Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

The Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs

by Edward M. Brecher and the Editors of Consumer Reports Magazine, 1972

Chapter 40. Should the amphetamines be prohibited?

Why shouldn't the amphetamines be banned altogether, as in Sweden except, perhaps, for a few essential medical purposes?

Like all such prohibition proposals, this one is highly rational. It is the ideal solution to the speed problem and to the amphetamine problem in general. The only possible objection that can be raised against banning amphetamines is that, like alcohol prohibition and heroin prohibition, it won't work. To evaluate the likelihood that amphetamine prohibition will work, let us examine in more detail the ways in which amphetamines are manufactured and marketed in the United States today.

Before the Federal Drug Abuse Control Amendments of 1965, illicit speed labs had to compete with diverted legal tablets priced at wholesale as low as thirteen or fourteen tablets for a penny–– 75 cents per thousand. When enforcement of the Drug Abuse Control Amendments at least partially dried up those low-priced legal supplies, the door was opened for profitable illicit manufacture on a far larger scale. Dr. Roger C. Smith's unpublished 1969 report, "The Marketplace of Speed," supplies some of the details for the San Francisco Bay area.

"A speed laboratory," the Smith report notes, "may range from a well organized, highly efficient operation, capable of producing five to twenty five pounds [from about 225,000 to about 1,125,000 ten-milligram doses] of speed per week consistently, to a kitchen or bathroom in a small apartment, producing less than an ounce per week, to a college chemistry laboratory where a student produces speed only occasionally, when he needs money or feels that the chances of detection are slight.... They usually operate in secluded areas well removed from neighborhoods of high use. This pattern has also been described as typical of operations in the Midwest and East Coast." 1

The very large labs, the report continued, have skilled chemists and a reliable source of the chemical precursors required to manufacture speed; these precursors are standard chemicals that have a wide variety of industrial uses, and have until recently been readily available from wholesale chemical supply companies and from other suppliers. During the past few years, narcotics officers have checked the records of these companies for clues that might lead to the speed labs, and some labs have been "busted" as a result. The surviving labs have therefore developed subtle indirect ways of securing their raw materials.

 One informant described how he secured precursor chemicals for a friend who was setting up a lab:

I just walked into this store ... it's a funny kind of store. Two old people work there who are about 50 years old, and they look at you and smile and say "what would you like?", and you would say that we want P-2-P [phenyl-2-proponol] and so on, and you would just run down the list and they would say "fine, come back in two days," and you would have to leave half the money as a deposit, and you could come back in two days and there they were, along with 20 other orders lined up on the floor, right in the middle of the store. These two people knew what was going on, because one time we went in there and the people asked how the crank [speed] was coming . . . completely blew my mind, seeing this sweet old lady asking how the crank was coming. . . . This world is getting pretty heavy. 2


"The cost of production," the Smith report continues, "is directly related to the source of chemicals. In a large laboratory, producing from 10 to 25 pounds per week with a steady source of supply, the basic cost may be $50 a pound. 3 This is slightly less than the wholesale price of legally manufactured amphetamines–– 75 cents per thousand for five milligram tablets, or about $70 per pound. "In a small operation, making a pound or less per week, buying chemicals from street sources, the cost per pound will exceed $200 ." 4 This raises the raw-materials cost per dose to almost a third of a cent. In the speed black market, as elsewhere, volume counts.

After a while, knowledge of how to manufacture speed spread from chemists to the laymen who worked with them and watched their techniques closely. By 1969 Dr. Roger C. Smith was able to report: "The lowlevel chemist is often a speed user, often without any formal training in chemistry, who learns the process ... by working with a more experienced chemist or by following a 'recipe' which can easily be obtained in the speed community." 5 As an example, he cited a fifteen-year-old girl "who had operated her own speed lab in the Haight-Ashbury." Asked how she learned the technique, she replied:


I moved into this house with a friend of mine in Seattle and this guy was making it in the bathroom, and I'm very interested. I like to learn things, so I just stayed up with him on three different nights and he would go through all the steps and I would write down how to do it. And he taught me and the next time I helped him do it. We did this around five times and I learned a lot. I can do it now, and I know most of the chemicals. I have all of it written down and I have to go by it, the temperature and everything. I couldn't remember it all, it's too complicated.  And people think it's easy to do, but it's not. 6 [Italics in original]


The way in which black-market speed is clandestinely manufactured is relevant to the problem of illicit drugs in general. LSD can be similarly manufactured in "bathtub labs," at low cost and in enormous quantities. The possibility that THC–– an active ingredient in marijuana might be clandestinely manufactured is reviewed in Part VIII. That synthetic heroin, or a wide range of synthetic heroin substitutes, might also be turned out clandestinely is an ever-present possibility. Nor should one ignore the possibility that new psychoactive drugs, more potent and more hazardous than any now known, may sooner or later emerge from bathtub labs. The two essential preconditions for the success of the clandestine laboratories are the banning of legally manufactured drugs and intensive policing of the ban.

But even if all the amphetamines on earth, clandestine as well as legal, were eradicated forever, not very much would be accomplished–– for many users would turn (indeed, some already are turning) to cocaine again.


Chapter 40

1. Roger C. Smith, "The Marketplace of Speed: Violence and Compulsive Methamphetamine Abuse"; unpublished (1969), p. 81.

2. Ibid., p. 83.

3. Ibid., p. 84.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., p. 85.

6. ibid.


Contents | Feedback | Search | DRCNet Home Page | Join DRCNet

DRCNet Library | Schaffer Library | Major Studies | Licit and Illicit Drugs