How Meth Works

Around the world, 26 million people know this as their pick-me-up friend, meth. See more pictures of controlled substances.
Photo courtesy U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

Humans have enjoyed stimulants probably since the beginning of human awareness of stimulants. From the distant past to the immediate present, cultures all over the world have sought out a pick-me-up.

The ancient Chinese got their kick from má huáng, a tea brewed from an ephedra-producing shrub. South Americans have long ingested yerba mate from small gourds to keep themselves alert throughout the day. Somalis chew khat. Around the world, people every day are getting a boost by smoking cigarettes for the nicotine, drinking coffee for the caffeine and eating chocolate for the sugar. Legal amphetamines in the form of Adderall or Ritalin are heavily prescribed in the United States and other developed nations to treat ADHD in school-age children.

Of course, these are just the stimulants that are consumed in mixed company.

Those same amphetamines doled out to children to help them focus on school days are obtained by adults and crushed up and snorted to help them party on weekends. Some athletes discreetly take speed before sporting events to help them focus or give them a competitive edge over their rivals. Long-haul truck drivers have been known to seek out something on the down-low to keep their eyes open as they crisscross the continent in their rigs. The world is seemingly flooded with cocaine, which has been coming in and out of vogue for more than 150 years.

­As far as stimulating the human central nervous system, methamphetamine -- known also as crystal meth or just meth -- can hold its shaky, toothless head high. Users of this processed drug get a rush that leaves them wide-eyed and racing for anywhere from six to 24 hours at a time, and they often binge for days until they reach a twitchy, paranoid state known as "tweaking."

In this article, we'll discuss methamphetamine -- what it is, how it's made, where it came from and what it does to the 26 million people around the planet who use it [source: PBS].

Crystal Meth 101

A woman shooting up meth with the help of her friend in Bowling Green, Ky.
A woman shooting up meth with the help of her friend in Bowling Green, Ky.
Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images

­Crystal methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant. It is crystalline and white or nearly clear in color. It's usually snorted, but it's also commonly smoked and less commonly injected or consumed orally.

Meth is extremely addictive and more powerful than any other speed, making it very seductive to anyone already fond of other forms of stimulants. Methamphetamine creates a rush by flooding the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in bodily movement, emotions and the feeling of pleasure and pain. The increase in dopamine caused by methamphetamine isn't naturally duplicable. In order to feel that sensation again, a user has to use meth again. Over time, as with any addictive substance, the effects of the drug lessen as the user's tolerance grows, requiring more and more of the drug to reach similar highs.

Long-term use affects the brain's very ability to produce or use dopamine naturally. Meth addicts (as well as those addicted to most drugs) generally have lower levels of dopamine receptors than nonaddicts. Because of this deficiency, the ability to feel pleasure is diminished for a newly sober addict breaking free from crystal meth. The onset of depression and hopelessness caused by low levels of dopamine lead many addicts right back to the drug, as it provides -- in the short term -- the best opportunity to feel anything close to normal again. In time, the brain's natural dopamine capabilities return to pre-addiction levels, but the length of time it takes varies.

Taking meth makes the user more alert. The heart races, breathing quickens and sweat glands kick into overdrive. Users may become extremely talkative or withdraw into a private sphere of self-interest. They often feel superhuman, empowered, more intelligent and more perceptive.

Users can also maintain their interest in mundane activities for great lengths of time. As a result, performance of repetitive tasks continues at a high level for hours and hours, when normally it might wane due to boredom. Assembly-line workers and others who perform the same physical motion over and over suddenly find their work to be invigorating and even fascinating when on crystal meth. Where life once seemed dreary and methodical, meth users may find that the drug keeps them "tuned in" to their work, speeding up their thoughts as well as their perception of the passing of time.

Appetite is nearly nonexistent for someone on meth. This may make the drug seem tempting to a person trying to lose weight, but weight won't be the only thing that person loses. Over time, teeth decay, crack and fall out of the skull, a condition known as "meth mouth." Lesions can form on the skin from excessive scratching.

Extended use of this stimulant can make people feel as if they've lost their minds. After days of staying awake, strange images dart in and out of the corners of the visual field, nonexistent sounds come from near and far, and the user's laser focus zeroes in on perceived threats or injustices. In short, you wouldn't want to spend a week in a foxhole with a Nazi who's eating the stuff like it's candy. Which is exactly what Nazis did in World War II, something we'll discuss in the next section.

