The legal trade behind the manufacture of methamphetamines
Adam is a martyr to his sinuses. For two seasons out of four, his clogged passages throb like the thumb he once caught in a car door.
I know this because Adam has buttonholed me at a party and someone has told him I'm a pharmacist. He has a bone to pick with my kind and I, trapped in a deep chair with a drink and a sturdy bruschetta, have steeled myself to listen.
Adam gets relief from his nasal torture by taking Sudafed tablets, once obtained in a simple commercial transaction at his local pharmacy. Now, the simple transaction has morphed into an interview about why he wants Sudafed, with the requirement that he produce a driver's licence to prove his identity.
"I'm not a deviate, and I resent the implication," he grumbles, adding that he is a school principal who has been vetted by more authorities than I've had hot dinners. What committee of idiots, he asks, thought up this red-tape barrier between a sick man and his legal drug of choice?
In my experience, most people needing sinus tablets take the identification requirement on the chin. It's an ID-dependent world now: you have to prove who you are at the video shop, the bank, the Medicare counter, and even at schools when you're the aunt collecting the child on the mother's behalf.
Since drugs containing pseudoephedrine were rescheduled by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in 2006, 95% of people seeking sinus-pain or flu-symptom relief have had to demonstrate their bona fides to help police catch the 5% who buy the tablets for illegal purposes. Adam's Sudafed may well be destined for his bathroom cabinet, but thousands of identical boxes find their way into clandestine laboratories, where they become the precursor substance in a chemical reaction that ends in methamphetamine or amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS).
The 5% is, in the main, made up of ‘pseudo runners' - or ‘smurfs', as they are called in the US - and while a few could be called deviates, many of them are well-organised extroverts as busy and focused as any courier with a long pick-up list. A runner travels from pharmacy to pharmacy, buying packets of tablets that contain pseudoephedrine, the essential starting point for the meth and ice cooks who tend the vats for their masters, criminal gangs.
In 2007, more than 5 million meth laboratories were detected in the US. In Australia, the number is fewer than 500; but in a small population living around the rim of a large continent, that represents an enthusiastic uptake of a swiftly made, relatively cheap drug. The story of how these labs proliferate is the story of the runner, the cook, the dealer and the addict, but it's one that only makes sense after a short detour through the laboratories themselves.
Roughly 90% of the pseudoephedrine used in illegal labs to make meth as powder (of 10% purity) or base (of 20% purity) comes in tablet form from retail pharmacies. Police photographs taken at lab busts show packets of Sudafed (or Demazin, Zyrtec Decongestant, Home Brand Cold & Flu, or any of a dozen or so other commercial preparations) piled up like briquettes waiting for the stoker's shovel. With a growing market of regular users - more than 100,000 and rising, of whom around 80,000 are addicted - making ATS is an attractive business. Unlike opium and cannabis, they are not season- or climate-dependent; the physical work of making the drug requires a small staff; the precursor can be bought at the local chemist; and getting the drug to market is easier than home-delivering pizza. In terms of clear profit, meth labs leave Domino's in the dust. On any given cooking night in an Australian lab, $10,000 of raw material (plus $2000 for the cook) will return a minimum of $100,000, in street value, of methamphetamine.
For every lab that's discovered and decommissioned, it seems another pops up. In the decade from 1996, Australian lab numbers grew by 650%. Consider their portability: the makings of a small lab will fit into the boot of a car and can be reassembled on the run, in caravans, motel rooms, even disused dunnies. What force could stop such a lucrative business from adapting and growing (and overcoming obstacles) when the set-up costs are so low?
Globally, there is evidence that dismantling labs has decreased production in the short term, but this is not reflected in a long-term decline in drug use. Methamphetamines are imported when they can't be homemade: they arrive in postal packages, container ships and across land borders in vehicles. When the imports dry up because of increased vigilance by Customs, the pendulum swings back to local law-breaking ingenuity.
Opportunism is the rule. If no one is watching the candy store, why not send a few a few scouts out and see what comes back? Until recently, a runner had only to mingle with regular shoppers and behave himself and the chances of being caught or identified were close to nil. Something in the community setting had to change; a signal had to be sent to the gangs that the pickings would no longer be so easy. "Tinkering with the smallest details of the immediate environment," as Malcolm Gladwell writes in The Tipping Point, is the radical idea that underpins the reversal of an epidemic.
Adam just happened to arrive at the counter for his Sudafed at the same time as the tinkering was getting underway.
