How Meth Works

Breaking Bad
Walter Hartwell White from "Breaking Bad" is seen holding his trademark blue meth during the Birmingham MCM Comic Con held at NEC Arena on Nov. 18, 2017 in Birmingham, England. Ollie Millington/Getty Images

"Jesse, you asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I'm in the empire business." So says Walter White to his sidekick Jesse in the drug-heavy TV hit "Breaking Bad." Walter is a common man who plunges dangerously into the world of methamphetamine, a substance that continues to sprawl — in empire fashion — across much of America and the rest of the world.

Meth is by no means a fictional plot point in a cable television program. Whether you call it meth, crystal meth, ice, Chrissy, crank or tweak, it's an ultra-common stimulant that's spanned generations [source: Foundation for a Drug Free World]. Like nicotine, cocaine, or even caffeine, stimulants — or "uppers"— seem to be a fixture in societies all over the world. But meth has a history all its own.


In the World War II era, soldiers commonly used meth to fight off fatigue, hunger — and terror. Later, it gained traction with counterculture types alongside other recreational drugs. Once shunned by the wealthy as a substance of the poor, meth now stands in as a substitute (or flat-out replacement) for cocaine and other stimulants in the inner city, rural areas and suburbs [source: Pew].

In the 1990s, backwoods trailer meth production was the stuff of everyday headlines: Amateur chemist gets careless with his concoction, and boom! His homemade lab — and often, his life — goes up in spectacular flames. Nowadays, those kinds of explosive news stories are a rarity, but not because meth has disappeared; rather its production methods have changed dramatically, as have its distribution methods. In the meantime, the number of users and abusers continues to rise [sources: Argus Observer, Abadi].

Meth's appeal lies in its powerful biological and psychological punch. Users report overwhelming highs and incredible energy, which helps them to do more work in less time, and keeps them awake for many hours or even days without even so much as a bite of food for fuel [source: NIH]. Are you slaving away at two jobs or just an enterprising workaholic hoping to make millions as a venture capitalist? Meth might lure you with its heart-racing appeal.

If that description makes meth sound like a modern-day chemical superfood, it's because the side effects aren't always immediately evident. In regular users, crystal meth slowly but surely causes physical harm to every system of the human body, including hallmark traits like skin deterioration and decaying teeth, along with paranoia, anxiety, aggression and, you know, death [source: PBS].

Government crackdowns, public service announcements and cartel infighting have done little to stem meth's grip on society. It's an incredibly powerful drug wrapped into the foibles of human biology, power and trade. So, when our "Breaking Bad" anti-hero Walter White said he was in the empire business, so too is meth itself — it is an empire that's not going away.

Crystal Meth 101

homeless man, meth user
San Diego police officer Joseph Nunez frisks a homeless man who is high on methamphetamines, Dec. 23, 2013. Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images

Crystal methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant. It is crystalline and white or nearly clear in color. It's not blue in its purest form, a la "Breaking Bad" — that was just a provocative plot point. It's usually snorted, but it's also commonly smoked and less commonly injected or consumed orally [source: Wickman].

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 feelings of pleasure and pain [source: Narconon].


In lab experiments on animals, sex will cause dopamine levels to go from 100 to 200 units; cocaine will make the levels go to 350 units. But meth will take those levels all the way to 1,250 units [source: PBS]. The increase in dopamine caused by methamphetamine isn't naturally duplicable. In order to feel that sensation again, a user has to take another dose of meth. Over time, as with any addictive substance, the effects of the drug decrease 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 of crystal meth. The onset of depression and hopelessness caused by low levels of dopamine leads many addicts right back to the drug, as it provides — in the short term — the best opportunity to feel anything close to normal again. If the user abstains from meth, eventually the brain's natural dopamine capabilities return to pre-addiction levels, but the length of time it takes for that to happen varies [source: NIH].

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. Unlike opioid addiction, there is no medication available to combat meth cravings.

Meth users can 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 high 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 the stimulant can make people feel as if they've lost their minds. After days of staying awake, strange images dart in and out of their peripheral vision, 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. And you know what? As you're about to find out, that's exactly what the Nazis did.

The History of Meth: From Hitler to Kerouac

Adolf Hitler
Hitler poses next to a recording of one of his speeches after his release from Landsberg Prison in 1925. Historians say Hitler was addicted to meth during World War II. Heinrich Hoffmann/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 (a type of amphetamine) was first isolated from the plant. Six years later, amphetamine was developed from ephedrine, and in 1919 crystallized methamphetamine was first produced from ephedrine using iodine and red phosphorus. Methamphetamine was easier to make than amphetamine and more potent [source: Foundation for a Drug Free World].

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. In the 1930s, you could buy amphetamine over the counter to treat nasal congestion, under the brand-name Benzedrine.


