When I was growing up, I remember hearing stories of a book that contained information so dangerous and controversial that to own a copy, even an electronic one, could get you in trouble with the authorities. This was because the book contained a set of instructions on how to, amongst other things, construct explosive devices and synthesise illegal narcotics. This infamous book, which has now sold more than 2 million copies, has been linked to countless acts of violence around the world including the Columbine massacre and the Oklahoma City bombing. I am, of course, talking about the Anarchists Cook Book, which was written by 19-year-old William Powell in the early 1970s at the height of the Vietnam War Protests. I have recently got hold of a copy and, after reading it, my honest opinion is that I can’t see what all the fuss was about.
Although I have always been curious about the book, it was not until I watched the documentary, ‘American Anarchist’, that I finally decided to get myself a copy. The documentary consisted of a series of interviews with the now-late Powell talking about how his views on the world have drastically changed since he was a teenager, and how he regrets writing the book. There was a part towards the end where the interviewer listed a series of well-known violent events where it was discovered that the perpetrators owned a copy of the book. At this point, my curiosity had peaked, so I had to find out what the book contained and immediately bought myself a copy from Amazon.
As soon as the book arrived I began to read it and was almost immediately disappointed. Once I got past the rather obnoxious 16 pages on the the subject of “anarchism today”, followed by Powell’s introduction to the book, which reads very much like the angry ramblings of an angst-ridden teenage boy, I finally arrived at chapter one which is about the synthesis and purification of drugs.
On finishing the chapter, two things stuck out to me. The first was how poor the instructions were and how I could do a far better job of making drugs than anyone using this book as a guide. Then again, I am a professional chemist with over 14 years of experience, so that’s not very surprising, but it is nice to know that if my career takes a nose-dive then a rather lucrative life of crime awaits me. The second was that the book fails at its own gimmick, as I believe you are not able to make the majority of the things it contains at home. To make anything, the book requires you to have years of synthesis experience, professional equipment, and access to restricted chemicals. For example, the part of the chapter telling you how to synthesise the psychedelic drug LSD is copied directly from the scientific literature and requires, amongst other things, access to chemicals like d-lysergic acid and tri-fluoroacetic acid, along with specialised glassware such as a chromatography column. Other less complicated recipes still require you to have specialised glassware like conical flasks and water cooled condensers, but not round bottom flasks or heating mantels. It seems as if the author is desperately trying to stick to the gimmick of the chemistry set made from things you would find in your kitchen, and in doing so is instructing people to attempt things that have the real potential of causing them great harm. For example, there are multiple times where the author suggests that you should heat flammable solvents using a makeshift water bath.
In the picture above, the author is instructing the reader on how to recrystallise the psychedelic drug DMT. To do this, he suggests using the flammable solvents benzene (a known carcinogen) and methanol in an unvented area next to an open flame. Looking past how suicidal this would be, there is one major flaw with his design, which is that the beaker is in direct contact with the dish holding the water. Normally if you want to heat up a reaction flask in this manner, you would suspend it in the medium you are using to heat it. This allows you to have better control of the temperature. However, with the beaker being in direct contact with the dish the heat is transferred directly to it, which is extremely dangerous.
Perhaps the stupidest part of this chapter is the instructions on how to harvest a small amount of Musa Sapentum Bananadie, also know as Bananadine, which is a mid-to-short lasting psychedelic. The only problem is that there is no such thing, and the whole thing was a hoax created by an underground newspaper called the Berkeley Barb in 1967. It was designed to raise questions about the ethics of making psychoactive drugs illegal and prosecuting those who took them, however, Powell did not know that and neither has every stupid kid who has smoked it attempting to get high since.
The only part of this chapter, from a chemical stand-point, which has any validity is where the author is explaining how to extract drugs from natural sources. Essentially, he is employing the same method you use to brew a cup of tea, only he is using organic solvents for the extraction instead of water. Yes, his methods are crude and his choices of solvents are poor, but essentially what he is suggesting is doable in a kitchen with chemicals that are not that hard to acquire. However, once again his efforts are in vain, as some of his recipes require further purification after extraction using specialised glassware and solvents that are not available to the average consumer. Other extractions run the risk of extracting not just the desired compounds, but also toxic pesticides which, to give credit where credit is due, Powell does warn about.
Overall, this initial chapter is not dangerous because it tells people how to synthesise and purify illegal drugs, but because it contains instructions that could result in someone getting killed. It is clear that Powell simply read a handful of papers on the subject and thought you could easily substitute professional chemistry equipment with everyday household objects and achieve the same goal. Without a good understanding of chemistry, Powell ended up writing a chapter in which his choice of equipment, choice of solvents, and disregard for containment is a disaster waiting to happen. That is if you are able to get hold of the chemicals and the glassware required to attempt anything in this chapter in the first place.
For a book that was meant to educate the American people and give them the tools they require to fight off the “fascists, capitalists, and communists”, it fails catastrophically out of the gate. Looking past the fact that drugs have nothing to do with uprising against a government and would, in reality, probably hamper it, this chapter contains no information that was not already freely available to all. The Anarchist Cookbook’s chapter on drugs is simply a carbon copy of the available scientific literature at the time with an angry teenage spin on it. This is one of the reasons why I can’t see what all the fuss is about with this book.
When I next have some free time, I will cover the chapter on the synthesis of explosives, by which I was equally disappointed.