Would a drug-manufacturing machine be legal?
April 5, 2010 10:35 PM   Subscribe

Would a drug-manufacturing machine be legal?

If: a device could be constructed which accepted as input material the reactants necessary to eventually produce an illicit (scheduled) drug, and a 'black box' which, using those ingredients, carries out the necessary reactions required to produce said illicit substance - would this be illegal, in the US or elsewhere?

I'm referring to something which would more or less behave like a coin-laundry washing machine: several receptacles for chemicals and a switch that says: GO.

Purely theoretical. I guess a parallel would be Lego plans for a lethal injection machine?
posted by unmake to Law & Government (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, you can get in trouble for going around with a bong in a lot of places, apparently, so under the provisio that a police officer would understand what it was, the Mr. Jitters Crack-o-Matic 6000 - superseding the Crackmotron 3000 - essentially a "drug paraphernalia", would probably not be legal. However I am not a drug user or lawyer.
posted by turgid dahlia at 10:41 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

In the 60's my brother would buy fireworks kits, they were bombs actually, where all the instructions were worded like, "do not mix the ingredients of the two plastic pouches, do not use the tube of glue to seal the plug in the end of the tube, do not pour the mixture that we told you not to mix into the tube." The company was called Echo Products. In the 80's I heard on the radio the company owner was indicted for manslaughter.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:42 PM on April 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I think it would fall under “drug paraphernalia”. One of the first google hits for that term is 21 USC 863, which seems to be pretty clear that the Crack-o-Matic 6000 would be illegal.
posted by hattifattener at 10:46 PM on April 5, 2010

As t.d. says, in the US it almost certainly would not be legal to sell or own. We've gotten to the point where even things which do have legal uses (you really can smoke tobacco from a bong, and I'm sure some people do) are labeled "paraphernalia."
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:48 PM on April 5, 2010

b1tr0t: Right, but greenhouses (a) have many non-illegal-drug-related uses and (b) aren't sold with instructions on how to grow pot, which are two tests mentioned in the law. It sounds like if you took a normal commercial greenhouse kit and resold it form ads in High Times with an included copy of Best Buds Guaranteed Grow Guide (2 ed.), the greenhouse would be magically transusbstantiated into drug paraphernalia.
posted by hattifattener at 10:52 PM on April 5, 2010

Response by poster: A Lego Mindstorms instruction set, that tells you how to build an automated druglab with Technics parts, and supplies the requisite NXT software to enable it. Uploaded to Sourceforge. Yay or Nay?
posted by unmake at 10:52 PM on April 5, 2010

There are SO many ways a creative prosecutor could take you down for something like this, under either state or federal law. Conspiracy to manufacture drugs, possession of a precursor substance, possession of drug paraphernalia, etc. So I think the answer to your question is yes, it's illegal, if the state can prove intent. Which would be pretty clear, given context.
posted by Happydaz at 11:03 PM on April 5, 2010

I feel like the Mindstorms case wouldn't be all that legally dodgy because presumably some actual ingredients would be required to create the drugs. I think most people who have done any gardening have some inkling how to grow marijuana - if you went into a hydroponics supply you could probably even sell you supplies with which you could build the analog to your proposed robot - but where the authorities intercede is when they start supplying you with seeds.
posted by little light-giver at 11:03 PM on April 5, 2010

One major issue is that the necessary reagents are generally proscribed or controlled as well. This is why, in the US, you have to show ID and sign your name to purchase pseudophedrine.

So the machine itself might be legal, but supplying it might not be legal. (But, really, the USC cite above clearly indicates that a drug-making-machine would be illegal.)

[By the way, your best bet is the electrochemical synthesis of mescaline. It's straight forward, and relies only on non-controlled inputs.]

A Lego Mindstorms instruction set, that tells you how to build an automated druglab with Technics parts, and supplies the requisite NXT software to enable it. Uploaded to Sourceforge. Yay or Nay?

Assuming that the mindstorms reference is merely illustrative: you'd be in some murky waters. The Lego kit itself would not be paraphernalia, as most of its uses have nothing to do with drugs. The instructions (and possibly code) would be protected as free speech in the US. However, anybody who actually built the thing would then be in possession of paraphernalia.

