The meth makers

Making methamphetamine in clandestine kitchen labs is easy if you have the recipe and an experienced cook. But it’s also extremely dangerous and can cause paranoia. These three men have a reason to be scared.

In the beginning: 600 pseudoephedrine cold pills, purchased over the counter.

In the beginning: 600 pseudoephedrine cold pills, purchased over the counter.

Photo by R.V. Scheide

The big four-wheel-drive chases its shadow across the Sacramento Valley floor, carrying Moore, Rocky and Ed east, toward the foothills. Moore has been to a lot of bad places, prison being the worst. He isn’t keen on returning to it. That’s why he’s not exactly enthusiastic about going to the crank lab tonight. If the cops show up, it’ll be his third strike, and that means 25-to-life in most Northern California counties.

“I hate it, too,” Rocky mutters from behind the wheel. “I’m sick and tired of it.” Rocky is a clandestine chemist. He may have failed high-school science, but during the past two decades he’s mastered the process of making crystal methamphetamine. Cooking crank has provided a steady income—if you don’t count those years he’s spent in prison on drug-related offenses—but lately, he’s been wishing he’d mastered something else, preferably something not so illegal and insanely dangerous.

Ed, wedged between Rocky and Moore, expresses no such misgivings about tonight’s appointed task. Perhaps it’s because he hasn’t been to prison yet. Or maybe he’s spun from the crystal they’ve been smoking all day. The sun is molten orange on the horizon as the truck begins the twisting ascent into the foothills. Two sheriff’s cars whiz by heading down the hill, away from the lab.

As far as Rocky, Ed and Moore (not their real names) are concerned, the cops are heading in the right direction. Tonight, like moonshiners back in the day, they will head into the hills under the cover of darkness, where in a dimly lit makeshift laboratory hidden among the trees they will cook up a fresh batch of pure crystal methamphetamine.

It’s dark by the time they reach the lab, located deep in the woods in a dilapidated shack at the end of a winding dirt road. Here, in the hovel’s tiny cramped kitchen, Rocky will work his own special form of alchemy. They step out of the truck into the inky blackness. Constellations wheel slowly overhead on a cold, moonless night. A dog barks in the distance.

“Man, I hate being here,” Moore says.

A thousand things can go wrong in a crank lab; getting busted by the cops is just one of them, and maybe not the worst, unless you’re a two-time loser like Moore. Think of the clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine as a series of relatively complex high-school chemistry class lab experiments performed one after the other, except that if you make one little mistake during any stage of the process, there goes your grade—and maybe the neighborhood.

Most of the chemicals used to make crank are lethal in any number of ways if mishandled; the manufacturing process is fairly complex, lending itself to mishandling. Consider the two men currently on trial for murder in Ukiah after the crank lab they were allegedly operating got out of control, starting a forest fire that led to the deaths of two firefighting pilots last year.

Rocky spent most of the week scrambling to find the necessary chemical compounds for tonight’s cook-off: pseudoephedrine, red phosphorus, iodine crystals, methanol, acetone, toluene, sodium hydroxide, muriatic acid. The meth heyday of the 1970s and early 1980s, when many of these chemicals could be purchased without arousing suspicion, is long gone.

Government regulations got you down? Try buying enough pseudoephedrine to make an ounce of premium grade crank. That’s approximately 1,000 60 mg pills, but purchases of the popular over-the-counter decongestant are limited to three 48-count boxes per person per day at most drug stores in Northern California; some stores require customers to sign for a single box. So Rocky had to send half a dozen members of his extended family—friends and relatives with ties that are more chemical than genetic—on a mission to hit numerous drug stores in Northern California in order to get enough pseudoephedrine.

And that was the easy part. He had to employ considerable subterfuge bringing all of the other ingredients together. Iodine and acetone can still be bought at most drug stores, but don’t even think about asking him where he got the toluene or the red phosphorus, particularly the red phosphorus. It’s still available from most chemical-supply houses, but as far as the authorities are concerned, there are basically three uses for it: making matches, fertilizer or methamphetamine. A signature on a red-phosphorus purchase order is an automatic red flag for the authorities.

