Interview with a Former Underground Chemist
This interview was conducted with an underground chemist who was a principal partner in a large-scale operation in the mid 1990s involving the production and distribution in North America of MDMA, LSD and DMT. Lax security procedures allowed an informer to pass information to the DEA which eventually led to the interviewee's enforced retirement from this work and his subsequent detention for several years.
(1) You said earlier that you were "dabbling with synthetic techniques". Is it relatively easy to create a different drug that could lead to slightly different effects?
No, it is not easy. A highly skilled and educated chemist with access to all the necessary chemicals and tools could fiddle with a recipe for a known drug and make a new analogue that has different effects. Most underground chemists are not skilled enough to do this, and even if they were they would find that the effects are different enough to make marketing difficult or impossible. Underground chemists by and large will follow tried and true recipes for well known illegal drugs like methamphetamine, PCP, LSD or MDMA [ecstasy]. That is where the money is.
I should clarify that we were not dabbling with novel drug analogues. We did develop some novel recipes and shortcuts for large-scale production of a few well-known recreational drugs.
(2) With no rules in place regarding labs, how difficult is it for hospitals and police to keep up with what's new on the street?
It is not difficult at all, regardless of lack of rules. It's a question of policy. All the information is out in the public domain, and if an underground chemist can get it, they can get it. If they aren't already completely informed about all aspects of what's on the scene or what might appear on the scene either they aren't doing their homework or they don't have the funding. In our current climate of prohibition rather than harm-reduction there is probably little opportunity or incentive to get a rational education or to do research on what's out there or what could be out there, be it for hospitals, police, or for our kids for that matter. But if the authorities really care to be informed, there is nothing stopping them. Maybe they should hire an ex-undergound chemist as a consultant!
I should add that you actually are not likely to see anything really new on the street, and certainly no synthetic drug the authorities wouldn't or couldn't already know about. Most underground chemists simply don't have the time, the skill, the resources, or the incentive to make novel drugs.
(3) You say you prided yourself with the production of pure drugs, adding you were naïve regarding the "cutting" process. How so? What's the big deal about stepping on product, and implications for buyers?
It's not that we were naïve about the cutting process: it is common knowledge that drugs get stepped on as you go from production to retail levels. We just didn't think this would happen with the MDMA we were making. MDMA or ecstasy is a drug that tends to generate strong positive feelings of love, empathy, and caring, and we assumed, naïvely as it turns out, that people down the line would behave accordingly. We put out very pure product in powder form, in bulk. In retrospect it is likely that most of this product got stepped on somewhere down the line by unscrupulous dealers. The implication for end-users is that a lot of money changed hands but they got little bang for their buck, and the essential message of ecstasy got totally lost. This is one of the more disappointing lessons from my underground experiences.
(4) What synthetic drugs are generally available?
DMT crystal (2", 5 cm, high)
The main synthetics with high potential for abuse and harm are methamphetamine or speed, and PCP. A looming danger is freebase methamphetamine, known as ICE on the street, for which crack cocaine is paving the way. The main recreational synthetics in the city I live in are ecstasy or E, and LSD. You might occasionally see some MDA, some 2CB or Nexus, some ketamine or K, and some DMT, but these are more difficult to come by. Most of what passes for K is probably the related but potentially much more harmful PCP. You also hear about GHB use in recreational settings, but unlike the other recreational drugs its effects are not particularly mind-expanding, they're more like what you'd get from alcohol.
(5) What perceptions and concerns do you have concerning young people getting into the drug scene?
Young people will get into anything. They are by nature curious and hungry for direct experience, as opposed to the 'because-I-tell-you-so' type of input. If there is something taboo about it, of course their curiosity will be piqued even more. Today there are so many more things to be curious about than 30 or 40 years ago. We have to be realistic and accept this fact, and we have to be rational and caring rather than hysterical and afraid. Just-Say-No not only doesn't work, it makes things far worse because we end up sacrificing reason and truth on the altar of prohibition. The War on Drugs and the hysterical suppression of rational information that goes with it are the worst imaginable response to a situation that is rooted in a universal and natural human need to be able, from time to time, to change our consciousness.