I've been studying the cast of players in the methamphetamine business but have omitted outlaw bikie gangs and organised crime from my interviews. I prefer to steer clear of people with guns, and their stories are told comprehensively elsewhere (see the work of John Silvester and Andrew Rule, and the late Sandra Harvey). The strange, neglected netherworld of the underlings is my turf. It's not exactly safe, but at least it opens up to scrutiny with less hostility than the badlands controlled by the big-money men.
Runners come in all shapes and sizes, and although I haven't met as many as I've had hot dinners, I've met a lot.
Joe is the most efficient and sought-after model. His picture is now on a ‘wanted' poster circulated to pharmacies by the Chemical Operations team of the New South Wales Drug Squad. Joe is big: 192 centimetres, solid build, mid forties, brown hair, classic menacing stare. He "continues to buy significant amounts of pseudo products", the poster reads, and although the shorthand of the chemical police might raise a smile from language purists, those of us who've encountered him see nothing ersatz in Joe's intentions.
His name is top of a list of three "current pseudo runners" known to be working The Coast, as my area of NSW is called, but he could live anywhere from the beach to the quiet suburbs west of Parramatta. Pseudo running is a mobile business. Many runners work out of Queensland, the speed capital of the nation, and cross-border missions make catching them and the organisations they serve a difficult game for police.
Joe's goal is quick profit based on fast turnaround. For a competent runner working for cash, a day's work might yield ten packets of, say, Demazin, sold to a dealer for $600, yielding a healthy net profit after subtracting pharmacy costs and petrol, not to mention time and anxiety. These runners know who sells and who doesn't; which pharmacies have CCTV operating; which staff inside an otherwise straight shop will turn a blind eye. They use aliases; possess multiple IDs; spout a line about an ear, nose and throat specialist's recommendation. Like bounty hunters, they keep a straight eye, for a cash runner with a habit wanders down too many side streets to make the finish line.
Down one of those side streets you might find a runner like Kylie. She's in her early twenties, thin, and has badly dyed hair and the misunderstood expression of a girl who has made a few wrong choices in life. Kylie needs meth for her own use. She needs it often and is at the point where she doesn't much care who twigs to her lame stories about why she needs Demazin and not Claratyne, so long as someone, somewhere, hands over a few boxes. Kylie doesn't have the wherewithal to convert Demazin into meth; instead, she swaps her packets for a bag of cooked powder. Because she can't physically manage this day-in, day-out need to go door-knocking, she begs favours of her friends and extended family, getting them to take their IDs to the chemist and go through the shitty rigmarole.
In the beginning, Kylie ran for her associate Max; now, she needs too much meth to bother with Max's backyard outfit. He's a lone-wolf runner, the kind of guy who works alone in his own kitchen or laundry. He isn't like Joe, working for the money that comes down from organised crime, or like Kylie, who lives in a bubble of personal need. Max buys commercial tablets to cook up at home, using a combination of kitchen utensils and recipes from well-known books. Like the suburban hydroponic-marijuana specialist, he adapts his house to minimise smells and noise. He cooks for himself and a small clientele, and if he is skilful and lucky, and the quantities stay beneath the amount deemed to be "for the purpose of commercial supply", he gets away with it.
A few of my methadone clients, people I've known longer and seen more often than some friends, are contemptuous of speed-freaks and meth-heads. They pour scorn on the new breed of junkies, condemning their jumpy, erratic habits.
"Bloody selfish nazis," says George (heroin, 15 years; methadone therapy, ten). "No manners."
Today, I tell him, there are twice as many methamphetamine as heroin addicts. Big deal, he says. I know where I'd rather hang.
George is a local identity and although he claims to steer clear of meth-heads, he knows someone who knows someone who knows Kylie.
When I finally meet her, I am amazed that she has any success at all as a runner. In the first place, she's a bad liar. The dead giveaway for a person on my side of the counter is the insistence on a product containing pseudoephedrine, coupled with an exaggerated or unusual reason for wanting it. (After our chat, Kylie tries to hit me up for Demazin with a transparent story about itchy bites caused by sea lice that no product but Demazin 6-Hour can cure.) Her second problem is her unusual appearance, so striking that I'm unlikely to forget it. Because she is a person of interest to police, I'm not at liberty to say what it is, other than a physical oddity that I'm astonished she doesn't take the simplest precaution to cover. Her fragility and incompetence make me feel protective towards her.