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 over the counter beginning in 1938, and became quite popular. When supplies ran low on the war front, soldiers would write to their families requesting shipments of speed. Hitler himself consumed vast quantities of drugs during the war, including cocaine, an early version of oxycodone and — you guessed it — crystal meth, to fuel his long battle-planning sessions and utter lunacy [source: Cooke].

In one four-month period in 1940, the German military gobbled more than 35 million meth tablets. The pills were known to cause adverse health effects in some soldiers, but commanders immediately realized that stimulants went a long way toward the Nazi dream of creating super-soldiers. As the World War II 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 [source: Ulrich].

The Nazis weren't the only ones jacking up their soldiers on pharmaceuticals. The Americans and the British also consumed large amounts of amphetamines (or "speed"), namely Dexedrine. The Japanese, too, developed their own military-grade amphetamine, and after the war ended a large stockpile of the drug flooded Japan's streets [source: Montgomery County Sheriff's Office].

After World War II, amphetamines were manufactured, sold and prescribed in the United States and much of the world, often in the form of diet pills. 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.

Many writers of the Beat generation, like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, were addicted to amphetamines. In 1945, Kerouac wrote to Ginsberg, "Benny [Benzedrine] has made me see a lot. The process of intensifying awareness naturally leads to an overflow of old notions, and voila, new material wells up like water forming its proper level, and makes itself evident at the brim of consciousness. Brand new water!"

Kerouac's classic, "On the Road" was written in three weeks on one continuous scroll of taped-together sheets of paper with no paragraph breaks. No doubt, speed played a part in its composition.

Concern over speed addiction among Beats, hippies and housewives led the American government to restrict its use starting in 1971 (though amphetamines would turn up later in legal drugs like Adderall, given for ADHD) [source: Rasmussen]. This prohibition led to Americans cooking up their own versions or smuggling them in from other countries.

How to Make Meth

meth lab, New Zealand
Chemicals and equipment were found in a methamphetamine manufacturing lab following a police raid on Jan. 17, 2018 in Auckland, New Zealand. New Zealand Police discovered 75 similar labs across the country. Fiona Goodall/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 eradicate it in the first place.

Most meth smuggled into 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, like the Combat Methamphetamine Act of 2005, aimed at controlling the flow of precursor chemicals such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine (found in some cold remedies), 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. 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 [source: Snell].

Large-scale labs are often located inside abandoned barns or warehouses set up specifically for the purpose of factory-line production of methamphetamine. They aren't necessarily dilapidated properties. They may actually be glistening corporate-style factories that crank out countless pounds of meth per year [source: Matthews].

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, including scary "shake-and-bake" and "one-pot" processes. All of them, though, involve ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. The entire process can involve as many as 32 different chemicals, but the formula varies by the ingenuity and intelligence of the "chemists" [source: Snell].

Without getting into an exact recipe, we'll look at how large-scale operations (which 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

meth in container and plastic bag
Meth stimulates dopamine levels three times as much as cocaine. Daniel Kaesler/EyeEm/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 amphetamine production 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 [source: DEA]. 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 (3.7 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, because when it comes to meth, where there's always a workaround.

In 1998, the brothers were arrested and as of 2018, they are still serving prison sentences [source: Dillon].

The State of Meth Today

Indonesia, meth dealers
Arrested members of an international drug syndicate led by a major Malaysian drug lord wear masks as they stand in front of the 164 kilograms of crystal meth that Indonesian police seized and later destroyed, 2015. Jefta Images/Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Since the 1980s, many legislative efforts and changes in the law have been made to curb the escalating abuse of methamphetamine. These haven't been altogether 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 (often using "smurfs" to run around buying the pills) 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 (sold in the form of cold medicine) in the United States is now only available behind the counter.

The federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act was such a success that domestic meth production plummeted. Gone were the sensational news stories about exploding home labs and Sudafed hoarding. Production shifted largely to Mexican superlabs, which make a more potent and more affordable (read: more tempting and more addictive) version nearly 100 percent pure that's then smuggled over the border and into American cities [source: Schuppe].

In recent years, drugs like heroin and prescription opioid painkillers such as hydrocodone, Oxycontin and fentanyl have garnered most of the headlines. But in the meantime, huge quantities of meth flow across America's border with Mexico. As much as 4 percent of the American population used meth in 2015, up from 3 percent in 2010, and double the number of heroin abusers. In 2014, about 3,700 people died from meth overdoses [source: Pew].

The drug has been quietly hooking users in the convenient shadow of America's opioid crisis. Surprisingly, meth cases accounted for the majority of federal drug cases in more than half of U.S. states in 2015 [source: DEA]. In short, meth doesn't need the headlines to continue wreaking its societal havoc. Sure the meth-driven madness of "Breaking Bad" may have ended after season five in 2013, but for the rest of America, the very real methamphetamine epidemic has not yet been written out of the script.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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• American Journal of Psychiatry. December 2001. (March 17, 2018)

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• "Crystal Meth epidemic" documentary.

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