Saturday, March 12, 2011

On the origins of THE ALCHEMIST - Part II

And all things considered, it probably wouldn’t have been a good idea for me to have actually gone into that grimy make-shift meth lab that night and engaged with the idiot chemist who had somehow managed not to kill himself --- yet --- using ethyl ether and an open flame to ‘cook’ illicit drugs.
He and I would have probably gotten into a heated argument over basic lab safety practices that, in retrospect, would have pretty difficult to explain to the narcs, prosecutor, judge and jury … especially if the narcs and I managed to ‘bug’ the place or they decided it was safe enough for me to wear a ‘wire’.  After all, I really wasn’t being sent in there to conduct an OSHA inspection and otherwise help to improve operations.
Role-playing is never easy, I suppose, even in the best of circumstances … especially if your mind is in an entirely different place.
I’ve played that imagined scenario out in my head many times over the past years … age and experience progressively adding any number of likely possibilities to a story arc that probably wouldn’t have ended well for me, even if the idiot chemist actually had been there waiting for me that night instead of some of his far more dangerous friends.
But I never got to find out because about five minutes later, the snitch came running back down the road yelling that it was ‘all gone.’  It didn’t take us long to confirm that ‘it’ was the entire lab setup.  There were a bunch of empty solvent bottles, a rusted propane tank, some rubber tubing and a lot of miscellaneous trash; but none of the boiling flasks, beakers, burettes and other common chemical synthesis glassware -– of the type you often see on TV filled with unlikely red, blue and green liquids bubbling away cheerfully --- that might have helped tell us what was actually going on in that filthy excuse for a lab.
Assuming that anything actually had been going on, of course.
This was to be yet another lesson for me in the ever-dysfunctional relationships between narcs and snitches, neither of whom ever really trusted the other.  The narcs were sure this particular snitch was lying about the lab --- or, at the very least, probably trying to work both sides --- and he was insisting that everything he’d told them was absolutely true … and the actual truth was undoubtedly somewhere in between.
It looked to me like some kind of lab had been there, and a meticulous search of the crudely-built, scorched and stained wooden benches might have revealed traces of indicative reactants and products; but it was late, and I didn’t have my CSI kit with me, and the narcs weren’t interested in something they couldn’t prosecute … and I was actually more than willing to call it a night.
“This sort of thing happens all the time,” the vice/narc sergeant said philosophically was we drove back to the Sheriff’s Office.  “No big deal.  We’ll get to the source of those labs someday.”
Sadly, that vice/narc sergeant never lived to see how prophetic his words would be (he was killed by an armed robbery suspect a few years later in a freak shooting that never should have happened ... and I lost a treasured mentor and friend), and I went back to my desert crime scene work with a vague sense of relief that my brief role as an underground chemist was over.
Four years later, I would transfer to the Huntington Beach (CA) Police Department to set up a Scientific Investigation Bureau (crime lab, ID unit and photo lab), with my memories of Professor Radlick and that dark and grimy supposed meth lab tucked away deep in the back of my head.
Until the day that kids in Huntington Beach started showing up in the ERs with symptoms of extreme drug poisoning that the doctors couldn’t diagnose.
It didn’t take long for the HB narcs to focus in on a suspect who was supposedly selling some new form of PCP.  They made a buy off of him, brought the bindle of dark power to me, and waited for me to tell them that it actually was PCP (or any other illegal drug) so they could arrest him and seize his stash of drugs.
To say that they were dismayed when I finally told them it wasn’t PCP --- or any other illegal drug as far as I could tell --- was putting it mildly.  And they were even less happy when (with the help of a neighborly DEA crime lab chemist and his mass spectrograph) I was finally able to tell them that the drug they bought was a thiopene-analog of PCP … making it a drug that probably acted very much like PCP on the human brain, but was completely legal.  They couldn’t arrest him for the sale, and they couldn’t seize his stash.
But it turned out they could arrest him and seize his stash if he offered to sell it to them (again) as something that was illegal.  It was called ‘sales-in-lieu-of’ --- a misdemeanor, not a felony --- but it meant they could get this new deadly drug off the street, temporarily at least, which was really what they wanted to do.
So they went back out on the street, and came back to the lab a couple hours later yelling and screaming and waving bags of dope as if they’d just scored the winning touchdown (narcs are like that … arguably crazy people, given the nature of their job, but almost always entertaining to the crime lab folks).
So I asked the narc sergeant, as I was logging in all of the dope bags, “what did he sell it as?”
“Cannabinol,” the cheerful narc supervisor replied.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, probably looking as shocked as I felt.
“Why, what’s wrong with that?” the suddenly sobered detective sergeant demanded.  “Cannabinol’s the street term for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana --- an illegal drug --- right?”
“You’re not going to like what I’m about to tell you,” I said, shaking my head, slowly and sadly.
To be continued …   

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