Australia: What is in a tablet? Understanding the dangers of chemically synthesised drugs.

Last Updated: 19 September 2018
Article by John Gooley

The actual contents of many of the ecstasy tablets and other tablets that people take at parties and festivals are a combination of dangerous chemicals and compounds, mixed together in horrific, unhygienic circumstances by extremely dangerous and questionable people.

Police warnings issued before music festivals have failed to deter drug takers

Unfortunately, despite advance warnings of police presence in the media and high visibility police operations at many music festivals, it appears the number of young people willing to take their chances with these drugs is on the rise. At the recent Splendour in the Grass music festival near Byron Bay, NSW Police charged 115 people with drug offences, including one man who was allegedly carrying almost 60 pills, and another man allegedly carrying 57 MDMA tablets.

The events at the defqon.1 event at Penrith on 15 and 16 September 2018 have confirmed the worst case scenario. That included police detecting at least two females with internal body concealments.

While laboratory studies have found pure 3,4-Methylenedioxy-methamphetamine (MDMA) or ecstasy, as it's commonly known, to be sufficiently safe for human consumption when taken a limited number of times in moderate doses, analysis of ecstasy at festivals and the like has shown that most tablets contain drugs other than MDMA. An alarming number contain absolutely no MDMA.

New committal process in NSW allows for abridged testing procedure

Members of the Stacks group criminal law practice are often involved in matters concerning drugs, and where drug manufacture is alleged the matter will almost certainly require a brief to be served.

All manufacture charges have degrees of similarity, but the range of shortcuts, experimentations and other changes to methodology in the get-rich-quick operations of manufacturing dangerous drugs is lengthy, and something new is almost always involved.

The process for committal changed on 30 April 2018, and there are some doubts about the ability of the prosecution to serve a brief in time. The new system allows for an abridged process where analytical evidence is concerned, and initial test results (to indicate, for example, likely product and weight) are allowed, so that lawyers can advise clients without waiting for full analysis results. But that is for the purposes of prosecution and legal definitions.

The total content is unlikely to be distinguishable, with so many additives and extenders and boosters added during illegal manufacture.

In a recent case, which is outlined in detail below, 120 litres of the actual drug were confirmed, but the purity level fluctuated wildly between samples. In the end, a number of accused entered pleas of guilty to manufacturing a large commercial quantity of MDMA.

This saved a six-week trial but came years after charges were first laid. The complex nature of the enterprise and the relationships between the accused meant that the new committal process would not have changed much in that case, as it transpired.

Drug manufacturers – older, hardened, cynical criminals

As a lawyer, reading the briefs that include information on drug contents and manufacturing process is a sobering experience, especially if some of the product made it to the streets. Many people who choose to consume illicit drugs have no idea what is in the actual tablet or capsule, or how it was manufactured and the conditions where the manufacture occurred.

People now have greater access to "drug recipes" from online resources, which draw on legitimate published chemical engineering and production sources, to provide a "how to" of drug manufacture. Perhaps this knowledge gives them a sense of reassurance as to what they consider to be the contents of the drugs they take.

However, the reality is that the drug manufacturers involved are generally older, hardened, well exposed to the criminal justice system, and cynical as to the consequences of their actions. We know of one recently convicted "cook" who told interviewing police that he did not care about end users, he cared about money. Such admissions are rare, but sentencing courts often refer to similar attitudes as being "inescapable in the circumstances". The end users do not often seem to care either.

Multi agency investigation uncovers clandestine drug laboratory

In this particular matter, the very large production, which was run in a clandestine laboratory that almost succeeded, illustrates the dangerous contents of these drugs and the conditions in which they are manufactured.

Magistrates and judges are well briefed on the topic and are continually updated as drug culture evolves. Lawyers practising criminal law and dealing with these cases also need to be educated on these drugs, their contents and the manufacturing processes. And people of risk-taking age and temperament should be informed as fully as possible of the dangers posed by chemically synthesised illegal drugs.

The ingredients and equipment outlined below were actually located by investigators led by a NSW agency and staffed by five other state and federal organisations. It provides a very brief and sanitised description of a some of the steps and end product ingredients in the failed manufacturing process discovered during that investigation. It was a far worse and more dangerous matter than the details here indicate.

The matters were finalised in the NSW Court system with some of the accused likely to live out their lives in prison. Others will be very elderly when released. One offender was severely brain damaged due to a long history of exposure to illicit manufacturing of drugs.

Chemicals and equipment used in manufacture

During the warrant search police located materials being mixed into, waiting to be mixed into or already mixed into numerous containers, and having chemical reactions, with a total liquid measure of 120 litres. Methylamphetamine and PMMA were included as well as crystalline MDMA.

The methodology used covered well known mixing and boiling-off processes, several reflux setups, dangerous and other vapours being returned to a liquid state and made alkaline by adding ingredients. These eventually create a prohibited drug, which is then extracted with a solvent such as toluene or xylene, with hydrogen chloride gas is also being involved.

During the preparation and manufacture of these drugs, numerous additives and other things are incorporated. The end product contains all or some of these things. To make matters worse, the actual "laboratory" was a filthy space that was so contaminated by the process that the entire building was – as often occurs – demolished later. Vapours had so impregnated the building structure that they could not be removed.

There was no evidence of general cleanliness (let alone hygienic legitimate manufacturing conditions) nor any "OH&S" aspect regarding the numerous glass and other containers, mixers, fans, heating devices or drying equipment located. Tables, measuring and weighing devices, and a raft of small ancillary goods plus empty packaging, drums, plastic and glass and tin containers, some gloves, respirators, aprons, face masks and goggles were strewn around.

The police estimated that if the process was taken to completion, the end product would have had a street value in the tens of millions. That was debatable in the end, but the content of the product was not.