My concern is not with young people getting into recreational chemicals. It is unavoidable, because that genie is out of the bottle. The harm arising from recreational drug use is not high, by any standard. I would much rather see a bunch of informed young people celebrating life, music, dance, and each other high on E, marijuana, LSD or any combination thereof, than an ignorant, rowdy, and aggressive bunch of kids wasted on alcohol. My real concern is with how we can reduce the potential harm arising from the use of the more addictive drugs in a climate where most of the harm we see is a direct result of prohibition itself. If we carry on much longer with this misguided policy, the damage can only get worse.
(6) Are there unscrupulous underground chemists who will sell anything for a buck?
Unfortunately yes, and they deserve to be behind bars. They operate without any concern for the end users of their product, or for anyone else for that matter. It doesn't really matter to them what they cook up, or how pure it is, as long as it's easy to make, and as long as it sells. They are not concerned about lab safety, or about the disposal of waste chemicals. They might cut their product right at source, mixing in a little of this or that. This is a worst-case description, and I've never met anyone quite like this, but I'm sure there must be such people.
(7) Do you believe there are labs in your city and/or is product coming from out of the country?
Yes, there are probably several labs in and around my city. Maybe even a large one, especially following the vacuum left by our retirement awhile back. Mostly these labs would be making ecstasy and methamphetamine. Probably no LSD, because this is quite difficult to make. Maybe a few people making 2CB. Maybe some MDA. Probably PCP. And probably lots of people cooking up GHB in their kitchens, because it is easy and not illegal.
There is definitely product coming from out of the country as well.
A new thing we'll start seeing on the streets, if it isn't here already, is ICE or freebase methamphetamine. It will come from outside and it will be locally produced. This one is bad, worse than crack. Crack is paving the way for the distribution of ICE on the streets here.
(8) Does the law need revamping to eliminate loopholes?
For recreational drugs there are some loopholes in the relevant legislation, but it would take a chemist with legal savvy or a lawyer with a good chemical background to identify them. A creative chemist could make numerous analogues of well-known recreational drugs and get away with it, in spite of the inclusion of the word 'analogue' in the legislation.
My feeling of course is that the law doesn't need revamping in this sense. The law needs reforming, it needs serious revision. Addictive drugs need to be moved from the sphere of prohibition into the medical arena, and recreational drugs need to be decriminalized if not outright legalized. Most of the criminal supply-side problems would evaporate very quickly. Actually, the whole flavor of our current drug legislation makes me wonder whether our legislators are really addressing issues that reflect reasoned analysis of harm, or whether they are just going through knee-jerk reactions stimulated by hysteria, ignorance, and fear. Melvyn Green, writing in an excellent book called Illicit Drugs in Canada, says: "... penal sanctions should mirror a hierarchy of risks so as to maximize personal freedom while simultaneously minimizing the chances of truly hazardous consequences. Unfortunately, in Canada, such is not the case."
Personally I'm not very optimistic about drug law reform. It runs squarely against the interests of the major organized stakeholders in the more than half-trillion dollar annual global drug market. Their main source of revenue depends on continued global prohibition. With such enormous annual revenues, there is little doubt that these organizations have very firm stakes in regular economies, regular banking, and regular legislation, and not just in Columbia! What we see happening in the US today is that the War on Drugs and related erosion of personal rights and freedoms drive up prices and increase the customer base. It is not too farfetched to suggest that major organized crime, with its power to influence legislation in its interests, is using drug prohibition as a business tool. Most people would probably say: No, that cannot be happening. But I think they don't realize what's really going on they are simply sticking their heads in the sand.
And it is interesting to note that the drug legislation in many countries contains parts that are copied verbatim from the US drug laws. This raises the interesting political question of exactly who is formulating the drug policies and drug laws of these countries domestic legislators or US "advisors"?
(9) If drugs aren't going away what about changes to the education system and public awareness? Does the "forbidden fruit" aspect increase the dangers of designer drug use?
