Hamilton's Pharmacopeia

It may seem like exploding meth labs are a recent phenomenon, but the exploding drug-manufacturing facility predates modern science. Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder while searching for the elixir of immortality. Moonshine explosions

Jun 1 2009, 12:00am

What Happens When Drug Labs Explode?

It may seem like exploding meth labs are a recent phenomenon, but the exploding drug-manufacturing facility predates modern science. Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder while searching for the elixir of immortality. Moonshine explosions have been a common diversion in rural life since the discovery of distillation. And when Albert Hofmann discovered psilocybin in magic mushrooms, he found that he could only synthesize the psychedelic using a highly explosive reagent. Each time he made a batch, he risked losing his laboratory in a giant flaming mushroom cloud.

Should the meth cook blow up in his trailer and burn on a pyre of paint thinner and nasal decongestants, is he any different than a Buddhist monk self-immolating for religious freedom? The meth lab is a phoenix. From its ashes rise new trailers with crystal plumages of radiant truth. In a more enlightened age there will be great monuments to the meth men and women who gave their lives to free your dopamine from the shackles of American drug laws.

But this phenomenon is hardly restricted to meth—there have been incendiary cathinone labs and cooks who ended up serving themselves accidental dishes of PCP flambé. What causes these explosions, and what does it feel like to have your body engulfed in flames fed by a powerful psychoactive drug? The closest I have come is setting my hair on fire while lighting a joint, so in order to answer these questions I called up my friend Horst in Germany, who is painfully experienced in the matter.

Vice: What happened?

I was running out of money and I was in school, so the idea was to distribute DMT on a large scale. At first I thought I was going to cook up a couple grams for some friends and make a buck or two. But the idea started growing on me that I really ought to make it available to a larger population. The problem was nobody really knows about DMT in Germany. Sometimes I couldn’t even give it away for free.

Then why stick with large-scale extractions?

Well, eventually I met these two drug-distributor guys who were in the Goa trance scene. They said they could sell the stuff and make it popular. By then I had no money to get materials, but they started to finance my extractions. They claimed to have buyers who would take 100 grams or more a month, which is quite a lot—about 2,500 doses.

How were you extracting the DMT?

I was experimenting with a lot of techniques, usually straight to base. I sent some of my product to a friend who worked at a laboratory in Boston. He’s since died of a fentanyl overdose, but he used to do NMR and mass-spectroscopy analysis and he said the purity of my DMT was close to 99.9 percent. My methods just kept getting more and more efficient. In the end, all of my extractions were done on at least 10 kilos of mimosa bark. Once the DMT had been separated from the bark, I used a vacuum cleaner to suck off the solvent containing the DMT from the surface. Kind of like a siphon, right?

Wait, you were using a vacuum cleaner?

Yeah, it was my own idea. You get inventive with all the DMT, you know? In retrospect, that was very dangerous because of all the sparks generated by the motor. It was probably my most reckless behavior during that entire time… except for an incident where I was boiling pots of gasoline over an open flame on a stove—that was also very risky.

Indeed. So tell me about your accident.

Well, I got an email from the business guys saying they wanted 20 or 30 grams the next day to see some profit, you know? Something always goes wrong when you’re rushed and I was trying to finish the extraction under pressure. All the windows were closed, and there was a fan blowing on the solvent/DMT mixture. Then it just made this sound. You would describe it like a poof? It was a strong poofing sort of sound. At the same instant as the poof I realized all these things around me had burst into flames: The walls were burning, jackets behind me were burning, the solvent with the DMT was burning, and the fire was spreading. I opened the window and threw the flaming DMT dish out with my bare hands, which also caught on fire. I was throwing everything in flames out the window. I looked and realized my fan was on fire, so I picked up the flaming fan and threw it through the glass. Then there was fire and glass everywhere. I also realized that my shoulders and hair were on fire, so I threw myself to the ground the way you see people do in movies, where they roll on the ground to put a fire on themselves out? I wasn’t very successful.

Wait, “stop, drop, and roll” didn’t work?

It does not work at all, it didn’t do anything! The fire went out for a second when I rolled over it, but then it was right back there again. I should add that I wasn’t wearing any clothes. Fortunately I did not catch fire down there. I managed to use my bed sheets to put out the fire on my body and put out most of the fires in the rest of my room, and then I went downstairs to look at myself in the mirror. It was at that moment I realized I had been inhaling a very large amount of DMT—probably equivalent to a quarter ounce of shrooms, and you know how that feels.

Yes… well, maybe not quite like that.

So everything around me was glittering and shimmering and blinking and moving and colorful. I was looking in the mirror and I realized all of my hair was burned away, as was my entire face. There wasn’t an untouched spot on my face. I looked at my hands and forearms, and straps of skin were hanging off one foot in length.


Yeah, it looked horrifying. The first thing I thought was, “From now on I will always look like shit.” This was at my parents’ house, and I also felt really bad for setting their house on fire, you know? They put me through school and I repay them by building a drug laboratory under their roof. I ran into the shower because the pain started kicking in. The water must have been really cold because when the ambulance came I had hypothermia. They injected me with ketamine and on the way to the hospital I stopped breathing several times. I came very close to death. The doctors told me the burns on my arms would not heal, and I would need skin transplants, but it turned out that I was fully recovered after three weeks. I attribute that to these protein shakes I was drinking, but also… you might think it sounds, kind of weird maybe, but...


You know the elves right? The machine elves or whatever you call them?

I know of them.

It might sound ridiculous to most people, but I associate my healing and the fact that I didn’t go to jail to the DMT elf magic. This was just the beginning of the large-scale distribution and if all had gone according to plan I would have been extracting kilos of pure DMT every year for money. I think that’s why the accident happened. I still don’t even know what sparked the fire—it’s totally mysterious. I believe there is something in the substance, some self-regulating mechanism that prevents it from becoming too popular. There is no reason why DMT should not be a household drug. It’s a smooth, wonderful experience. But there are lots of reports of other people who do large extractions and have terrible accidents or get caught, like these elves punish anyone who becomes greedy. And yet they are not evil or anything because they aided me in healing. They are just trying to maintain a balance.


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