Sophisticated monitoring detects purchase of suspect items

At the site, investigators located a large number of items which illustrate the types of equipment typically used in drug manufacturing. It included a large quantity of specialised items which can be ordered online or locally, but that triggers local and international law agency attention. Illicit manufacturers have to attempt all manner of covert purchasing and the outcome is occasional success, but increasingly these steps lead to detection.

In this particular case, third-party dealings between a local disguised entity and an international supplier raised concerns, which were heightened by unusual dealings with a foreign freight agency. It is usual for a range of companies, identities and safe areas to be set up by illicit manufacturers, but in this case most material was sourced locally.

However, once the sophisticated overseas dealings unravelled, investigators were able to track relevant local dealings. Repeated small purchases of innocuous items matched up with other items that had only one legitimate use, but were being purchased by someone outside that area of business. At this point the possible scale of the operation dictated major police resource deployment.

Ingredients found in drug laboratory

What investigators located on a warrant search of the premises demonstrates the alarming contents of and conditions in which these drugs are made. If likely users of these drugs were asked to do some research on the ingredients they may, possibly, be deterred. If some items are unfamiliar, a web search or dictionary may help in understanding what these items, individually and collectively, might be like if consumed.

Various containers and areas within the clandestine lab contained approximately 22 litres of PMMA (a Schedule 1 drug under the NSW Drug Misuse and Trafficking Act 1985) and strong components of methylamphetamine. The main component in the PMMA was anethole.

The analytical chemist estimated that four kilograms of pure PMMA was to be made from this liquid and to achieve this, the ingredients involved would be formic acid, hydrogen peroxide and sulphuric acid. Approximately 13 litres of the combined quantity of these products were located at that part of the site.

A further one kilogram of yield was estimated from a process known as the "aluminium amalgam" method, involving the substances PMP2P with methylamine, aluminium foil or filings and mercuric chloride. Quantities of all of these were found in the laboratory.

In addition, the analytical chemist found that methylamine can be substituted with nitromethane. A 20-litre drum of this, in the form of high octane racing fuel for drag cars, was found on the premises. This is a controlled product from a regulated outlet.

A further quantity of aluminium filings was found in a red frying pan together with 23.3 kilograms of white crystalline solid which was found to contain hexamine. There were 14 litres of hydrochloric acid beside the pan. Numerous items in the laboratory were found to have strong traces of PMMA on them.

Eight litres of enamel paint thinner were located, with further quantities of similar material, including acetone, caustic soda and shellite. In relation to methylamphetamine – also a Schedule 1 drug under the Act – empty containers were located to support the fact that a further 25 kilograms of hexamine had already been used.

Twenty litres of formic acid in bulk and six bottles (factory sealed) of the same product were located. Also found were factory labelled and sealed bottles containing 14 litres of hydrochloric acid and five litres of sulphuric acid, being partly sealed and partly empty after having been used in the process at a related area of the premises.

Another eight litres of toluide were found in three buckets. A further quantity of enamel thinners and acetone products – together with a Kambrook brand pressure cooker and extensive hose fittings – were all found to contain strong traces of methylamphetamine.

Strong contamination of surfaces in house and protective equipment used in drug lab

A rice cooker with black tape securing the lid and modified with a hose connector contained just over one kilogram of dark red liquid and sediment found to contain anethol and methylamphetamine. Swabs collected from the ceilings and other parts of the house and the roof beams indicated a strong presence of methylamphetamine and a number of precursor products.

A number of half-face air purifying respirators with air-filter cartridges attached were located along with gloves and aprons, all of which showed very strong contamination from numerous precursors and manufactured drugs on both the inside and outside of all items. The fingers of a number of gloves – including disposable ones, fabric liner gloves, and heavy-duty rubber gloves – were tested and a strong build-up of prohibited products was found in all of those finger samples.

Further quantities of turpentine, acetone, shellite, caustic soda, xylene, sulphuric acid and dichloromethane were seized. A spiral bound notebook with incriminating entries was also located in the handwriting of one of the persons charged. Computer analysis showed online checks of numerous chemical sites related to drug manufacture.

Other chemicals found included formic acid, aluminium chloride, methanol, heptanone, caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, chloroacetone, xylene (which is a solvent), cupric chloride or copper chloride, lithium chloride and aluminium chloride, and dichloromethane (DCM).

In many countries, products containing DCM are required to carry labels warning of its health risks, including its potential to be carcinogenic, as it has been linked to cancer in laboratory animals.

Drugs ingested inadvertently lead to tragic outcome

Many of these chemicals used in the manufacturing process are dangerous in their own right and the combined end product is a highly concentrated and deadly mix. This has been highlighted by a recent tragic story related to the manufacture of MDMA. The product had been concealed by copying an overseas method; the powder form of the drug had been placed in some empty wine bottles and then topped up with wine and the caps sealed.

These replaced several bottles in a 12 bottle carton; it was a method for transporting large quantities with limited chance of interception, a successful tactic recorded in overseas detections.

After the shipment had successfully reached its destination, the drug infused wine bottles were removed from the outer cartons. Due to confusion one of the infused bottles ended up being opened at a social occasion some years later; the first person to taste the product suffered a terrifying reaction and received permanent mental and physical damage. The powder in that bottle of wine would have generated about half a million dollars in sales.

Honest information may deter young people from buying manufactured drugs

In my experience, providing the details of this kind about the background of drug manufacturing can have some effect on young people – typically in presentations given to a school or club.

It may at least introduce a degree of reticence when it comes to buying drugs, although the escalating prominence of drugs at music and other festivals in Sydney this year indicates it is still a growth industry.

John Gooley
Criminal law
Stacks Collins Thompson

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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