Awareness and education are essential but not sufficient. Availability of pure, bona-fide drugs, a non-criminal environment, and an adequate medical and social safety net are equally important. All of these are lacking in the prohibitionary environment of today. Many drug policy experts, including members of the police and medical professions, even US drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, agree that the War on Drugs and prohibition are failed policies. What is needed is an enlightened policy of decriminalization and legalization that is realistic and proactive about inevitable social and medical fallout. There will of course be a price to pay to put an end to this unwinnable "war" (which is, of course, not a war but rather a long-running government program), but it will be much less than the bankruptcy we would face if we were to carry on into the prohibitionary abyss.
(10) The "scale of harm" comparison we spoke of ... with alcohol, the cutting process, lack of knowledge, where do certain designer drugs rank and how might they fluctuate?
OK, let's use mortality and hospitalization as our main indicators of harm. There are of course many other factors that go into any equation that aims at quantifying harm, but death and hospitalization are surely paramount, and they get the point across. In comparing drugs we also have to adjust for different numbers of users, frequency of use, etc. Doing all of that, and taking into account what we know about cutting, adulteration, combining with alcohol or other drugs, etc., the empirical observations would still put almost all recreational drugs, including LSD, very low on the scale of harm. Above caffeine and marijuana, but still pretty low. I think it's too early to say what ketamine will look like, but I suspect it will lie a bit higher, but still far below the addictive drugs, including methamphetamine. I don't know where PCP would fall, but I think it is probably up there as well. Freebase methamphetamine, once it hits our streets, will end up topping the scale, as far as chemicals go. But let's point out one very important fact: the harm of all illegal drugs combined, including heroin and crack cocaine, literally pales in comparison to the astronomical harm caused by alcohol and tobacco! And also, that the harm arising from all illegal drugs would come down if we abandoned supply-side prohibition tactics and adopted harm reduction strategies.
(11) When you hear in the news about kids OD'ing at parties what goes through your mind?
It's a zoo out there. Many kids indiscriminately gobble powders or pills or what have you, without knowing what or how much they are getting. Then they combine that with alcohol, they do two or more drugs at a time, they get overheated and dehydrated while dancing. All of which can lead, and in a few cases has led, to serious problems. That it doesn't happen more frequently is to some extent a testimony to the relative safety of these recreational chemicals. And actually most kids are not at all stupid or careless. After all, they are not out to have a bad time.
Most problems we hear about can be avoided by being informed, being in a good frame of mind, and partying in a safe and supportive environment. I actually doubt that the problem cases reported in the media are related to true overdosing. Kids are more likely to underdose because of the stepping process. Problems are more likely to be caused by misrepresentation of one drug as being another especially in the case of PCP being passed off as K (K enlightens when used properly but an excessive dose of PCP can easily result in temporary and possibily dangerous delusion) and by combining chemicals and alcohol.
(12) Cops talk about the difficulties of not always getting what you paid for. In your experience, how difficult is it to get your hands on certain drugs. Do the inexperienced have any idea what they're getting into?
Unfortunately there is lots of misrepresentation going on at the street level, especially with a drug as popular as ecstasy [MDMA]. With E, you are very likely to actually get methamphetamine, or perhaps the ecstasy analog MDEA. A nondiscriminating user whose main thing is dancing and who has developed a tolerance anyway will probably not notice much difference. Unless they know what real ecstasy is like, most people who think they are high on ecstasy are not. Not only are you not likely to get what you paid for, you also probably aren't getting something that is pure either. To top it all off, in case you are lucky enough to get real E, you almost certainly won't be getting enough.
Bottom line is: experienced or not, you will never know for sure what you are getting. Only chemical testing can tell you what you've really got and how much, and we are way behind some European countries that allow on-site and storefront testing. Lacking that, most kids are fortunately smart enough to ask around, and they will at least know that something won't make them sick or worse. Bad drugs tend to get noticed pretty quickly.
(13) Crack: why has it taken so long to arrive here and why is it such a concern?
