Ephedrine was first isolated from ephedra shrubs in 1887 to be used as a cough and asthma medication. Ephedrine is an amphetamine, which is a central nervous system stimulant that increases heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature
A few years later in 1919, ephedrine was used to produce another powerful stimulant drug called methamphetamine by a Japanese chemist. Methamphetamine was initially used to combat asthma, obesity, depression, and narcolepsy as its stimulant properties raise alertness and activity levels, suppress appetite, and generally make the user feel good.
Methamphetamine is regularly abused today and highly addictive as well as dangerous. In 2011, well over 100,000 emergency department (ED) visits were related to methamphetamine abuse, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN).
Meth is usually a white powder, while crystal meth looks like small shiny blue or white rocks or shards of glass. It is sold on the street under a variety of names, such as:
In 1938, German company Temmler Werke marketed a tablet form of methamphetamine, Pervitin, which was touted as a “miracle drug” capable of keeping soldiers in World War II awake, alert, and productive for long periods of time. Pervitin was widely distributed among German soldiers on the warfront, and Japanese and Allied forces also took stimulant drugs during the war. In America, amphetamine tablets were marketed as Benzedrine and in Britain as Dexedrine tablets, which were included in emergency kits and as regular medical supplies, especially for pilots and soldiers on the frontlines.
Over 16 million Americans were exposed to Benzedrine in the course of their military service by 1945. Early on, amphetamine and methamphetamine use was not regulated or understood as having potential hazards, as reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Japan may have experienced the first widespread meth epidemic post-World War II in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and its abuse quickly spread to US territories.
Birth of Crystal Meth
Athletes, college students, housewives, and truckers began abusing methamphetamine, or speed, in order to stay awake, lose weight, and enhance performance levels. In the 1960s, methamphetamine was injected by doctors in San Francisco to treat heroin dependency, although its own highly addictive nature may have caused more problems and introduced a subculture of meth abuse.
A crystallized form of methamphetamine was produced in the late 1970s as Steve Preisler’s famous meth “cookbook,” Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture, was published, detailing six ways to make crystal meth with household and over-the-counter ingredients. All you needed was to isolate the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine from cough medications. Preisler, under the name “Uncle Fester,” became the father of modern crystal meth manufacturing, explaining in his “cookbook” how to combine the extracted stimulant drug with common products like antifreeze, paint thinner, battery acid, and drain cleaners for a desired high.
Crystal meth was much cheaper to make and sell than its powdered counterpart since one dose contained far less pure meth. Notorious biker gangs like the Hell’s Angels began marketing crystal meth, and illicit laboratories were formed up and down the West Coast. An epidemic was born as the highly addictive crystal meth took the streets of America by storm. The Global Information Network About Drugs (GINAD) estimates that as many as 35 million people abuse methamphetamine worldwide, with a third of that number being Americans.
The Dangers of Meth Cannot Be Ignored
Medicinal uses for amphetamine and methamphetamine grew in the 1950s and 1960s as the drugs were heavily marketed for their effectiveness as diet pills and antidepressants. They were primarily prescribed to women aged 36-45, according to a study done in the United Kingdom in 1960 and published in JAMA.
Regular use of these drugs creates a physical and psychological dependency, producing drug cravings and withdrawal symptoms when the drugs are removed, encouraging users to continue taking them outside of medicinal purposes. The rush of euphoria the abuse of methamphetamine and amphetamines could produce led to a growing black market and illegal distribution of these drugs. For instance, Benzedrine inhalers, used to open bronchial tubes and airways for asthmatics, were commonly being broken apart in order to swallow the paper inside that was soaked in the stimulant drug. Stimulant drugs increase the production of dopamine in the brain, creating a shortcut to the natural reward system.
Crystal meth is largely heated and smoked, although it is sometimes snorted, injected, or inserted into the anus. Meth abusers are more prone to risky behaviors, increasing the spread of infectious diseases such as hepatitis B and C as well as HIV. The loss of inhibitions and lack of judgment meth abuse creates may increase criminal activities and leads to widely unpredictable and irrational behaviors that may turn suicidal or homicidal. For example, GINAD reports that methamphetamine abuse is a factor in 13 percent of all San Diego homicides.
Crystal meth can keep users awake for unnatural amounts of time, and the intense highs that last for up to eight hours at a time are often followed by crashes and extremely low “lows.” Chronic meth abuse can damage teeth, leading to “meth mouth” as well as skin sores and overall physical deterioration.
Over time, American drug authorities and law enforcement began to recognize the potential dangers of amphetamine and methamphetamine and sought to regulate these powerful stimulants in all of their forms.