Runners earn peanuts compared to their masters, but the pay is still good. Few runners know the identity of their ultimate employers and this is not a bad thing, given the penalties for squealers. According to a National Drug Strategy document, crime syndicates involved in methamphetamine manufacture have a top-down influence on the market, which they regulate "primarily through threats of retribution". Runners, if they are smart, stick to the script, take precautions and do what they do best: get in and out without setting off the alarms. They usually sell to middlemen, who in turn supply the lab bosses; what happens after that is best left to the experts.
West of the F3 Freeway, heading north-west out of Sydney, is an area known as the lab belt - the semi-rural areas of Windsor, Dural, Wisemans Ferry, Somersby and on up to Morisset and beyond - where a shed on a 5-acre property might be the current hub of a gang's operation. Large or small, the sheds have unpretentious exteriors with adapted interiors: specialised apparatus like gas cylinders, reaction flasks, condensers, splash heads, distillations heads, rotary evaporators and, in some cases, pill or tablet presses.
Pseudoephedrine, the principal precursor material, has to be extracted from the hundreds of boxes of tablets sourced by runners. The laborious work of popping tablets out of their plastic bubbles one at a time, ready for pulverisation, is often given to children and teenagers related to the lab crew. In 2004, in the US, 3000 children suffered injuries related to "being in proximity to (and working in)" meth labs - injuries such as inhalation, chemical burns, eye irritation and the nasty surprises of a "hazardous lifestyle" that features poor ventilation, booby traps and firearms. This figure fell to slightly more than 600 in 2007, following America's crackdown on commercial sales of products containing pseudoephedrine. I have not found statistics for the Australian experience but have taken down the anecdotal reports of former juvenile offenders who worked for fathers and uncles in labs, where they had to do everything from crushing tablets to acting as human rotary evaporators.
At the heart of the lab is the cook, usually (and preferably) an industrial chemist who's been turned. The alchemy behind changing sinus tablets into lucrative street drugs, an idea often portrayed to newcomers as easy, is only so when certain ground rules are observed.
A young chemical engineer, pregnant with her second child, told me of her experience in a Newcastle pub in 2000 when, as a final-year university student, she was having a few drinks with friends. Towards the end of the evening, a biker approached her and asked if she wanted to earn as much as half a million dollars by cooking for his mates. The deal was, she had to leave with him there and then, be taken to a secret destination, and set to work immediately using the gang's recipe. The lab was fully kitted out and all peripherals were taken care of; she just had to cook.
What did you say? I asked. "I was a little drunk, I was young and for a few seconds I saw dollar signs." So what stopped you? "The cloak-and-dagger stuff, blindfolds, not knowing who was pulling the strings, but stronger even was that core thing of who I am as a person. I had strong feelings about innocent lives; I never wanted to be part of any system that might put dangerous drugs into the hands of kids. I could think that far into the future. Now the future's here. It could be my kids."
A friend of mine who began his career in industrial chemistry had a colleague who crossed the line and quickly began earning $10,000 a week, a heady increase from his previous wage as a 9-to-5 worker. The lab was rough, as was the new company he kept, but with the rapid accumulation of banknotes he soon overcame his doubts. How did he end up? Totally deranged, my friend said. He couldn't spend the money without drawing attention to himself. He lost his social circle, so he socialised with the mob. In the end, he started taking meth himself and then became an unemployed, paranoid wreck.
The best cooks, the ice cooks, master the conversion of a precursor to 80% purity, thereby doubling the street value of the lab's production - and putting a far more potent drug on the market. Ice cooks are known to have been kidnapped by rival bikie gangs and forced to work at gunpoint. In some cases, they are flown over from northern Europe, mostly Amsterdam, to train our local dabblers.
The home cook is another species altogether. Often untrained in chemistry, unenlightened about the explosive properties of solvents, adding bits of this and that from bottles without labels, these tyros - ‘Mom and Pop' or ‘Beavis and Butthead' operators, as they are known in the US - are spurred on by the promise of easy money for easy work. They use coffee grinders and electric woks, deluding themselves that the vile steam coming off their brews can't be all that bad, and wade into their work like excited boys on Guy Fawkes Day. The choice of simile is deliberate: many small- and medium-sized experiments blow up and burn houses to the ground.
The giveaway smell of home cooking (likened to cat's pee, ammonia, aniseed) and the presence of atypical home improvements (blacked-out windows, newly installed security cameras) ought to provoke curiosity, but often go unremarked in suburban streets. Of four home labs busted within a 5-kilometre radius of my workplace, none came to the attention of police from concerned neighbours.