Smoked any aluminum foil lately? You have if you’ve done crank.

Photo by R.V. Scheide

The trick is to know someone who has a legitimate need for the chemical and obtain an ounce or two from him. In lieu of that, shaving the heads off 1,000 wooden matches will yield a tidy pile of red phosphorus, assuming the right brand of matches is used and the heads are ground up fine enough. After two days of frantic searching, Rocky was able to find a small amount of red phosphorus, enough to make an ounce of meth.

All this hassle, all of this running around, just to get enough chemicals to make a lousy ounce of methamphetamine. This is what Rocky is talking about when he says he’s sick and tired of it. He means all of it, the whole crazy hustle of making speed in the 21st century. He’s just not sure if it’s worth it anymore.

An ounce of pure methamphetamine has a potential street value of $2,500 to $5,000. Considering the total outlay is only several hundred dollars, the profit margin is relatively high. But Rocky, Ed and Moore aren’t in this for the money alone. They’ll smoke at least half of what they make and sell most of the rest to friends, who’ll expect a good price. Maybe they’ll make enough to stake them for the next batch, which is a good thing, because by then they’ll be out of speed, and they’ll be needing it, like they’re needing it now.

Rocky places the glass pipe to his lips and gently rocks the bowl over a lighter flame. The crystal inside the bowl vaporizes; he sucks the vapor deep into his lungs, feeling the speed surge through his capillaries and into his bloodstream. His eyes, which have dark circles under them, seem to clear up, sparkle. He breathes out pungent, chemical-smelling mist, passing the pipe to Ed.

Ed huffs and puffs on the glass tube until vaporized meth belches out of the tiny opening in the bowl like a steam whistle. He inhales a massive cloud of crank, holds it for what seems like forever. Finally he exhales. Nothing comes out, as if his body absorbed the entire hit.

He challenges Moore to take another hit.

“The only time I say ‘no’ is when you ask me if I’ve had enough,” Moore says, laying flame to glass. Moore once shot a man, in self-defense. The man lived. Moore wishes he’d died. That was Moore’s first strike. The second strike was drug-related. He hopes to avoid the third strike, which is why he doesn’t mind waiting in the truck, keeping lookout, while Rocky and Ed handle the crank-making duties.

Rocky and Ed unload the chemicals and the lab equipment from the back of the truck. Ed hooks up a yellow plastic safety lamp to a spare car battery, bathing the cramped kitchen in an amber glow. The air inside the shack feels sticky and smells of ammonia, a telltale sign crank has been cooked here before. Blankets are duct-taped over the windows so no light escapes.

Rocky lays out his equipment. Instead of lab-grade flasks and beakers, he’s using fruit jars and plastic jugs, so-called “ghetto glass,” unpredictable containers not recommended for use when conducting serious chemical reactions like the ones about to ensue. The heat source is a propane stove, prone to starting fires in laboratory use. There is no ventilation. Such shoddy conditions and equipment are the main reasons things do go wrong in crank labs, but Rocky has no choice but to “run what he brung.”

The intent of this report is to enlighten the public regarding the making of a dangerous drug, not to provide a step-by-step guide to manufacturing methamphetamine. That can be found readily enough on the Internet. Steps have been left out of the description that follows. As mentioned, such activities are not only exceedingly illegal, they’re also insanely dangerous. For example, just breathing the fumes of toluene, a methyl benzene solvent compound, can cause serious damage to the respiratory system and vital organs of the body such as the heart and the liver.

Yet Rocky and Ed aren’t wearing respirator masks. Hydrochloric acid fumes are already filling the air, burning their eyes and skin, and they aren’t wearing eye protection or gloves, either. It seems like a sure recipe for disfigurement, save for the knowledge that Rocky has done this many, many times before and still seems to have all his fingers and toes.

