MDMA Synthesis: How ‘Molly’ is made

According the other DEA, the primary way MDMA (Molly/ecstasy) is made is ‘via the ketone’. But what does that mean?

(Warning: The synthesis of MDMA must not be attempted by anybody who doesn’t have the necessary legal permits (or you’ll end up in prison) or practical lab skill (or you may end up wasting your time and money, blowing up your home, and poisoning yourself.))

Reaction Overview:
The ‘ketone’ approach has numerous reported variants. The basic scheme is the oxidation of the plant oil safrole (1-allyl-3,4-methylenedioxybenzene) into a ketone (3,4-methylenedioxyphenyl-2-propanone), which is then condensed with methylamine and reduced to the final MDMA product.

diagram of common mdma molly ecstasy synthesis pathway

Step 1: Peroxyacid oxidation (requires isomerization of safrole) or Wacker oxidation (catalytic oxidation) produces the ketone “PMK” (also known as 3,4-MDP2P.)  Since safrole and PMK are carefully watched and regulated precursors, the current favorite precursor (typically bought from Chinese chemical manufacturers) is PMK glycidate.  PMK glycidate can reportededly be easily broken down into PMK simply by heating it with hydrochloric acid.

Step 2: Reversible imine formation (occurs spontaneously when the ketone is placed in solution with methylamine.)

Step 3: Reduction (via hydrides, aluminum-mercury amalgams, or electrical cells) or catalytic hydrogenation permanently converts the imine to MDMA.

Safrole is found in various “essential oils”, the most famous of which is sassafras oil, which can contain as much as 90% safrole. Safrole, the ketone (PMK/MDP2P), and of course MDMA itself are all restricted in the US and most other countries. The wholesale price for safrole is reportedly about $7 a pound…an amount that could produce perhaps 5,000 MDMA pills worth on the order of $50,000 at ultimate US retail prices.

The most famous route is probably one of Shulgin’s original synths from PIHKAL (third paragraph), starting with PMK (MDP2P) made from isosafrole.  Isomerization of safrole is reportedly an easy operation, as described in the famous Strike synthesis collection.  (A more compact review can be found in this old doc saved from Rhodium.)

Shulgin’s ingenious use of aluminum foil and mercury as a reducing agent opened up a lot of possibilities for hobbyist-scale clandestine labs, but it comes with one ugly downside:  Highly toxic mercury compounds.  The disposal of the leftover chemical waste from clan-labs has always been an environmental and public health problem, with irresponsible chemists dumping waste in ditches or even flushing it down the drain into  sewer systems.

Mercury-aluminum amalgam is an interesting little reagent.  Aluminum has a low electronegativity, which suggests that it would react very readily with anything electron-poor (such as the carbon atom of an imine, or the hydrogen atoms of water.)  And yet, aluminum is considered corrosion-resistant under most conditions, to the point that it’s even used as shipping containers for nitric acid!   That’s because, although aluminum does react readily, it tends to form aluminum oxide.  This aluminum oxide forms a tightly interlocking crystalline layer over the remaining aluminum, sealing it off and protecting it from further reactions.  Mercury is able to penetrate this protective oxide layer and prevent it from re-forming, which allows the aluminum to continue to react, contributing electrons to reduce whatever suitable chemical (oxygen, water, imines, etc.) happens to be handy.  This ability is the reason that you aren’t allowed to take or ship mercury on jets, which are usually made from aluminum.  A spill of mercury could create a chemical ‘rot’ in the structure of the plane as the now unprotected aluminum continues to react with moisture and oxygen in the air.

Small ‘hobbyist’ MDMA labs were once popular in the US (and some discussion sites like The Vespiary are still around) but with the growth of the darknet markets and plunging drug prices from established superlabs, it’s difficult to justify undertaking such a legally (and physically) dangerous project. Chemical reactions can produce large amounts of strong, suspicious smells and vapors, making a lab very difficult to hide.  The chemicals involved can be very toxic, corrosive or flameable.  Reactions can be violent, running out of control like a wildfire.  And law enforcement is always on the lookout for suspicious purchases of equipment and chemicals.  I would strongly advise any reader to not go down this particular path.

So long as large sums of money are involved – and they are bound to be if drugs are illegal – it is literally impossible to stop the traffic, or even to make a serious reduction in its scope.

-Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize winning economist.

George washington on dollar bill smoking a joint