This is the third post in a five-part series on global drug trafficking.
Today I will explain how heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine are manufactured. I won’t go into exact details because I don’t want to promote the production of any of these drugs, but should you be interested, the instructions are readily available online (which is interesting on its own).
Opium, Morphine and Heroin Manufacture
In the post on cultivation (part 2), I explained how the plant is grown. When the plant is ready for the production of opium – because that’s what the manufacture begins with – the petals of the flowers fall away to expose an egg-shaped seed pod. Inside is opium in its crudest form, an opaque, milky sap. This is extracted – the farmer makes vertical slits in the skin of the pod
with a special knife. When the sap oozes out, it turns darker and thicker. It turns into a brownish-black gum, also called latex.
The opium then enters the black market, where it is sold as bricks, cakes or balls, wrapped in plastic or leaves. However, most traffickers refine the opium into morphine close to the poppy fields because morphine is easier to smuggle than the pungent, jelly like opium.
The refineries are little more than rickety labs, equipped with oil drums. There, the opium is mixed with lime in boiling water. Organic waste sinks to the bottom and on the surface, a white band of morphine forms. This is drawn off and reheated with ammonia, after which it’s filtered and boiled again until reduced to a brown paste.
The paste is poured into molds and dried in the sun. It is now morphine base, which feels like modeling clay. The base is smoke-able in a pipe or ready for further processing into heroin.
C.R. Wright, an English researcher, was the first to unknowingly produce heroin in 1874. He simply boiled the morphine base and a common chemical over a stove for several hours.
The modern technique entails a complicated series of steps and requires a good laboratory, because a particular stage of the heroin production is notoriously risky. If the chemist were careless, certain gases could ignite and produce a violent explosion.
Cocaine and Crack Cocaine Production
Dried coca leaves are crushed, chopped and/or pounded and mixed with a solution of alcohol, kerosene or gasoline. This is to separate the cocaine from the leaves. The resulting liquid contains unpurified cocaine alkaloids and possibly waxy material from the leaves. To remove the wax, the liquid is heated and then cooled again, which solidifies it.
The alkaloids are isolated next. This is done with acid and some basic mixtures, and when isolated, the alkaloids are treated with kerosene. The kerosene is then removed. Gas crystals of crude cocaine are left at the bottom of the tank. These are typically dissolved in methyl alcohol, after which they are recrystallized and dissolved in sulfuric acid. The result is cocaine that is about 60% pure.
At this point, the cocaine is freebase cocaine, very similar to crack cocaine.
Next, the freebase cocaine is converted to salt, or cocaine hydrochloride, or regular cocaine. If the cocaine is not converted to salt, it would lose its potency for long. Also, if not converted, it’s not soluble in water, which means it couldn’t be injected or snorted.
When cocaine is converted to crack, they basically revert the previous process.
As methamphetamine is not based on an organic ingredient, it’s manufactured in all parts of the worlds. The highest concentrations of manufacture have been found in East and SouthEast Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania and Southern Africa.
Production of methamphetamine is relatively simple, but entails risk with flammable and corrosive chemicals, particularly the solvents used in extraction and purification. Consequently, meth-labs are often discovered by fires and explosions caused by the improper handling of volatile or flammable solvents.
Many of the ingredients are readily available in household products, or over-the-counter medicines for cold or allergies. The ingredient the manufacturers look for are ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. The original product has to be reduced to this ingredient. The maximum conversion rate for ephedrine and pseudoephedrine is 92%, although typically, illicit methamphetamine laboratories convert at a rate of 50% to 75%.
Methamphetamine labs can give off noxious fumes. If produced by amateurs, manufacturing methamphetamine can be extremely dangerous. If the red phosphorus overheats, because of a lack of ventilation, phosphine gas can be produced. This gas is highly toxic and, if present in large quantities, can explode when it comes in touch with a different
To describe how methamphetamine is made would require me to explain all sorts of chemical processes. Frankly, I’m far from a chemist, so I wouldn’t even understand it myself. Basically, they follow a recipe, after which the methamphetamine crystal comes into existence. Often, the crystal is crushed into a powder, which is snorted, injected, eaten or in a different way consumed.
Had you ever read about how they are produced before? What did you find particularly interesting? (I’m personally amazed by the fact that cocaine is part gasoline/kerosene, actually. I had no idea). Are you as amazed as I am about the lengths that people go (they often endanger their own and their family’s health) to produce these products?