Typical meth users, according to a National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund study, are young, live in share houses or with their parents, and spend about a hundred dollars a week on drugs. Dependence develops quickly in injecting users and those who smoke ice, increasing the need to obtain the drug at almost any cost. For those on benefits, a hundred dollars constitutes half of their pension and sends them out to find extra cash, often from dealing or running.
Dealing keeps many users busy, cashed-up and connected to a social network, allowing them to work from home rather than on the street. Kylie's dealer is a "mongrel", but the more common description is of an opportunist who offers home delivery, other drugs (cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine, benzos) and payment in kind (Sudafed tablets, sex). All of which means that dealers and users are often the same people, and the guy skulking in the cold-and-flu aisle of the pharmacy just might be sniffling for a reason other than sinus trouble.
If this sounds familiar, it's because we've heard and seen it before. Cocaine hunters could find what they wanted in a chemist a century ago. Collier's Weekly magazine ran a report in 1905 that could have been written yesterday, were cocaine still freely available: "‘People come in here,' a New York druggist said, ‘ask what catarrh powders we've got, read the labels, and pick the one that's got the most cocaine. When I see a customer comparing labels, I know she's a fiend.'"
In 1990 I clipped and kept an article from a weekend colour supplement about the Australian Federal Police paying serious attention to ice in Honolulu, because it was the next new thing headed our way. It was the story of Robert, an average guy who liked a beer and the occasional line of cocaine, being given his first taste of ice. He seemed to have had an epiphany while stacking shelves. "Great rows. Perfect balance. I really concentrated. I hardly took any breaks." Within three months, Robert was going on smoking binges that lasted three or four days, then sleeping 20 hours straight. The supermarket gave him his marching orders. Fifteen kilograms lighter and crazy as a loon, he would spend hours searching for hidden microphones in his TV set and digging paper clips into his ears to prise out the speakers implanted in his brain by the police.
At the time, I thought the warnings of the coming "Ice Age" were as over-the-top as Robert stacking his cans of peaches with military precision. But the early predictions have been realised. If anything, the effect of methamphetamines was underestimated, at every level, not least for those working in the frontline: the police, hospitals and mental-health workers. We only have to fend off pseudo runners at the pharmacy counter. Dr Peter McGeorge, the director of Mental Health Services at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, on the edge of Kings Cross, sees "more and more" ATS users "brought in by police in a high state of aggression. The amount of rage, the threat they pose, is phenomenal."
It is a strange journey, the quest to convert pseudoephedrine into highly desirable street drugs - strange, but not secret. The knowledge has been out there for decades; the trick, according to the self-styled guru of ‘homebake', is to sort the wheat from the chaff. For more than 20 years an American using the nom de plume Uncle Fester has been publishing his manuals on the secrets of methamphetamine manufacture. When labs are busted here, police almost always report finding a well-thumbed copy of an Uncle Fester among the glassware and chemicals.
Despite warnings that I might draw police attention, I ordered one over the internet and have spent days browsing its 200-plus pages, marvelling at the cheek of the author. I have no interest in making or taking the drugs he lovingly describes, but I have found myself nodding with him on the issue of censorship. In a postscript to the introduction to the seventh edition (2005) of his guide, Fester rails against America's Patriot Act - "An agenda has been devised by our central scrutinisers to sweep all books they consider to be troublesome off the marketplace of ideas" - which, he writes, forced Amazon and Barnes & Noble to list his books as out-of-print. "Pressure", he claims, was applied to the search engines Google and Yahoo to act as gatekeepers. Life has apparently become easier for Festering Publications of Green Bay, Wisconsin, because I found the book through Google and ordered it from a web-based bookseller after reading all about it on Amazon.
I was struck by the author's voice, a mix of chemistry professor and gangster. Borrowing from the deadpan, at times paranoid prose style of William S Burroughs, Fester calls the drug squad "narco swine" and "drug clowns", and trumpets his victories over government-instituted changes to the way Sudafed tablets are made. In the US, as in Australia, Sudafed tablets (and all similar products) have been subjected to polymer science to make the active ingredient unextractable. "The method [to defeat polymer-filled Sudafed]," Fester writes, "is so laughably simple that it was inspired by watching Granny Clampett cooking lye soap by the Cement Pond."