Attempts to Regulate Illicit Production of Meth
The first real attempt to control methamphetamine products came with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which placed meth as a Schedule II drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), citing its high potential for abuse and dependency in relation to its medicinal uses. Today, the only legal form of methamphetamine medication approved by the FDA is Desoxyn, which is occasionally prescribed for the treatment of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and obesity. Desoxyn is a Schedule II controlled substance by the DEA, as a non-refillable prescription medication.
Initially, amphetamine was cut in illegal labs with phenyl-2-propanone (P2P), primarily used as a pool cleaner, which was put under federal regulation in 1980. This tighter regulation of amphetamine and methamphetamine precursor products may have led to a shift toward the illegal manufacturing and distribution of meth by Mexican drug cartels and motorcycle gangs of Southern California. Meth labs began to spring up as drug runners found that pure ephedrine could be made into methamphetamine. Now, 80 percent of the meth is believed to come into the US via Mexico, as published by ABC News.
Illegal meth labs are highly volatile since potentially explosive chemicals are used to cut the drugs. Numerous chemicals are used in the production of powdered and crystal meth, so users may never know exactly what is in the finished product. Law enforcement officials typically attempt to regulate the chemicals used in making crystal meth in order to stem its illicit distribution and reduce abuse.
Laws and regulation attempts as well tactics used by meth producers and distributors throughout the years following the initial Controlled Substances Act are as follows:
- The Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act (CDTA) of 1988, which placed chemicals used in meth production under federal control, dropped clandestine meth lab DEA seizures by 61 percent in the three years following its passage. It did leave a loophole exempting finished legal ephedrine and pseudoephedrine pills from control. Common cold medications containing ephedrine were therefore regularly used to make meth.
- The Domestic Chemical Diversion and Control Act (DCDCA) of 1993 attempted to close this loophole by adding single entity ephedrine products to the controlled list and requiring records be kept on the sale and bulk manufacturing of these products. Illegal producers of meth switched to combination ephedrine products and over-the-counter pseudoephedrine products that were still unregulated.
- The Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996 (MCA) placed all products containing ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine under tighter regulation, also including four laboratory equipment pieces often used for meth production. The Act also increased the penalties for the manufacture, sale, use, or distribution of “laboratory supply” levels of these drugs. Cold medications containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine and sold in foil “blister” packs were left out of this tighter regulation, however, creating yet another loophole exploited by illicit meth makers.
- The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) bans the usage of all ephedrine products by its athletes, as many were using the stimulant drugs as performance enhancers.
- The Health Canada Ban in 2001 sought to regulate ephedrine products sold in Canada that were previously not controlled and therefore being smuggled into the United States to make meth. Rural labs become a large producer of meth as anhydrous ammonia used in fertilizer on farms is used to make meth, resulting in 9,385 reported rural meth labs in 2003, according to NPR.
- Oklahoma becomes the first state in 2004 to regulate the over-the-counter sale of pseudoephedrine products, requiring these products be kept behind the pharmacy counter and requiring an ID check for purchase. Drug runners begin “smurfing,” or sending buyers to multiple retail outlets in one day to buy the cold and allergy medicines used to make meth.
- The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 requires all pseudoephedrine products be locked up in pharmacies. Sales were required to be registered, and import amounts of pseudoephedrine, ephedrine, and phenylpropanolamine were regulated.
- Oregon becomes the first state in the nation to require a prescription to buy pseudoephedrine products in 2004. Meth lab incidents decreased from 400 in 2004 to just 20 in 2008, as reported by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).
- Mexico bans importation of pseudoephedrine in 2009, making it harder for drug cartels to smuggle it into America. This caused the purity of produced meth to decline, and large-scale operations converted to numerous smaller labs, producing meth throughout the South, Midwest, and California.
- Mississippi joins Oregon in requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine in 2010. Meth manufacturers send in more “smurfs” to buy small amounts of pseudoephedrine products at numerous stores to bypass the electronic tracking put in place to regulate its sale.
- Michigan passes a set of laws to regulate “smurfing” in 2014, making it a felony to purchase pseudoephedrine products intended to be used to make meth.
As lawmakers and law enforcement members attempt to regulate the manufacturing and distribution of meth and crystal meth in illicit laboratories throughout the country, illegal drug producers find new and creative ways to circumvent these laws, using additional chemicals that are not regulated or sources that are not as tightly controlled. Meth abuse cost society $23.4 billion in 2005, and close to 12 million Americans had tried methamphetamine at least once in their lives in 2012, as reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
If you, or a loved one, are within the clutches of crystal meth, addiction specialists at Axis can help. Contact us today for more detailed information on our comprehensive care models and highly effective treatment methods.