The process Rocky plans to use tonight consists of two major stages. First, he has to dissolve the pseudoephedrine pills to filter out the impurities. In the second stage, the pseudoephedrine is mixed with red phosphorus and iodine in a process called “refluxing” to make the final product, methamphetamine.

Open flames are always risky in the crank lab.

Photo by R.V. Scheide

He dumps about 600 of the white pseudoephedrine pills in a mason jar and covers them with about an inch of distilled water, and the first stage begins. He vigorously stirs the mixture in the jar for 15 minutes, until it turns white and foamy as milk and the pills are completely dissolved. He mixes the white liquid with three parts of toluene. Three fruit jars with filters and funnels are set in front of him. He pours the toluene/pseudoephedrine mixture in the first funnel, then through the second and the third. A white mud collects in the final filter. He scrapes out the mud, mixes it in another container with acetone, and starts the filtration process again.

Each cook follows his own recipe; Rocky’s filtration process is complex and hard to follow, as he switches freely between acetone and toluene, methanol and distilled water. He’s been working the meth synthesis for two decades now, and his reflexes—eyeballing pHs instead of using litmus paper, filtering tinctures through wrung-out paper towels, keeping all three funnels going at the same time—are nearly automatic. The toxic atmosphere of solvents and acids doesn’t seem to faze him in the slightest, but after an hour Ed is getting impatient.

“I’m gonna see what’s going on.”

“I’m just getting ready to gas it,” Rocky says.

“How much longer?”

“Forty-five minutes.”

The cracked front door barely dents the darkness as Ed slips out. It’s so dark he can’t see his own feet, but gradually he makes out the black silhouette of the pickup truck against a field of stars. Moore is leaning back in the front seat, apparently sound asleep. Ed climbs in on the passenger side next to him.

“I think those two cops cased this place,” Moore says, without opening his eyes. Moore is paranoid, and, considering his criminal record and the amount of speed he smokes daily, he probably should be. He really does hate being here, at the crank lab. Not enough to quit doing speed, but maybe enough to at least give it some consideration. He started doing the stuff in high school, because he liked to stay up all night and chase girls. Although he’s almost 40, he’s still doing it; he can still hang with the heavy hitters. There doesn’t seem to be too much damage, except that he’s paranoid all the time. He hasn’t forgotten those two sheriff’s cars that passed going in the opposite direction on the way up.

He hands the glass pipe to Ed, who huffs and puffs another crank vapor steam whistle. Ed lights up a Marlboro. “You really think those cops were casing the place?” he asks.

Moore makes a snoring noise.

In the lab, Rocky drops a piece of aluminum foil in an antifreeze bottle filled with hydrochloric acid and screws the cap on. The cap is fitted with a surgical tube. The hydrochloric acid reacts with the aluminum, giving off hydrogen gas as a byproduct. He puts the end of the surgical tube in the pseudoephedrine mixture, and tiny hydrogen bubbles begin coursing through it. When he feels it’s thoroughly gassed, he begins the filtering process again, vigorously cleaning every vessel after each use, so that the various different chemicals won’t interact when they’re not supposed to, ruining a long night’s work.

He works fast, moving from jar to jar, washing and re-washing, keeping one eye on the mixture at all times, adding Red Devil Lye drain opener crystals to up the pH, methanol to add hydroxide molecules. Except Rocky doesn’t really know the chemical formulas in detail; it’s more like he feels his way through the process, using the different molecular weights of the acids and solvents to separate the drug from its binders. After an hour, he wrings out a wet, doughy glob about the size of a lime from the final Mr. Coffee filter. It’s enough pure pseudoephedrine to make an ounce of methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine: triple-filtered in Mr. Coffee filters.

