Meth Myths, Meth Realities

On the evening of January 20, 1999, Sgt. Todd Hoffman of the Wright County Sheriff's Department had an unnerving experience: He thought his face was melting.

Hoffman was investigating an informant's tip about methamphetamine manufacture in an ice-fishing shack on Waverly Lake. Arriving at the scene--about 30 miles west of Minneapolis and, ironically, about 200 yards from the New Beginnings drug treatment center--Hoffman met two game wardens. They directed him to a shack that had neither name nor license posted on the exterior. Outside, Hoffman detected a peculiar odor in the air. There were a few dead fish strewn about on the ice. But it wasn't a fishy smell. It was an acrid, chemical stench, and that was the giveaway.

A former Minneapolis cop, Hoffman had been working narcotics in Wright County since 1995. By 1999, meth use had already begun to spike in rural and suburban parts of the state, and Hoffman had taken part in dozens of meth lab busts. (He now figures the number is over 100.) While most of the labs were housed in less exotic spots--trailer homes, garages, sheds, and motel rooms--they all shared that nasty, solvent-laden stink.

Figuring he needed more tangible evidence to justify a search of the shack, Hoffman decided to sift through a nearby pile of refuse. But when he picked up a small, nearly empty one-gallon thermos, a cloud of noxious gas spewed upward from the spout toward his head.

"My face instantly began to burn and, for five or ten seconds, I couldn't breathe," Hoffman recalls. "As soon as the fumes touched my face, all my mucous membranes began to drain. My nose, mouth, skin, eyes--everything began to flush. I touched my hands to my face and I could feel a liquid. I thought it was blood, and I thought my face was dissolving."

Hoffman's face did not dissolve. He was not even badly hurt. Following a trip to the emergency room in nearby Buffalo, he returned to the scene and set up surveillance. Later that night, he and his fellow deputies arrested three local teens outside the shack, including a 19-year-old man believed to be the cook, as methamphetamine manufacturers are called.

But Hoffman is the first to admit that he was lucky. The thermos that erupted in his face contained anhydrous ammonia. A liquid when stored under pressure or at temperatures of below minus 28 degrees, it rapidly gasifies if those conditions change. Upon contact with skin, it wicks up all the moisture and forms ammonium hydroxide, a highly caustic substance that burns the skin. Not surprisingly, anhydrous can be fatal when inhaled in sufficient quantities.

Anhydrous ammonia is ubiquitous in the rural Midwest, where it is typically stored in farm fields in thousand-gallon oblong tanks. Even in its legitimate uses as a fertilizer and refrigerant, handling anhydrous ammonia can be tricky. That is one reason why it is illegal to transport the chemical in an unapproved container. And because it is a key ingredient in making meth, such violations are now a five-year felony.

Not that such measures make much of a difference. Few meth cooks show much inclination to follow the rules for handling anhydrous ammonia, or for that matter any of the 30-odd toxic, flammable, and carcinogenic chemicals that are used in meth production. In this regard if no other, meth is virtually unique among the drug scourges of the day. In addition to its impact on users, its very production poses major health and safety hazards to non-users.

In police jargon, the lab on Waverly Lake was a classic "Beavis and Butthead lab," not much different from any of the small-scale operations that Minnesota cops now bust on a daily basis. Even the location was not especially surprising. In the past five years, meth labs have been turning up in all sorts of odd places, including a buried school bus, a tree house, and a houseboat on the Mississippi. Last year, police uncovered a small operation in a storm sewer in Eagan. State parks and other public lands are often used for "box labs," mobile operations run out of backs of vans or car trunks. The toxic by-products are often disposed of in the fields, woods, and waters.

The defendant in the Waverly Lake case fit the profile of the typical Minnesota meth cook. He was not a big-time dealer, just a user looking to cook some speed for himself and a few friends. Like most, he was young, white, and male. As a teenager, he started using low-grade street meth smuggled in from out of state. Soon he was $20,000 in debt to his supplier, who proceeded to cut him off. He decided to cook up his own batch.