The first chapter starts with the kit, the glassware needed for cooking. After detailing all the elements needed (and offering suggestions for adapting Pyrex casserole dishes), Fester bumps into the American laws enacted to stop the sale of lab equipment, has a chuckle, and offers handy hints for getting around them.
In Australia we have the Drug Misuse and Trafficking Regulation 2006, ‘11A: Sales of Schedule 3 apparatus', to go by. The drug-squad detective I spoke to for this article is well versed in the scams that are worked on Sydney glass- and lab-equipment factories, and gave me an overview of how the system ought to work. The law is specific about the way payments are made and the provision by the purchaser of an end-user declaration, a document which declares that the equipment is not going to be used to cook meth or ecstasy or anything else illegal. But surely, I asked the detective, rules can be bent? We are making it harder to divert equipment and chemicals, he answered - but yes, it still happens. While he didn't spell it out, Uncle Fester does: "Transfers between friends and the old-fashioned heist from well-stocked labs are other ways around this law."
As for the heavy stuff - the gas cylinders, pill presses, rotary evaporators and so on - all are now classified under the Act in Australia and, like the glassware, have to be diverted out of the legitimate market by dishonest means. Fester recommends stocking up, where possible, at hardware, hobby and convenience shops for apparently innocent supplies (drain cleaners, lithium batteries). "The more one can stock and operate a meth lab with ordinary materials, the more clandestine it will be."
I showed this book to my industrial-chemist friend. What did he think of the recipes getting into the hands of cowboys and wannabes? He shrugged. "You can't legislate against knowledge. There was a time when I had the secret because I was in the inner circle and we didn't let anyone else in. Then information exploded out of the inner sanctum. You can't predict where the pieces will land."
In the second paragraph of Uncle Fester's book, he writes: "Of course, there can be no such thing as a ‘war' on inanimate objects - there can only be a war on people. Endlessly adding more common chemicals to lists to be watched by America's secret police has done nothing to stem this nation's voracious appetite for illegal drugs."
Tackling the methamphetamine epidemic in the community, though - far away from the labs where the drugs are manufactured - is having an effect. An internet database is the latest method of tripping pseudo runners' feet. Trialled in Queensland in 2006 and 2007, and now operating in NSW, the STOP database records the driver's-licence numbers of people who buy products containing pseudoephedrine at pharmacies. If the licence pulls up a match, and if the screen shows multiple attempts to purchase on the same day or on consecutive days, alarms go off in Chemical Operations. In the first six months that STOP was online in NSW, pseudo running decreased by 25% and the number of new meth labs fell proportionally. The indications are that live tracking of pseudoephedrine sales slows the running campaigns at one end, while hastening the police response at the other. It seems the solution, as well as the problem, is about managing speed.
Naturally, not everybody is pleased with this barrier to buying. Adam, the school principal who bailed me up at the party, is but one example ("Why should the many suffer for the few?"). Another is the giant drug company Pfizer, the maker of Sudafed, which lost a lucrative standard line and had to attempt to regain market share with Sudafed PE (‘PE' stands for ‘phenylephrine', a decongestant which cannot be converted to methamphetamine). And, like any prevention system, STOP is only as good as the people who use it. Pharmacists, who are urged by their guild to back the initiative, are not all of like mind. I have heard some colleagues say that they can tell a pseudo runner a mile off and don't need the extra aggravation of becoming ‘pseudo police' by using software. In an undercover operation to test the uptake of STOP, police visited pharmacies in a designated area and returned to base with 60 packets in four hours, in one case obtaining ten packets in a single transaction.
The most obvious runners like Joe - tall, scary and memorable - are the ones who will be caught in the STOP net, the very reason they don't venture within cooee of a chemist displaying the project's logo. Methamphetamine manufacture and supply will not cease simply because pseudo runners are getting a hard time at the counters of some pharmacies: those who make and sell are as attentive to the environment on which they trespass as those who seek to protect it, and they constantly seek different ways of securing what they need.
According to my source in Chemical Operations, about half of pseudo runners are now over 55, on a pension and game for a bit of easy money. Who better to peddle a sinus-pain-that-needs-Demazin line to an unsuspecting staff member than someone who looks like their gran with a stuffy nose? Senior runners are often recruited in clubs with a tempting pitch: What if I deposit $3000 in your account, and in return you do a little shopping for me? Perhaps they don't want to know the money comes from organised crime; perhaps they don't care. Or perhaps, as was suggested by a sociologist to whom I put the matter, a pact that requires secrecy and daring introduces a primal thrill - a high - to the sameness of the days.