Underground DIY drug chemists share their dirty little secrets
"Steve," now 37, is a college professor teaching chemistry. He got started in chemistry not by reading books or learning from a teacher. He got started because he liked drugs.
At 15, he turned pseudoephedrine, a cold medicine, into methcathinone — which is similar to methamphetamine. All it takes is switching one oxygen bond into a double oxygen bond, he says. Voilà. To demonstrate, while sitting at a cafe, he pulls out a piece of paper and draws out the molecules in question, like an artist sketching a familiar face.
He did the chemistry in his parents' house while they weren't looking. "It wasn't as hard as you'd think," he says. Then he gave out the methcathinone at prom.
Steve's story is far from unique. He's one of an untold number of underground chemists who on their own, figured out ways around the drug laws so they could make money or expose their friends to the drugs they love.
"There's definitely an interesting history of clandestine chemistry in America," says Jason Wallach, a molecular biologist at the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, who studies knockoff narcotics known as research chemicals.
When one thinks of underground chemists cooking up drugs, they're often thought of with lives lived big. Like a fictional Walter White, bombing his enemies and burying barrels of money in the ground. Or the real-life Owsley Stanley, who not only managed the Grateful Dead, but became the first major underground LSD chemist.
But for every loud, famous chemist, there are thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of quiet chemists who never met a famous person, never shot a gun, and never made millions. They just like making drugs.
"It's driven by curiosity to have the experience, and then maybe the art of doing it yourself," Wallach says. "People love doing it yourself, and this is like DIY drugs."
Most of the chemists interviewed for this story were crazy young when they start making drugs, and crazily brazen in the way that they did it. There are lots of dangers of making drugs, from getting caught to accidental dosing.
"Daniel," is now a college senior. At the age of 17, he figured out how to turn materials that are freely available on the Internet into DMT. He did this in his parents' basement.
"It was so easy," he says.
He's smoked DMT 200 plus times, and introduced over 100 friends to the experience. He used the money made from it so that he didn't have to get a side job, as a way to buy tickets to music festivals, and to travel.
Daniel, like the other three underground chemists interviewed for this story, is not a shady, solitary figure who doesn't care about his fellow humans. In fact, he feels squeamish about selling drugs like DMT; he'd rather give them away for free. He likes to watch his friends take the drugs for the first time, to make sure they're safe.
"Troy," in his late 30s, is a big fan of a couple of obscure drugs, especially a rare one called 2C-B, which has been described as "four-hour acid." (Actual LSD takes 10 hours to clear your system; it's a helluva time commitment.) "Troy" made 2C-B with chemicals that are available on the Internet. "If you know basic physics, it's not that hard to make," he says. He didn't do it for the money — most of his stuff he gave away. He did it because he think 2C-B can improve lives, especially if couples take it together and use the time to connect.
None of the chemists interviewed have made a ton of money. It was mostly a side job for them when they were younger, while they were waiting to do bigger and better things with their lives.
Nowadays, there's less money than ever to be made by small-time drugmakers, Wallach says. The darknet has made drugs so cheap that it's difficult for home chemists to compete. So why do they still do it?
"It's probably largely curiosity," says Wallach.
All the chemists interviewed said they learned a lot. They know chemistry and molecular structures in a way that very few people do. Two said it got them into studying chemistry, which helped them later get jobs.
"I'm sure it happens quite a bit where people are just playing around," Wallach says, "and next thing they know they're pursuing a career in it."
"Sal," now in his 50s, is a tradesman. Decades ago, in college, his job was to "stomp on an oh-zee of yay to make two oh-zees," as he says. In other words, turn an ounce of pure cocaine into two ounces of diluted coke. That way, the dealer could sell it for a steep profit, and pay him a cut. Sal was a chemistry major, and he'd waltz into his college's chemistry department on a weekday night with the cocaine. Then he bonded B12 vitamins to the original stuff. "I paid for college," he says. "And it wasn't too long before the sorority girls figured out who the chemist was," he says with a smile.
All of the chemists interviewed said some variation of: it wasn't that hard. And since it isn't that hard to do, that makes it ever less likely that the authorities can stop it.
"Anything people want to do, it's very difficult to stop," Wallach says. "Even if it was difficult to do, people would still do it."
It's worth repeating: All of these people are fairly upstanding members of the community. They have jobs, families, hobbies and cars. To meet them, you wouldn't guess they were involved in manufacturing illegal drugs.
After four decades and $1 trillion, "the War on Drugs failed to meet any of its goals," the Associated Press has reported.
But every war, no matter how calamitous and pyrrhic, has winners.
Most of the people who benefited from the War on Drugs are rich, sober people who enforced the drug laws — police, prison companies, politicians — or who manufacture legal drugs like opioids and tobacco.
A few beneficiaries are the drug makers and sellers. These folks interviewed paid for their educations, their travel, and their lifestyles by being rebels on the clandestine side of the Drug War. And they're more interesting people because of it.
As the Drug War begins to wind down, chemists like these folks will continue crawling out of the woodwork and sharing their knowledge of chemistry, medicine and commerce with the community.
The community might do well to listen.