Making Crystal Meth - Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad poster
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I've been watching the new tv series on AMC called "Breaking Bad" which is about a chemistry teacher who gets diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and decides to make crystal meth to earn some money for his family (not that teaching high school chemistry doesn't make a mint). The writers consulted with the US DEA about how to make crystal meth, so the meth lab is pretty realistic. While I could tell you how to make any number of chemical weapons, I personally did not know how one would go about making crystal meth.
The DEA says instructions are easily found on the internet, but you won't be finding detailed instructions here (nor the chemical weapon ones, in case you were wondering). What I will tell you is making crystal meth involves reducing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine and is easy enough just about anyone can do it, which is why my favorite over-the-counter allergy and cold medicines are so hard to find.

Now... just because it's easy to make crystal meth doesn't mean it's smart. First off, it's highly illegal. It's also decently hazardous to your health. In the US, a typical meth lab employs something called the 'Red, White, and Blue Process', which entails hydrogenation of the hydroxyl group on the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine molecule. The red is red phosphorus, white is the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, and blue is iodine, used to make hydroiodic acid. If you aren't careful, you can expose yourself to highly toxic phosphine gas.
White phosphorus with sodium hydroxide produces the gas, usually as a result of overheating red phosphorus, plus white phosphorus can autoignite and blow up the meth lab. In the first episode of "Breaking Bad", the chemistry-prof-turned-meth-chef gets away from some bad guys by purposely cooking up phosphine to use as a poison.
In addition to phosphine and phosphorus, various nasty vapors may be found floating around a meth lab, such as chloroform, ether, acetone, ammonia, hydrochloric acid, methylamine, iodine, hydroiodic acid, lithium or sodium, mercury, and hydrogen gas.

Although meth is second only to alcohol and marijuana in terms of drug popularity in many parts of the US, there are some really excellent reasons why I'm more likely to grab a beer than mess with crystal meth. It causes nerve damage that produces degeneration of brain tissue reminiscent of what you get from Alzheimer's, is associated with meth mouth (in which your teeth rot and fall out), and tends to cause long-lasting behavioral changes even in people who only use it once or twice. I would guess most of the more heinous side effects of crystal meth result from contamination of methamphetamine with the reagents or solvents (most crystal meth is of abysmally low purity), since methamphetamines have reputable prescribed uses, too. Even so, I'll stick with coffee as my preferred pick-me-up. The tv show seems pretty good so far. The characters are interesting and I've certainly learned more about crystal meth than I knew before.
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Photo: Crystal Meth (US DEA)