Meth Myths, Meth Realities

What we know--and what we don't--about methamphetamine's history, chemistry, and impact on users


For years, legally manufactured amphetamines--including Benzedrine, Dexe-drine, and, the most potent, Methedrine (which is pharmaceutical-grade meth)--were widely prescribed by American doctors. It was first introduced in the 1930s as an asthma treatment, but it didn't take long for people to recognize the drug's usefulness as a stimulant and an appetite suppressant. In the mid-1960s, as speed in its various forms began to be used more for recreational purposes, the federal government moved to restrict its prescription. In 1971, it was classified as a schedule two narcotic.

But rogue chemists in the San Francisco Bay area, who discovered they could synthesize a potent form of meth in home labs, quickly stepped in to fill the demand. For a time in the late '60s, meth and its lesser cousins were an integral part of the larger drug culture. But the famous "Speed Kills" PR campaign cut into their popularity. With the emergence of cocaine, meth use dwindled further.

In the ensuing years, meth recipes remained jealously guarded secrets, held chiefly by West Coast biker gangs. In the mid-1980s, however, a cruder and much easier cooking method was developed. As the word spread, meth began a steady march to the east. Then, with the advent of the Internet, the secret came all the way out of the bag. Today an aspiring cook can have a shopping list and detailed instructions on how to cook meth with a few clicks of the mouse.

Although there are literally dozens of variations on the theme, there are two basic approaches for making meth: the Nazi method (reputedly so named because an early version of the recipe was circulated on stationery bearing a white supremacist logo) and the Red P method (which employs red phosphorus in place of anhydrous ammonia). For a number of reasons, including ease of production and access to essential ingredients, the Nazi method dominates in the Midwest. The Red P method, meanwhile, is more commonly employed out West and in Mexico.

All meth production starts out with one of meth's two close chemical cousins, pseudoephedrine or ephedrine. Pseudo-ephedrine, which is found in cold and allergy pills such as Sudafed, is a synthetic version of ephedrine, which is a natural stimulant derived from the plant ma huang. In essence, the "cooking" process has two goals--distilling the pseudoephedrine (or ephedrine) and then stripping off a single oxygen molecule.

To manufacture an ounce of meth requires a cash outlay of about $150. A typical shopping list: 750 pills containing pseudoephedrine, five lithium batteries, two cans of lantern fuel, a bottle of drain cleaner, a bottle of un-iodized salt, a 10-pound block of dry ice, and various lab supplies: mason jars, coolers, coffee filters, a hose. Depending on the proclivities of the cook, there are substitutes for many of these ingredients. Instead of coffee filters, for instance, some cooks prefer linens. One recipe recommends Martha Stewart brand bedding because of its tight weave and low cost. And while most Minnesota meth cooks employ low-tech gear, there are exceptions. Most famously, there was the case of Mark Pierson of Minneapolis. Pierson, who fancied himself a chemist, was sent to federal prison after a raid on his south Minneapolis warehouse space yielded not only a cache of meth but triple-neck flasks and other high-end, laboratory-grade glassware worth thousands of dollars.

An array of solvents can be used interchangeably in the manufacturing process. The choice of ingredients can affect the flavor and properties of the final product--and, quite likely, the health impact on the user. Meth made with gun barrel cleaner, for instance, is greenish in color and known in some circles as "grimace," a reference to its stomach-cramp-inducing properties. In some meth labs, acetates containing lead are used as a reagent. Because lead exposure is associated with a constellation of neurological problems, this practice is especially worrisome.

Nearly all of the ingredients to make meth can be readily purchased at hardware stores and pharmacies. These days, anyone who buys 750 Sudafed pills will likely raise an eyebrow from a clerk and, quite possibly, end up serving a federal or state prison sentence under one of the many tough anti-meth measures enacted in recent years. But by spacing out purchases, or enlisting confederates, savvy cooks can evade such suspicion. Getting anhydrous ammonia is trickier, since its sale is restricted. But because it tends to be stored in remote and poorly secured locations, it is usually easy to steal.

A competent Nazi-method cook can prepare an ounce of meth in a few hours. And while most Minnesota cooks are users looking to feed their habits, there is money to be made. The approximate street value of an ounce of meth is $2,500. Depending on locale and quality, that price can vary. High-grade meth--which comes in rock form and is referred to as crystal, ice, or glass--may cost twice as much as lower quality stuff. Either way, compared to other stimulants, meth is a bargain. For new users, an average dose is just 10 milligrams. Addicts commonly go through a gram per use because tolerance builds rapidly. Still, for a $150 investment, it's more bang for the buck than any powder or rock cocaine user gets.

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