The History of Meth: From Hitler to Kerouac

Jack Kerouac wrote the first draft of "On The Road" by taping sheets of paper into one long continuous scroll and then going on a three-week Benzedrine bender. The draft topped out at nearly 120 feet (37 meters) in length.
Jack Kerouac wrote the first draft of "On The Road" by taping sheets of paper into one long continuous scroll and then going on a three-week Benzedrine bender. The draft topped out at nearly 120 feet (37 meters) in length.
John Cohen/Getty Images

The history of methamphetamine starts with a group of shrubs known as ephedra. These plants, found in many parts of the world, have been used for thousands of years in China, Pakistan, India and the Americas to make teas that help open airways and treat asthma, as well as congestion and cough. In 1887, ephedrine (an amphetamine) was first isolated from the plant. Six years later, methamphetamine was developed from ephedrine, and in 1919 crystallized methamphetamine was first produced from ephedrine using iodine and red phosphorus. Both amphetamine and methamphetamine initially existed without any particular purpose. These concentrated stimulants were applied to a variety of maladies and disorders in search of their function. Eventually, they were used as general pick-me-ups, antidepressants and diet pills. They were also used in World War II to conquer and defend much of the globe.

Nazi leaders distributed millions of doses of methamphetamine in tablets called Pervitin to their infantry, sailors and airmen in World War II. It wasn't just the military that was amping up on the stuff -- Pervitin was sold to the German public beginning in 1938, and over-the-counter meth became quite popular. When supplies ran low on the war front, soldiers would write to their families requesting shipments of speed. In one four-month period in 1940, the German military was fed more than 35 million speed tablets [source: Ulrich]. Though the pills were known to cause adverse health effects in some soldiers, it was also immediately realized that stimulants went a long way toward the Nazi dream of creating supersoldiers. As the war neared its conclusion, a request was sent from high command for a drug that would boost morale and fighting ability, and Germany's scientists responded with a pill called D-IX that contained equal parts cocaine and painkiller (5 mg of each), as well as Pervitin (3 mg). The pill was put into a testing stage, but the war ended before it reached the general military population.

­The Nazis weren't the only ones jacking up their soldiers on pharmaceutical speed -- the Americans and the British were also consuming large amounts of amphetamines, namely Dexedrine. The Japanese had developed its own military-grade amphetamine, and when the war ended a large stockpile of the drug flooded the streets of Japan.

After World War II, amphetamine was manufactured, sold and prescribed in the United States and much of the world. By the late 1950s and early '60s, it was becoming harder for the medical community to ignore the growing number of professionals-turned-speed-freaks who had become hopelessly hooked on Benzedrine and Dexedrine. Also, it had been discovered that Benzedrine inhalers (intended for use as bronchial dilators) could be cracked open, exposing a piece of paper soaked in Benzedrine that could then be swallowed for a powerful high. This led to increased American government control over amphetamines -- and therefore to Americans making their own amphetamines.

In the next section, we'll learn that, no matter what controls you put on chemicals, you just can't keep an industrious speed freak down.

How to Make Meth

Examples of a items used in the production of methamphetamine inside the Pratt County Sheriff office in Pratt, Kan.
Larry W. Smith/Getty Images

The production of methamphetamine -- and the desire to consume it -- is seemingly unstoppable. When precursor chemicals are brought under tight control in one country, like the United States, production simply moves to another country, such as Mexico. When Mexican authorities clamp down, it moves farther south, or into Europe or Asia. Then, the finished product is shipped right back into the very countries that have waged such a battle to get it out.

Most meth in the United States is made in large labs --"superlabs"-- in Mexico. There are many small meth labs in operation in the United States, but these mostly serve to feed the habits of the amateur cooks themselves.

­The production of methamphetamine has been made more difficult by federal regulations aimed at controlling the flow of precursor chemicals such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, as well as other necessary components. Through theft, subterfuge, forgeries, personal connections and sheer willpower, determined cooks are able to collect enough materials to make some home-grown meth.

Being determined and being safe are two different things -- almost 6 pounds (2.7 kilograms) of toxic material is produced for each pound of meth cooked [source: Snell]. This fact, however, doesn't stop crystal meth addicts from brewing sloppy batches of fuming, stinking, toxic speed in poorly ventilated environments. Houses used as meth labs are often uninhabitable afterward, and cities and states involved in meth lab busts often don't bother with seizing the property, since nobody in their right mind would purchase it at an auction, even at a steep discount. Small meth labs can be found in suburban houses, motel rooms, car trunks, in campsites or in the woods. Outdoor operations often result in water contamination and a dying-off of nearby vegetation.

Large-scale labs are often located inside abandoned barns or warehouses set up specifically for the purpose of factory-line production of methamphetamine. Although superlabs only make up 4 percent of total labs, they produce about 80 percent of the meth that winds up on the street [source: Suo].

Much as a destination can be reached by taking one of several different routes, so too can crystal methamphetamine be produced by a number of different methods. All of them, though, involve ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. The entire process can involve as many as 32 different chemicals [source: Snell].

