug sense, and I think some of its initial popularity came from the fact that it had been totally unavailable due to the difficulty of producing it in a clandestine lab.
Back then the internet served to disseminate knowledge about drugs. There was less emphasis on disseminating the drugs themselves.
Starting in the 90s, there were a series of forums where chemists would convene to discuss their work. One of the results of these discussions was that a lot of these syntheses got translated into plain English anyone could understand. To people without formal training in organic chemistry, the terminology used in chemical journals and pharmaceutical patents is so technical that it is effectively a foreign language. PiHKAL made things a lot easier – Shulgin speaks in a language closer to what the average dude can understand. But the online discussions took things even further and the result was that a lot more people decided to try their hands at synthesising MDMA.
The biologist Eva Harris described a simple technique that allows people in developing countries to run PCR via manual thermal cycling and the work is widely considered to be a masterpiece of science communication. What struck me while reading her book is that she was effectively doing for genetics what clandestine chemists had done for amphetamine synthesis – they’re both results of the same impulse to simplify, increase accessibility and bring technology to the people who need it.
I used the proceeds from my work to get proper equipment, but some of my fondest memories are from when I was just starting out. I was trying to make remarkable things using completely unremarkable tools. Everyone was doing mercury amalgam reductions or lithium aluminum hydride reductions and that was it.
There was this meth-lab lore about bikers who would supposedly take an aluminum keg, pump methylamine and phenylacetone inside and throw the keg into a river to keep the reaction cold enough to prevent it from exploding. It was certainly a bullshit story, but some dudes actually ran with it and began using 55-gallon PTFE kegs as reaction vessels in the reductive amination of MD-phenylacetone and nitromethane. This is a violent reaction on the small scale, so they’d just throw in a kilo, hook up a pressure-relief valve and hope for the best. Everybody thrived on improvised equipment.
I can understand improvising certain things, but, without any analytic equipment, you're essentially working blindfolded. So much chemistry revolves around figuring out exactly what you’ve got sitting in your flask – working without access to sophisticated analytic equipment is like traveling back in time 50 or 100 years.
Even in university labs, analysis was more difficult; there were no references for most of these chemicals, especially not the phenethylamines. It was really a guessing game. I had no recourse other than thin-layer chromatography to monitor reaction progress, then taking a melting point of the final product. That’s why the forensic reports were so fascinating to me when I was raided. Of course, it’s unfortunate that the first glimpse into the true chemical identity of my products was occasioned by my arrest, but even as I was having my freedom taken away, I was totally fascinated by what the forensic chemists had found.
What exactly were you charged with?
My first charge was actually for the manufacture of methamphetamine. For reasons I won’t get into, I wasn’t arrested at the time of the raid and promptly fled overseas to await the forensic report. I was charged in absentia with manufacturing methamphetamine, because that was all the cops knew how to process. They were taken aback by my laboratory. The 2C-C I was making was just not in their chemical lexicon. They thought it had to be methamphetamine and were determined to prove it. That charge stuck for the better part of a year. At one point, my defence attorney and I said, “Let’s go for this meth thing. We can beat that one.”
The field tests came back positive for methamphetamine, but the narcotics officers knew something else was going on, so they sent for a private contractor to test for traces of scheduled compounds. These guys tested everything; they were quite literally analysing the paint on the walls of my laboratory. Then they outlined possible synthetic routes based on their findings, and I must say they hit every fucking nail on the head. I was halfway hoping when I was hiding out overseas that they might not find anything. Not a fucking chance!
And what did they find?
Well, one thing they didn’t find was methamphetamine. I was extremely careful not to keep large quantities of anything scheduled in the laboratory while it was active – it looked simply like a well-equipped organic-chem lab. I think they chose to pursue the 2C-C because it was the only material present in quantities large enough to warrant a serious charge according to the sentencing guidelines. I was experimenting with various procedures to chlorinate 2C-H. Shulgin’s original method was a bit messy and low-yielding. I used sulfuryl chloride, which resulted in better yields, but there was a problem with not being able to separate polychlorinated impurities with recrystallisation or distillation.
The trick I found was to chlorinate the benzaldehyde, which made for easy separation. It was really cool to look postmortem at the lab report and see exactly what had come out of it. I actually got a thank you card from a few of the staff at the forensics lab for giving them what they said was the most interesting work they had done in ages.
Wow! How did their report play out in court?
A jury of your peers often isn’t the greatest thing, as apparently my peers are not that bright. A bunch of talk about differing functional groups just confuses them; all the prosecutor needs to do is get up there, point out the laboratory equipment and chemicals, talk about the tragedies of the meth epidemic and you’re fucked. It was amazing to me how idiotic it all was. They were claiming that my 2C-C intermediates were 2C-B, of which there was not a nanogram in my lab.
When we tried to point out that the two chemicals contained an entirely different halogen, they just rolled their eyes, as if to say, “Oh, here you come with this chemistry goobledygook again.” And I had to plea out of that charge. The whole thing was like tending an apple orchard and being charged with running an illegal orange grove. I ended up with a few years. Arguably, I was lucky.
Yes, arguably. Do you feel as if you garnered more respect from the police and prisoners than the typical inmate because you had committed an intellectual crime?
I found it easier in jail to just lie and say, “Yes, I was cooking meth.” That went over so much better than trying to explain, “Well, I was working on an unusual halogenated psychedelic phenethylamine.” Other prisoners come up to you and want to talk about chemistry – all the other purported meth cooks assault you with these totally fantastical syntheses that they swear were working. You just stop arguing and say, “Yup, that’s awesome. I also did that when I was cooking meth.”
After your release, how did you reconcile your relationship with chemistry? It’s rare, but some people involved in chemistry crimes have gone on to successful academic careers.
If you’ve figured out a way to transmute mercury into gold, then it’s really hard to ignore that. You never forget how to ride the bicycle that is synthesising MDMA. Of course, it’s a vicious cycle. You receive a prison sentence for illegal chemistry, then, when you're released, the illegal income is even more attractive because you’re unemployable. It’s a bitch to replace all of your reagents and equipment, but that’s nothing compared with the difficulty of learning organic chemistry in the first place.
What did you do when you were released?
An unanticipated thing happened while I was in prison: the market changed dramatically and my job was effectively outsourced to China. By the time I had returned to normal society, things were unrecognisable. I was blown away. The research-chemical market was going full speed ahead, and all it took was mephedrone to really blast that into the public consciousness. In retrospect, those early days of 2C-T-7 seem so quaint. The synthesis community has fractured; there are some pockets out there, but the original need no longer exists. I have mixed feelings about the increased availability of these chemicals. In today’s climate, I might have never become a chemist. Half the chemicals that motivated me to sit down with a chemistry textbook can be purchased online with a debit card. Strangely enough, the research-chemical market put scores of hardworking American clandestine chemists out of business. I can’t compete with China, so I’m yet another victim of globalisation.
So, what now?
For me, I still have a great interest in chemistry – perfumery has been something that’s really been exciting me lately. So yeah, perfumery. Maybe.
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