To answer your question we have to look at what happened in the mid-eighties, when crack cocaine first exploded onto the US market. This story sounds unbelievable, but it happened, for real. The US was first flooded with crack by distribution networks that had close ties to Reagan's beloved Contras [rebels fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s] and, somewhat more ominously, to the CIA as well. This is how these alliances raised money for their war, and they were backed in this effort by other shady arms in the US government. The implications of this story are truly scary. The US-based crack alliance didn't just evaporate when the Contra affair ended! We're now more than 10 years later, the US crack markets are saturated or they are losing some ground to cheap heroin and freebase meth. Well, guess what? Time to expand the market! And Canada is a prime target as well. I feel sorry for the authorities that have to deal with this one, because they're damned if they do prices go up, problems increase and they're damned if they don't. Either way the big guys are laughing all the way to the bank, and it's very unlikely that they will ever get caught. They are simply too big and powerful, they are beyond reach. We can ultimately thank Ronnie Reagan for this mess. What a monumental criminal he was, with his Just-Say-No campaign!
Back to crack. Why is it such a concern? Unlike cocaine hydrochloride, which is normally snorted but needs to be injected for maximum punch, crack is easy to consume, without those nasty needles, you simply smoke it. You just inhale, whoosh, it goes straight to the brain, delivering a strong euphoric and stimulating rush, and it does it quickly. Problem is, you crash just about as quickly, way down below where you started, and the only quick way out of the hole is by doing more. For most people this becomes a highly addictive cycle, and it can cause some pretty severe health problems. Second problem is that crack is cheap compared to cocaine, and it is usually pretty pure. It nets the upper end dealers way more than if they were to sell the equivalent amount of cocaine from which they make the crack. So there you have it: crack is a problem because it is highly addictive, cheap, profitable, and easy to market. Another major problem with crack is that it is paving the way for the even more harmful marketing of freebase methamphetamine.
There is only one rational way out of this mess: Put organized drug crime out of business by getting the marketing of addictive drugs off the street and into the medical arena. Legalize and regulate them, and deal with the inevitable problems that remain in a realistic fashion. The damage will be much less than by fighting a losing battle. Do it before the marketing organizations consolidate their global alliance and become too powerful, or they will not allow us that option!
(14) Please comment on the slight return to studying certain drugs for their psychotherapeutic value.
Over the last few years the US Food and Drug Administration has opened the doors slightly to renewed research on humans with a few psychedelic drugs, notably with LSD, MDMA, DMT and a few lesser-known drugs. It appears that sanity might just prevail here. These drugs are, after all, not at all the same as the addictive drugs with high abuse potential. There is lots of evidence that these substances are not only relatively harmless if used in an informed way, but that under certain circumstances and for certain medical and therapeutic purposes they can actually be extremely beneficial.
Some of the promising new research involves the treatment of pain and trauma in terminal cancer patients, treatment of alcoholism, and addiction to other drugs, which may come as a surprise to many people. In the case of LSD anyway, this was already well known in the 1960s, before mass fear and hysteria resulted in the criminalization of these interesting and promising compounds. Hopefully this softening in regulatory approach will continue to include the use of these substances in the serious study of what is possibly the most important frontier of all: the human mind. Much has already been done in this field, but sadly the fascinating results of these studies are not generally appreciated or taken seriously by most people, if they even know about them in the first place. And yet the enlightened use of psychedelic plants and drugs is as old as humanity, and has contributed in many ways to the highest levels of human achievement. The evidence for this is large, and it is available to anyone who makes the effort to become familiar with this field. These drugs deserve all the research we are capable of doing. The benefits to humanity could be enormous.
In addition to a legal softening for research purposes, I hope there will be one day, soon, when these drugs can be used legally and safely for recreational purposes. I believe that we have the natural and inalienable right to do with our bodies and minds as we please, as long as we are informed and don't hurt or inconvenience other people. The bottom line is that these drugs are relatively benign, they will not go away, and they will always be used recreationally. To have this happen under the heavy specter of prohibition, that, in my mind, is what is criminal, because it causes more harm than the use of the drugs themselves.
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