Without getting into an exact recipe, we'll look at how large-scale operations (who are more likely to use a methodical and exact approach to their production) make crystal meth.

  • If the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine isn't already in pure powder form, then it must be separated from the tablets of cold medicine that contain it. To do this, the cold medicine tablets are mixed with a solvent and the solution is then filtered and exposed to low temperatures to separate and remove the inert material of the tablet.
  • The pure pseudoephedrine is then mixed with red phosphorus and hydriodic acid.
  • The red phosphorus is then filtered out (and later reused), and the remaining acid is neutralized by adding a lye solution.
  • A substance is added that will bind to the meth, and the liquid meth is then drained out.
  • Hydrogen chloride gas is bubbled through the liquid meth, making it a crystalline hydrochloride salt.
  • This is poured through a filter cloth, and the meth that is left on the filter is then dried.
  • Once dry, the meth is "stepped on" (mixed down with inert filler in order to maximize profits), weighed and packaged for shipment or sale.

This process generally takes about two days' time and can result in hundreds of thousands of methamphetamine doses.

Meth Production: The Need for Changing Speed

Ephedrine seized by the New Zealand Customs Service
Ephedrine seized by the New Zealand Customs Service
Phil Walter/Getty Images

In the 1970s, the hippie scene turned ugly as more and more members of the counterculture started popping uppers and shooting up speed. Motorcycle gangs such as the Hell's Angels were notorious for producing amphetamines using a chemical normally used to clean swimming pools: phenyl-2-propanone, or P2P.

In 1980, P2P was placed under federal control. The reasoning was that the elimination on the street of this precursor chemical necessary for the production of amphetamine would bring the trade in illegal speed to its jittery knees. The problem -- or, depending on your point of view, the solution -- emerged pretty quickly, as most do in the world of high-flying speed cooks who have nothing but time and nervous energy to find new ways to cook up crank.

It was discovered that speed could be made using readily available ephedrine. However, this discovery came with a surprise -- this speed wasn't amphetamine, it was methamphetamine, and it was twice as strong as its P2P-derived ancestor.

Two Mexican brothers, Jesus and Luis Amezcua, decided to make a career change in the late 1980s. Instead of continuing down the path as small-time cocaine runners, they began importing pure ephedrine from the overseas laboratories that produced it. The audacity of this scheme ensured that it was overlooked as a way to obtain the needed ingredients for meth. By the mid-1990s, the Amezcuas were responsible for about 80 percent of the meth on America's streets. The abundance of the product resulted in a very pure form of meth, bringing about a surge of crime, emergency-room visits, drug-related child abuse, and court-ordered and voluntary drug rehabilitation stays.

The Amezcuas covered their tracks by never shipping any of the ephedrine into or through the United States. Instead, they would ship it from a point of origin such as India into Mexico, and then divide the large shipment into smaller quantities that could be transported to various laboratories in Mexico and America. A shipment of 3.4 metric tons of ephedrine was rerouted by a European shipping agent through America on its way to Mexico City and discovered by U.S. Customs agents. After realizing the extent of this operation, American authorities reached out to the nations with laboratories producing ephedrine to persuade them to adopt tighter export controls and standards. This change made a difference, but only for a while.

­Since the 1980s, many legislative efforts and changes in the law have been made in an attempt to curb the climbing abuse of methamphetamine. These haven't been, in the long term, successful. Making possession of precursor drugs and production equipment illegal has simply pushed the clandestine labs further underground without curbing production. When powdered ephedrine fell under tighter control, cooks switched to still-unregulated pseudoephedrine pills. When sellers of pseudoephedrine were required to register with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), many scam operations did just that -- so many, in fact, that the DEA couldn't process all the applications. Instead, it granted temporary licenses, and the pseudoephedrine continued to be sold in bulk to large meth operations.

Making matters worse, efforts by the U.S. government to change over-the-counter access to ephedrine and pseudoephedrine were met with great resistance by the pharmaceutical lobby. While lobbyists fought to keep individually packaged pseudoephedrine pills available on store shelves, meth cooks were buying up as many packages as they could and unsealing each individual pill. These pill packages are called "blister packs," and larger meth operations went so far as to purchase "de-blistering" machines to save the time and effort it took to do it by hand. After much effort on the part of the DEA and other law enforcement and governmental agencies, pseudoephedrine (in the form of cough medicine) in the United States is now only available behind the counter.

Is it making a difference? In 2004, an estimated 1.4 million people had used meth in the U.S. [source: PBS]. In 2006, the last year for which statistics are available, that number had risen to 1.9 million [source: NIDA].

For more articles you might like, from what an LSD trip is like to how chemical addiction works, try the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


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