Sciencemadness Discussion Board

book review: Forensic Investigation of Clandestine Laboratories

mayko - 21-9-2019 at 14:52

Forensic Investigation of Clandestine Laboratories
Donnell R Christian
CRC Press

I ran across this book while I as wandering around the science library and decided to check it out, interested in the perspective of a legal system which takes a dim view of home chemistry. It was definitely worth it! Here’s some things I thought were worth mentioning.

One thing that struck me is that the book is itself a passable if introductory guide to drug manufacture or home chemistry more generally. This is an example of a broader phenomenon, in which texts ostensibly written to counter unsavory activity can become how-to guides in their own right. The repurposing of SERE manuals is another high-profile example. Christian mentions The Anarchist Cookbook and Uncle Fester, noting that “… all of the information is not good. Some of the recipes do not produce the desired product. Other recipes may explode...” (p. 21). By contrast, his book, while hardly a spoonfeeding, contains multiple reaction pathways for various amphetamines and PCP (appendix D) and a thorough bibliography organized by target compound.

It’s an even better guide to improvised chemistry in general, beyond clandestine drug manufacture. Appendix B, “Legitimate Use Table”, is a reasonable guide to sourcing basic supplies. It tells you that lithium metal can be found in batteries, hydrochloric acid as a pool chemical, and sodium hydroxide as a drain cleaner, and much more. The discussion of safety is from the perspective of first responders and crime scene investigators, but is thorough and applicable to lab operators as well. There are several tables of qualitative analytical tests and the formulations of their reagents. (4.4, 4.5, 5.1, 5.2, appendix J), among other analytical techniques. Figure 9.12 illustrates how to make a separatory funnel from a plastic soda bottle; you’ll see that a shop vac can be used to power vacuum filtration in figure 9.14. And there are brief but complete explanations of standard lab procedures including distillation, acid-base extraction, gravimetry, and spectrophotometry.

Another thing that stood out was that the book is clearly written with law enforcement and prosecution in mind: the basics of an effective raid planning (p. 73-75) and coordinating with prosecuting attorneys (p. 164-168) are outlined. Although defense attorneys have a professional interest in the subject, I don’t think I saw their perspective represented at all. In fact, while there’s great detail about how to estimate production rates, I don’t think the possibility that the accused were innocent was acknowledged, let alone the presumption.

As far as preemptive self defense, keeping a complete lab notebook would seem to go a long way. Seized paperwork is one of the lines of evidence discussed, usually in the context of estimating a drug lab’s production rates and methods (eg, p.147, table 6.1, fig 6.3) This is used as evidence “to provide a historical perspective of the operation” (tbl 6.1), so an accurate record of distilling HEET and crystallizing copper salts might be very legally helpful, should the worst happen and the police come knocking.

Another self defense step is keeping containers labeled, and labeled correctly. The book emphasizes not only that chemicals present need to be cataloged, but also sampled and tested to compare to their label. (p. 86-87). Having these tests come back corroborating your account will probably be better than a bunch of mystery bottles and incorrect labels.

There are several points where Christian and the home chemistry community can find common ground. One is that many of the laws criminalizing drug manufacture are, taken by themselves, broad to the point of useless:
“If these statues were interpreted literally, thousands of homes in the United States would be in violation of the statute. Just because there is over-the-counter col or diet tablets, rubbing alcohol, iodine solution, swimming pool acid, glass jars, a turkey baster, and coffee filters at a location does not make it the site of a clandestine lab.” (p 21-22)

And, throughout the book, I get a sense of grudging admiration for the creativity and resourcefulness of chemists outside the mainstream. I wonder what he would think about our improvised equipment threads.

A couple of things were eyebrow-raising. One was this account of Grignard reagent being prepared under rather suboptimal conditions:
“The reaction between bromobenzene and magnesium produces phenylmagnesium bromide, a very reactive Grignard reagent. This compound is an essential intermediate component used in the synthesis of phecyclidine and its analogs. This reaction is self-driven and can be accomplished in a plastic bucket. ” (p. 190)

There were also a few potentially dangerous inaccuracies, such as the claim that ammonium hydroxide and several other innocuous chemicals have “No legitimate home or hobby use” (appendix B)

As long as we’re talking about bloopers, this anecdote made me laugh:

“Figure 9.9 illustrates an example of a situation in which a little knowledge an be dangerous The operator in this situation understood the basic concept concerning distillation However, he arranged a distillation apparatus such that the reception flask was above the boiling flask. This arrangement resulted in nothing more than a modified reflux apparatus. Gravity returned the liquified from the condensing vapors to the boiling flask instead of separating it into the reception flask. The operator had no idea why the apparatus was not working. ” (p. 194)

Corrosive Joeseph - 21-9-2019 at 15:09

Forensic Investigation of Clandestine Laboratories
Author: Donnell R. Christian Jr.
Publisher: CRC Press, Year: 2003
ISBN: 9780849312274,0-8493-1227


BromicAcid - 21-9-2019 at 16:23

Thanks for sharing this. I've wondered about the content of this book. I've had it on my Amazon Wishlist for the better part of 5 years to buy for some light reading.

CharlieA - 21-9-2019 at 17:00

Mayko, thanks for the insightful/thoughtful review. And thanks to Corrosive Joseph for the link. Now I can read it on my Kindle during our trans-Atlantic cruise next spring!

Steam - 22-9-2019 at 16:12

I like this book a lot, I am currently using it as a source for a term paper for a legal class I am in.
Keep fighting the good fight boys!

CouchHatter - 22-9-2019 at 17:56

I cannot imagine setting up to distill without knowing a lick of theory. That's quite an amusing anecdote. Thanks for your good review! And thank you CJ!

Herr Haber - 23-9-2019 at 04:03

Yay, thanks indeed !