Photo by R.V. Scheide

Rocky becomes sous-chef now, transferring the dough ball to a metal pan on the stovetop. He lights the stove, forgetting that he turned the propane on a couple of minutes previously. It’s the kind of error that can make a crank cook’s night go up in flames, but Rocky gets lucky. When the flame touches the gas that’s accumulated on top of the stove, it goes off with a loud “kapoof!” that startles him. Fortunately, there were no other flammable gasses, i.e. hydrogen or methanol or acetone or toluene, hanging around stovetop level. “God damn it, I knew that was going to happen!” he says. He re-lights the burner and begins breaking down the dough ball in the saucepan, stirring it so the alcohol evaporates out of it. Then he runs it through a filter again, using Heet, an automotive product used to remove water from fuel lines, to draw the remaining water molecules out. The door cracks open and Ed comes in.

“How much longer?”

“Forty-five minutes.”

Ed grimaces.

“Is that what I told you 45 minutes ago?”


He picks up the pan off the burner and stirs it, tilting it so Ed can see the powdery white crystals sparkling in the bottom. Ed’s eyebrows rise. The pseudoephedrine is done. Now it’s on to stage two, mixing the pseudoephedrine with the red phosphorus and the iodine crystals. A low rumble can be heard in the distance.

“What’s that?” Ed asks.

It’s a car, about a quarter-mile out on the gravel road leading up to the lab, on its way in. Rocky immediately shuts down the stove, douses the light. Ed freezes. The sound of wheels crunching on gravel gets louder. Headlights can be sensed through the heavy blankets shrouding the windows. Rocky takes a peek under one of the blankets. The car stops, pinning the lab in its headlights. “What the fuck?” Rocky says, and suddenly, the pickup truck roars to life, lurches into gear, and charges toward the car. Rocky and Ed slip out the door, leaving the lab empty.

“I was gonna ram the son-of-a-bitch,” insists Moore. The car turned out to be somebody who’d come up the wrong way and was turning around. He won’t be coming up that way again soon. Moore scared the hell out of him charging at him with the pickup truck. The excitement of the false alarm has eased Moore’s paranoia somewhat; he has abandoned his watch and now joins Rocky and Ed in the lab, where the air is even thicker with noxious fumes. “There is no way I’m going back to prison.”

Rocky’s been at if for two hours now, and it’s time for the moment of truth. He weighs the red phosphorus on the one piece of technical equipment in the lab, a small digital scale. Wrapped in a Mr. Coffee filter, the phosphorus looks appropriately enough like dark purple coffee grains. Rocky winces at the measurement. He prefers to mix his pseudoephedrine, red phosphorus, and iodine crystals in a 1:1:1 ratio. The small amount of phosphorus will limit tonight’s yield to less than three-quarters of an ounce, he quickly calculates. It’s way less than he hoped for, but there’s nothing to do but continue with the synthesis.

Rocky mixes a small amount of the phosphorus and pseudoephedrine in the flask. He attaches a glass tube, a condenser that is cooled by a salvaged computer fan, to the top of the flask. He drops a few of the iodine crystals in the flask along with several strips of aluminum foil and closes the condenser lid, places the flask over a double-boiler, and the reflux begins. It’s the type of chemical reaction that makes certain kids want to be chemists. A violet nebula bursts to life in the flask; it expands into the condenser, where it cools, turns yellow, and floats back to the bottom of the flask, where it accumulates as a bubbling, purple, applesauce-like substance. As soon as the reaction begins to simmer down, Rocky adds more ingredients to keep it going, until finally about a half-inch of dark liquid has accumulated on the bottom of the flask. It looks a lot like Welch’s grape juice.

Recycled antifreeze bottle (barely seen, bottom left) serves as a handy hydrogen “gasser.”

Photo by R.V. Scheide

That’s the meth, but it’s not done yet. Grape juice is a long way from white powder. The liquid is subjected to a filtering process using toluene and acetone to complete the synthesis. Rocky adjusts the pH with the lye crystals, gasses it with the hydrogen, pours from jar to jar, scrapes the residue out of the final filter, dries it out and starts over using knowledge he can’t really verbalize and only a handful of people possess to determine when the batch is nearing completion.

