How to Synthesize Methamphetamine

A chemist explains to us how easy it really is to make crystal meth

In 2014, the largest crystal meth laboratory in the history of the republic was excavated in Austria - and not in an underground large-scale laboratory in Vienna, but in an inconspicuous farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. To mark the occasion, we spoke to a chemist about how easy it really is to make crystal meth.

The transformation of the shy chemistry teacher Walter White into the notorious drug baron Heisenberg has burned itself into our collective, media-contaminated memory. The final was a good year ago, but as an old series procrastinator, I've only just watched the last season. Looking back, I liked Breaking Bad especially because everything seemed conclusive. Questions raised were answered with understandable twists, everything made sense and seemed realistic to a certain extent.

At the same time, the meth-laden fairy tale is also a clever swipe at the (then) US health and health insurance system. Bryan Cranston also stated in an interview with Rolling Stone that the series would no longer work so well against the backdrop of ObamaCare.

Photo: Matt Brown | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

After my binge watch euphoria, I let a few people share in my enthusiasm for Walter White's fictional career. When I talked to a chemist friend after a few beers and cocktails, two things arose from this: First, this friend is an even bigger loser than I knew when it comes to serial consumption Breaking Bad only from hearsay. Second, I realized what a zero I am when it comes to chemistry basics. At least I understood that crystal meth was extremely easy to make.

A few days later I met for a little interview with my chemist friend. In the meantime he had read up on the subject a little and read the first couple of episodes Breaking Bad viewed, in which Walter and Jesse perform their first joint cooking exercises.

VICE: How difficult is it from a chemist's point of view to make crystal meth?
Basically anyone can do that. It is very easy to make, and there are several ways. It is easiest if you start from ephedrine. It is the same in the first episode of Breaking Bad to see. Ephedrine is an active pharmaceutical ingredient that is used, for example, against irritated nasal mucosa in the event of a runny nose or low blood pressure. The chemical compound of ephedrine, like crystal meth, belongs to the class of amphetamines. The only difference lies in a single OH group, which is also present in ephedrine.

In other words, you only need the drug and do you have to get rid of this OH group?
Yes exactly. You have to get rid of the OH group. From a chemical point of view, this process is called a reduction. It's pretty easy. A very simple option is, for example, the use of lithium. Commercially available batteries are used for this on the black market.

Yes. I suppose guys who have no clue about chemistry are simply using the contents of a lithium battery to reduce the OH group from the ephedrine. The electrons are decisive for the reduction.

Sounds like it has very little to do with real chemistry.
I strongly suspect that most of the guys who make crystal meth have no idea what chemistry is going on. They just pour the individual components together and have probably been shown it by someone. But to all of those who want to get to work with ephedrine tablets and batteries, I can only say that it doesn't work that simple. It takes a bit more skill than just mixing the components together.

Can an experienced chemist actually make crystal meth that is purer than any layperson?
Well, in the end it doesn't matter if you get an 80 percent recovery from crystal meth. Because then you just have 80 percent of the amount you would have gotten with a lossless conversion. It is simply not possible for a particularly talented person to create the ultimate awesome crystal meth that no one else can do. In addition, numerous analytical methods are used in a chemical laboratory to determine purity. If the desired result does not occur, there are further cleaning and separation processes. However, none of these procedures are available on the black market. I also think that the hobby cooks don't really care, because it's weight and not purity that counts anyway.

So you can't really say, for example with the THC content, that the meth produced by Walter White is stronger or better than other things?
The content only refers to the active substance per thrown stuff. If the compound is completely free of any impurities, the effect will be stronger than if, for example, impurities are present. However, the structure of crystal meth also has a chemical peculiarity. For that I have to go back a little: The compound has an anomeric carbon atom. One speaks of such a carbon atom when all four binding partners are different. During the synthesis there are two types of molecules that behave like an image and a mirror image. It is the same compound, but there are times when one of the two is less effective than the other. It is also possible that one compound has a toxic effect, whereas the other has the desired effect. However, if ephedrine is used as the starting product, this problem should not arise, since the active ingredient should be produced "enantiomerically pure" from the outset.

In season 1, Walt and Jesse switch to a different method.
Yes, I think a chemist wouldn't use ephedrine as a starting point anyway, but rather phenylacetone and convert this with methylamine. The synthesis here is a little more complicated than with ephedrine as the starting material, but still not a great challenge for a chemist.

Walter White makes crystal meth with a blue color, is there really such a thing?
It is not chemically possible to produce blue Crysta-Meth crystals. The compound N-methylamphetamine is white, and special manufacturing processes cannot change that. If there was such a thing in reality, dye was simply added.

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