The War on Drugs – Notes from the Front

Early in his first term, President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. I had just joined the Drug Enforcement Administration, in whose forensic labs I spent the next quarter century. Within a year or so, I was at headquarters, where, among other pursuits, I was tasked with trying to figure out how a small coterie of barely literate French “chemists” were producing the finest heroin ever made.

Heroin was the first target in the “war”. We were interested in knowing the way the stuff was made, so that we could “remote sense” where they were cooking. Stepped-up intel had produced a recipe or two. All we had to do was translate the bad French. I knew some of the language, being of French descent (and having studied it in high school and college). The next step was to apply the best technology available at the time to find where the cooking was taking place.

Heroin manufacture starts with opium poppies, from which a sappy, milky substance is painstakingly extracted and dried out, producing raw opium. The material is then smuggled to a place where morphine is extracted from it (roughly 10% by weight of the raw opium). Morphine was then smuggled into France, where it was chemically converted to heroin. Without boring you with details (easily found on the Internet, if you need them), morphine was reacted with benzene and acetic anhydride to form diacetylmorphine, aka heroin.

Any attempt to sense a facility actively making heroin needed to zero in on volatile chemicals (those which, basically, you can smell). Benzene and acetic anhydride were both suitable. At the time (early 70’s), a contracter fitted a helicopter with a vacuum to draw vapors, sucked them into an instrument known as a mass spectrometer, which detects and identifies chemicals by measuring their molecular weight.

To try this scheme out, Uncle Sam sent me to the Mohave Desert, along with my boss and a DEA Special Agent. My task was to set up a heroin lab and start cooking, while the contractor would fly above us with the helo and mass spectrometer. (I was sent to the local Kmart to get supplies, which included a crab pot my family used for years afterward. We brought the morphine and chemicals with us from Washington; Kmart was out of stock……).

Ultimately, the attempt was a failure. The technology was not “mature” enough. I found out years later that when they tried out a prototype in France, all they detected were dry cleaners and wineries. Oh well. Nothing ventured…..(What did you do in the war, Daddy?)

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