The mother of all precursors

In my haste to complain about the crackdown on sudafed sales to Americans with colds, I forgot about something that a lot of people seem to have forgotten about: a substance called phenyl 2 propanone (also known by the abbreviation P2P).

Back in the 70s and 80s (a period I remember well) there was at least as much methampetamine abuse as there is now, but instead of using sudafed as a precursor, the meth labs used P2P. This triggered a crackdown on P2P, which led to the shift to sudafed.

It's been so long that I'd forgotten. But the lab operators don't forget.

In the 1960s and ’70s, biker gangs made meth using phenyl-2-propanone, a dark brown syrupy chemical that eventually was regulated by the government. Methamphetamine made in “mom-and-pop labs” is chemically different than its 1960s counterpart, making it extremely addictive, police say.
It's the business of these people to make methedrine whatever way they can, and if they can't get sudafed, they can always go back to P2P. Whether, as police say, the old fashioned stuff is "chemically different" (and therefore less addictive) is debatable, because methamphetamine is methamphetamine. The only difference might be in the way it's cut.

P2P is not an especially profound substance. It's not mind altering, and cannot get anyone high. Yet it's regulated as a Schedule III narcotic -- something which caused the lab operators to switch to the less regulated pseudoephedrine. Here's one underground chemist shooting off his mouth:

The major problem with methedrine synthesis is procuring the precursors. Phenyl-2-propanone is the most direct precursor to my knowledge and is (unfortunately?) at Schedule III controlled substance. It has no pharmacological activity and yet the DEA saw fit to regulate it around 1975. The first synthesis I will give uses this in as a starting material. Actually it is still possible to find this substance tucked away in store rooms in many universities that presumably purchased the compound before it was controlled. A friend of mine came across 500 mls made by Eastman Kodak in the stock room at Princeton. I purchased 100 mls when I lived in England many years ago and did my first run using it. The reaction can be completed in about 6 hours giving about 60% yield; I am a biologist, not a chemist so someone who knew what they were doing could probably improve on that.
The recipe he goes on to supply appears no more complicated than many kitchen recipes; all you need is old fashioned P2P.

Are history and chemistry being forgotten in the latest bout of hysteria? An MSN piece by Jack Shafer debunked current hysteria with much-needed historical perspective, and it's worth reading if you marvel over the cyclical nature of hysteria (or enjoy reading about drug addiction in the White House):

One well-known and avid consumer of legal amphetamines was President John Kennedy. When users (and dealers) couldn't obtain a doctor's prescription, they would divert the drugs from legal channels—stealing them, forging prescriptions, setting up fraudulent companies and ordering them from the source, or smuggling them across the border. Use was so prevalent that a 1964 study in Oklahoma City (population 300,000) identified 5,000 individuals who got amphetamines and barbiturates (downers) through illegal sources.

In 1965, the federal government tried to reduce the flow of legal amphetamines into the black market by passing the Federal Drug Abuse Control Amendments, but the law had an unintended effect. At the time, the legal amphetamines wholesaled for as little as 14 tablets a penny, writes Edward M. Brecher in his landmark 1972 study, Licit and Illicit Drugs. "Kitchen chemists" had been producing amphetamines in clandestine labs since the early 1950s, but they couldn't compete with the licit producers on price. When the government restricted the legal supply, the street price for the diverted amphetamines logically went up. This opened the door "for profitable illicit manufacture on a far larger scale" for the first time, notes Brecher.

Of course, the switch from legal to illegal led to the switch from P2P to sudafed:
In 1988, the federal government attempted to curtail the production of illicit methamphetamine by severely restricting access to the P2P precursor compound. Some chemists switched to ephedrine, which could be found in cold remedies, and when the government suppressed ephedrine, some moved on to pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient in Sudafed and other decongestants. Now, the government strictly limits even the sale of over-the-counter preparations containing pseudoephedrine. According to Newsweek (which I should be reluctant to present as a reliable source), the precursor clampdown helped drive half of all U.S. methamphetamine production to Mexico, where there are few controls.
And if you really enjoy being titillated by the vagaries of the "Drug War," this piece on "Nazi Meth" is a real treat. Excerpt:
Large amounts of the drugs were diverted into the black market, which swelled in the 1960s as speed use escalated, prompting Congress to enact laws to stem illicit sales in 1965. It was then that clandestine labs really started to proliferate, many of them large-scale. The region between Dallas and Oklahoma City, with its ready access to interstate highways and its miles of unpatrolled farm and ranch lands, became home to more than its share of "P2P" labs, named after one of the precursor chemicals, phenyl-2-propanone. Back then the manufacturing process required some chemical savvy, it smelled much worse than the Nazi method, and it took a few days; speed cooks would go out into the country and come back with a pound or two. In North Texas it was, in part, a kind of oilfield supply business: Roughnecks commonly took speed to get through their shifts of 12 hours and longer.