See the above-mentioned greenhouse transubstantiation.
posted by Netzapper at 11:16 PM on April 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

If it wasn't already illegal, it would become illegal very quickly.
posted by twblalock at 11:45 PM on April 5, 2010

Also remember that the DEA can make your life a living hell without convicting you of anything.
posted by benzenedream at 12:38 AM on April 6, 2010

I know you are talking about a device and not just an instruction set for mixing chemicals [though generally that's what you'd need] but I'd like to point you to the fate of GHBKit.com which was an outfit that sold the reagents for making GHB [before it went Schedule 1 in the US] and gave instructions, though not in so many words, except in the title of the website. The instructions went down the memory hole but they are archived here. WHat wound up happening is once people sort of figured out that you could purchase kits for making GHB they went up the food chain and started making the precursors (GBL) illegal too. It's been a while since I've paid close attention to the GHB/GBL situation so I'm not quite sure what's illegal where now, but having GHB is illegal in the US and depending where you are having GBL [a drug in its own right, illegal in California, maybe not yet in the UK] is also against the law.

So whether the instructions themselves would be illegal, doubt it, free speech and all. But having this device? Much less solid ground, I'd think.
posted by jessamyn at 12:40 AM on April 6, 2010

Not at all a lawyer, but I can imagine the case where if there were some significant non-illegal use for the device, you might have leeway. After all, a lot of different types of smoking pipes are legal (even things like hookahs) even if bongs specifically aren't, as are syringes. As others have mentioned, though, distributing with instructions would just be asking for trouble, even if technically or temporarily legal.
posted by juv3nal at 2:45 AM on April 6, 2010

IANAL. Regarding your second question, you might want to look at the decision in Bernstein vs. United States. There it was ruled that cryptographic source code was protected under the First Amendment. In fact PGP Inc. used to publish their source code in book form for export, using a font designed for ease of reading with OCR software.

Also, apparently the Anarchist's Cookbook is still in print? That's sort of a similar case.
posted by serathen at 5:04 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

but having GHB is illegal in the US and depending where you are having GBL [a drug in its own right, illegal in California, maybe not yet in the UK] is also against the law.

Apologies if this is too off-topic, but FWIW GBL was banned in the UK last December.
posted by Infinite Jest at 5:27 AM on April 6, 2010

If not arrested for paraphernalia, you might also be busted for operating an unlicensed pharmaceutical factory. That, I suspect, would be a very serious Federal charge.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:18 AM on April 6, 2010

Not at all a lawyer, but I can imagine the case where if there were some significant non-illegal use for the device, you might have leeway.

The key for drug paraphernalia laws, at least everywhere I've looked at them, is that the government must prove that you had intent to use the item in question as drug paraphernalia. It doesn't matter what else it can do, it matters what you intended to use it as. So, that little box you keep your stash in? It's drug paraphernalia, even though it can also be used to store breath mints simply because you intended to use it to store drugs. How the government proves intent is another matter entirely, but that's the legal principle.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 6:26 AM on April 6, 2010

Best answer: I think demonstration of intent would matter most. Certainly this is the case with drug paraphernalia: pipes that everyone knows are used almost exclusively for smoking marijuana are widely sold without legal interference as long as everyone maintains the polite fiction that they are meant for legal smoking activities. Intent transforms something legal into something illegal.

From the link hattifattener supplied above:

The term ''drug paraphernalia'' means any equipment, product, or material of any kind which is primarily intended or designed for use in manufacturing, compounding, converting, concealing, producing, processing, preparing, injecting, ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing into the human body a controlled substance, possession of which is unlawful under this subchapter.

Which says if you can demonstrate the intent of this device it is clearly illegal. Plans, instructions, etc. are not illegal. Detailed scientific instructions for the synthesis of any illegal drug can be gotten out of the legitimate scientific literature. There are all kinds of legal books that tell you how to grow weed, mushrooms, how to cook speed and acid and everything else. I'm not aware of any serious attempts to make that sort of information illegal, so I think your Sourceforge upload would be legit.

In a sense chemical glassware and equipment could be thought of as the "machine" you are envisioning, except for the automation of the synthetic processes. These types of things are generally legal to own, though of course depending on the circumstances, these days possessing legal science equipment can still land you in a world of trouble.

The device you describe, depending on how it worked, could have a demonstration of "intent" built in: the device would pretty clearly be carrying out a recipe to manufacture a particular controlled substance based on reaction steps, times, temperatures, etc. Instructions (again per the link from hattifattener) on what reagents to use etc. would solidify this suggestion of intent.

For related thoughts you might want to look into the case of PF Tek - This guy distributed a whole lot of magic mushroom growing kits including viable spores and eventually got busted but it's interesting how much it took for them to get a warrant and how little they actually pinned on him in the end (it sounds like largely because of a good lawyer).
posted by nanojath at 8:46 AM on April 6, 2010

People are always getting arrested for possession of burglary tools, you know like a hammer and a screwdriver. I don't know what else exactly has to be going on for that to happen, certainly if they are actually burgling, but I think it might sometimes apply when they are just suspiciouslly casing the joint.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:12 PM on April 6, 2010

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