Ed tears open one of those auto air fresheners with the glass tube of liquid deodorizer in it, removes the tube, breaks off one end, dumps out the fluid and rinses out the tube. Then he grabs a handy propane torch and heats the unbroken end of the tube until it’s glowing red. He places the tube to his mouth and blows. A small bulb pops out of the molten red end. Ed pokes a small hole in the bulb, blows on the glass until it’s cooled, hands the brand-spanking new crank pipe to Rocky. Rocky loads the pipe with a sample of what he’s got so far, flicks his Bic, and the fresh meth vaporizes in his lungs. He blows the hit out 15 seconds later.

“Green,” he says, referring to the need for more cooking.

“That’s what you always say,” Ed says.

“Moore, come here, I need your taste buds.”

Moore sidles over and takes a hit off the pipe, holds it, considering the flavor, the effect, in the same way a wine connoisseur might roll the latest hip label around on his or her palate, except of course instead of vino Moore’s sampling the freshest vintage meth available. He thinks it over, looks considerately at Rocky, then at his watch, blows the hit out.

“Two-point-two more minutes,” he says confidently. “But if you really want to check it out, you should stick some up your ass. That’s the best way. It gets all up in the membranes. I usually have my girlfriend do it, but I’ll help you out if you don’t mind …”

Rocky grins at the twisted prison humor. He keeps the reflux going a couple of minutes longer, goes through the intricate filtering process one more time, and four-and-a-half hours after the synthesis began, a half-cup mound of white, flaky chunks sits in the bottom of the flask, 21 grams of pure methamphetamine, ready to shoot, snort, smoke, sell, whatever.

“So, this is the part where we kill you,” Moore says to the reporter. It takes a second for the joke to register, and everybody laughs.

The consensus of the trio after a heavy post-lab smoking session is that the speed is good, but it’s by no means Rocky’s best batch. Of course, Rocky’s worst batch is probably better than most of the stuff found on the street, which is almost always heavily stepped on. Once, Rocky broke down 32 grams of Mexican dope in the lab. Turned out to have only seven grams of methamphetamine in it; the remaining 25 grams, 80 percent of the total amount, was all filler or cut.

Rocky hands the pipe to Ed, who stokes up another towering hit, then passes the pipe to Moore.

“Man, I love doing good speed,” Moore says. “It doesn’t have the drain of the bad come-down. You can sleep, but you don’t have to be a grizzly bear, and you’re not an asshole.”

That is probably a matter of opinion. The authorities are not running those “turn in your local crank cook” ads on TV (by calling 866-METH-LAB) for nothing. Methamphetamine has destroyed the lives of many people in Northern California; it probably hasn’t made Rocky, Ed and Moore better human beings. They’ll be the first ones to tell you that. They’ll also tell you if they and their friends want to rot their brains out smoking bathtub crank, well, then it oughtta be their right. Why not? It’s their lifestyle. They all talk about quitting, but they’re a long way from it. Rocky and Moore may occasionally say they hate it, but they don’t hate it enough … yet. So they’ll keep making methamphetamine; they’ll keep getting high.

Rocky, successful clandestine chemist for the moment, cleans up the scene of the crime between tokes. All the containers used in the synthesis, the ghetto glass fruit jars, are scrubbed profusely with distilled water. Some of the chemicals have been reclaimed during the procedure and can be used again. He burns what little waste material there is—a small amount of spent solvent, useless chemicals, cardboard packaging, etc.—feeling it’s safer to dispose of such materials in the atmosphere rather than bury them, where some of the toxins might leech into the watershed.

The battery is the last thing loaded into the truck. The lab door is padlocked. Rocky, Ed and Moore probably won’t use this site again. No sense in pushing their luck. Ed and Moore pile in, Rocky guns the engine, and they head back down the winding mountain road, similar to moonshiners back in the day. But they’ll be carrying an illicit drug that will never be as popular or as ubiquitous as hard liquor, a white powdery substance you never need come down from, once you learn how to make it.