"Up through the early '90s North Texas was the methamphetamine capital of the world, back when they made the 'good meth,'" says Bill Coombs, the chemical dependency counselor. "Then the precursors were made illegal, and so the supply of methamphetamine almost dried up. It was fairly expensive until this new method came about." (The changes in speed manufacturing techniques over the years are a textbook case of regulation-inspired evolution. Each time the government manages to clamp down on one version of the drug, an easier manufacturing method emerges, often resulting in a more potent product.) The new method has affected not just the drug's availability, but its palpability, the sense of its presence in small communities. Because the method is easier, faster, and not quite as smelly, the drug is more likely to be made in town than in the past. And because there are more manufacturers, there are more manufacturing cases moving through the courts.

The current crackdown is intended to slow the production of "Nazi Meth" (a label which sounds emotionally contrived, as if to inflame pro-Drug War passions), but if pseudoephedrine becomes as scarce as P2P, the chemists will simply synthesize whichever precursor is easier.

Regarding "Nazi Meth," it's not my purpose to get into underground chemistry, but the recipes are readily available online. This anti-meth website's summary of the ingredients highlights the drug cookers' ingenuity (and in my view, the futility of criminalizing the human appetite):

Once the ephedrine has been extracted, the cook will manufacture “Nazi” or “Red P” meth. Both “recipes” utilize heat and chemical reactions to manufacture the finished product, Methamphetamine Hydrochloride. The process is essentially the same with the exception of the agents used in the reaction. In Nazi meth, the cook will add lithium strips, usually extracted from batteries, and anhydrous ammonia to the reduced ephedrine to start the chemical reaction. In the Red P recipe, red phosphorous, usually extracted from match tips, and iodine are used in lieu of lithium and anhydrous. Most of the ingredients used in ephedrine reduction can be purchased legally, thus contributing to its popularity. Common household items used in the production of meth include denatured alcohol, ether, salt, drain cleaner, camping fuel, paint thinner and lye. Obviously, most of us would be reluctant to ingest ingredients. However, most of these precursor ingredients are destroyed or consumed in the manufacturing process and the finished product does not contain the poisons used in the process. The availability of these items and the simplicity of the process contribute to meth’s growing popularity.
Isn't it about time we banned lithium batteries? I mean, does anyone really need a digital camera or MP3 player?

Why, I'm almost ashamed to admit that my very own Nikon Coolpix 7900 has a lithium battery! I already knew I had the deadly sudafed in the house, but had no idea how guilty I truly was.

So I might as well confess, folks.

For the past week, I suffered from an awful cold, but I've had many social commitments. This situation has required me to take sudafed regularly, while running around with my camera, and until now I hadn't realized that I've been a walking speed lab. (And a Nazi one at that! Have I no shame?)

Making me get rid of my camera would be a small price to pay if it would save just one life....

Satire aside, there's a serious irony in all of this. When I was a kid, amphetamines could be easily obtained from any doctor, and the "speed problem" was a medical problem.

And a much less dangerous one.

There's a lot of talk about medicalizing a host of social problems, including such things as bias, and even guns. But here, an actual medical problem has been de-medicalized, and instead of people going to the doctor for a prescription, they're polluting veins and sinuses with foul stuff like the (new and improved) "Nazi meth."

Can anyone tell me how this is an improvement?

posted by Eric on 12.27.05 at 09:03 AM


Indeed. The prohibition of alcohol was a stunningly clear example of how a problem with a desired substance is multiplied beyond that of the initial problem drug. The puysuit of profits is stronger than any legal sanction...including death...could ever hope to be. Why this lersson is lost on the politicians of the day leads one to think that there is simething to be gained by the comntinuation of such a damaginging policy. One must suspect that those who call for comntinued prohbition are themselves profing somehow. Given the harsh treatment they reccomend for drug dealers, I believe that the prohibitionists should be treated at least as violently as they do the drug profiteers who are honest about their business...PLUS some additional "disconmfort" due such plainly evil, hypocritical, anti-social pieces of SHIT! What does twenty years in a penitentuiaty equal the pain one can give back in the five minutes we have them alone n a back alley? Would it be equal to say.."pain up to and including that of major organ failure".... as our beloved AG has written in an attempt to alow the torture that Cheney and Bush have already committed to be found "legal"? I think so..... I believe that we should torture any prohibitionist you can find. Too much you say? Then just kill them.

Anonymous   ·  January 3, 2006 2:43 AM

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