EASTHAM — As people trickled out of the Eastham Public Library on Tuesday following a historical commission meeting, several could be overheard discussing the discovery last week by local police of a home-based drug lab in a quiet neighborhood. Expressions of shock that such a thing could exist in town were met with various versions of a resigned response: “It’s everywhere.”
But that does not seem to be the case. When the Eastham police discovered that the house at 720 Herring Brook Road was being used to manufacture the drug dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, it was their first brush with the compound.
DMT is a powerful short-acting hallucinogen extracted from Mimosa hostilis, a plant native to the Amazon region of South America. Users report experiences as short-lived as 15 minutes with hallucinogenic effects of equal or greater intensity as those associated with better-known and longer-lasting psychedelics such as psilocybin (a.k.a. magic mushrooms) or LSD, whose effects take place over the course of many hours.
“DMT is not your garden variety psychedelic, like mushrooms or LSD, which a college student might try,” said Matthew Johnson, a researcher with the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.
A 2018 study suggested that DMT use among young people is, or was at the time, uncommon: in 2013-2014, just one half of one percent of subjects ages 18 to 25 reported that they had used a tryptamine (the class of drug that includes DMT) in the past year.
One danger law enforcement was concerned about in the Eastham case is that lye and phosphorous, two substances used in the manufacture of DMT, are flammable, capable of taking on gaseous forms and coating the walls of production operations. That’s why on Sept. 8, after the police dept. requested assistance, a Drug Enforcement Administration clandestine lab team entered the Herring Brook Road property in protective Tyvek coveralls and respirators. They wrapped their wrists and ankles with duct tape to seal the seams and carefully extracted chemicals and contaminated artifacts from the scene, depositing them in 50-gallon drums of vermiculite, a blast mitigant. A perimeter was established around the house during the procedure, to keep the public out of range should an explosion occur.
The property has since been cleared by the DEA, but Det. Sgt. Andy McLaughlin of the Orleans Police Dept., who assisted with the case, worries about future tenants. “When someone goes to buy that house,” he asked, “does the broker have to let the next family know that it was a former lab?”
According to a Centers for Disease Control case study, living in a former drug lab may have adverse health effects, including respiratory and cognitive problems. But home sellers are not obligated to disclose whether a property formerly housed a narcotics operation, said David Rocheford, a real estate attorney in Leominster. “Not unless they’re specifically asked by the consumer,” he said. “It’s ‘buyer beware,’ where it’s up to consumers to do their due diligence.”
Beyond creating fire and explosion hazards, active narcotics operations may also expose neighboring residents and animals to toxins — particularly when it comes to the disposal of byproducts. “You’re not dumping your chemicals at the dump on hazardous waste dropoff day,” McLaughlin said. “You’re dumping it into the ground, and it gets into the water system.
“We’re not after the users,” McLaughlin added. “We want to get them help. I want to get the suppliers. They’re the problem.”
This particular drug’s effects on users is currently being studied because it is among a number of hallucinogens that some doctors believe may actually help those suffering from depression or other behavioral and mental illnesses.
In the absence of a controlled clinical setting, researchers say, users of DMT are putting themselves at risk. “I personally do not advocate their use in instances that are not being guided,” said Ethan Hurwitz, a psychedelics researcher at Johns Hopkins. “While there are a lot of promising findings coming out about the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, one thing we know is that proper settings play a crucial role in facilitating these positive outcomes. There are risks with using these substances in uncontrolled settings without trained professionals.”
In the meantime, DMT remains a Class C controlled substance in Massachusetts. Getting caught with DMT can carry a penalty of up to one year imprisonment or a $1,000 fine. The penalty in Massachusetts for manufacturing a Class C drug is a maximum of five years in prison, while conviction on an intent-to-distribute charge carries an additional five-year maximum sentence.
In the case of the Herring Brook Road lab, a renter of the property, Gregory Stratton, was arrested on Sept. 8 and charged with possession of an illegal firearm and a stun gun. The police expect that additional charges will follow Stratton’s pretrial hearing on Oct. 5.