Investigation of clandestine drug laboratories

Kenneth Kirkbride, Anne Coxon, Benjamin Painter

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Drugs, illicit or commercial, are nothing more than chemicals that cause a particular therapeutic or recreational effect on the body. Although the following explanation is simplified to some extent, drugs bring about their effects because they each have a particular shape that allows them to bind with receptors within the body in much the same way as a key fits into a lock. In order for a key to function, the size and pattern of teeth are critical; the shape and size of the handle are irrelevant. Therefore it would not be unusual for a number of keys with identical tooth patterns but different handles to be capable of operating a single lock. This situation is replicated in the licit and illicit drug world; groups of structurally related drugs exist (and can be designed) and members of each group broadly have similar influences on the body. This is the reason why there is a proliferation of drugs on the illicit and licit markets and why chemists speak in terms of drug types or drug families.
An important family of drugs in the context of clandestine manufacture is the amphetamine type substances (called ATS in Australia), which contains amphetamine, methamphetamine, 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or ecstasy), para-methoxyamphetamine and many more. The fundamental science related to the manufacture of illicit drugs is synthetic organic chemistry, which involves the conversion of molecules of one structure into molecules of another structure. Critical to an understanding of synthetic chemistry therefore is an understanding of molecules and their building blocks, which are atoms. If one could take a crystal of methamphetamine and subject it to high magnification, one would see that the crystal is built up of discrete building blocks of the structure shown in a simplified form at the top of Figure 1 below. These building blocks are molecules of methamphetamine. The molecule is made up of a collection of particular atoms (10 carbon atoms, 15 hydrogen atoms and 1nitrogen atom) assembled in a particular configuration. Likewise, if one took crystals of amphetamine or MDMA and subjected them to the same type of magnification, one would see that the crystals are also made up of molecules, but the number of atoms in the MDMA molecule and their connectivity is different to number of atoms and their connectivity in the amphetamine molecule, and both are different to the molecules of methamphetamine (see Figure 1). Although the molecules of these three drugs differ, they each have a common basic structural element (or moiety) shown at the bottom of Figure 1. It is this moiety that forms the "teeth of the
key", allowing each of the three drugs to engage with the "lock" of the nervous system of the body and stimulate it and it is the moeity that confers each drug membership of the ATS family.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationExpert Evidence
Subtitle of host publicationDrug Analysis and Toxicology
PublisherWestlaw AU
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)0455210780
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • illicit drug laboratories
  • synthesis chemicals
  • precursors


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