How Meth Works

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].

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