After the bust on Waverly Lake, the teen was diverted into a treatment program. Within a matter of weeks, Hoffman says, he had run away and set up another lab, only to be caught once again. At that scene, Hoffman says, a Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent suffered minor injuries after coming into contact with an acid gas. Yet Hoffman is not without some sympathy for the wayward teen. "When I arrested him, he knew he made a mistake. He was just a middle-class farm kid who got caught up in it," Hoffman says. And then Hoffman offers what has become something of a mantra in law enforcement circles. "But you know, meth just gets a hold of people and it doesn't let go."  


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.

But the same things that make meth a bargain for the producer/user make it expensive to the rest of society. Researchers have linked exposure to meth labs to a host of illnesses in first responders (police, fire, and ambulance personnel). According to Paul Stevens of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, each year an average of 25 first responders at the scenes of Minnesota meth labs suffer injuries that require treatment. But that may be the tip of the iceberg. Short-term respiratory problems are the most common and easily identified health problems arising from exposure. But a host of longer-range maladies have also been implicated, including chemical bronchitis, emphysema, thyroid cancer, kidney cancer, lymphomas, and multiple myeloma.

There is no definitive evidence regarding specific long-term illnesses, but a number of studies have associated general ill health with meth lab exposure. In one, first responders who had been to meth labs were found to be seven times more likely to miss work than their peers.

Deb Durkin, an environmental health specialist with the Minnesota Department of Health, puts it this way: "We need more research, and there isn't enough science quantifying any of this. But we've got first responders all over the Midwest who are now sitting home collecting pensions. We've even been hearing from jailers who are getting sick just from being in small booking rooms with the cooks, because their clothes are saturated with these chemicals."

And then there are the kids. According to a DEA report, children are present in about 30 percent of the meth labs. In Minnesota, that figure is closer to 50 percent. Because their immune systems are immature, children are more vulnerable to the toxic chemicals associated with meth production. And because they crawl on the floor and stick their hands in their mouths, they are more likely to come into contact with dangerous chemicals in the first place.

Owing to such concerns, the cleanup of meth lab sites has become big business. At Bay West, Inc., an 80-plus person environmental services firm in St. Paul, meth labs now constitute about 10 percent of the company's business. In October, the company won the federal contract to remove hazardous chemicals from all meth labs discovered in Minnesota. Since then, according to Bay West's Dan Hannan, they have averaged about a lab per day, dispatching teams of technicians in moon suits with full-face respirators to collect the materials. The contract does not cover the cost of decontaminating the lab sites, which can be extremely expensive. "We've seen cases where the cost of cleaning exceeds the value of the home," Hannan says.

People take meth in every conceivable manner. It can be injected, smoked, snorted, ingested orally or, more exotically, diluted in water and squirted in the anus. That's called a "booty bump," and is said to intensify sexual pleasure. Injection and smoking produce the fastest, most intense sensations. Within 10 seconds, the user experiences an intense rush. Immediately, the body begins pumping out adrenaline, a natural stimulant that triggers the fight-or-flight response. At the same time, the brain is flooded by a massive release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being. The rush doesn't last long, usually between five and 30 minutes. But it is highly pleasurable. Users describe it as something like a rolling orgasm.

Meth also heightens the user's sex drive. Not surprisingly, it has been implicated in unusually high rates of sexually transmitted diseases. A study in the Seattle area found that 47 percent of gay and bisexual men who injected meth were HIV-positive, by far the highest infection rate of any group examined. Interestingly, the study concluded, the primary means of transmission was not needle sharing but sexual contact. In other words, meth promoted promiscuity and rougher encounters, which increased the likelihood of infection.  

In a larger study of gay and bisexual men in California, researchers found that meth users were about twice as likely to be HIV positive as nonusers. In addition, a quarter of all gay and bi men with syphilis reported recent meth use; and among non-HIV positive gay and bi meth users, rates of rectal gonorrhea were three times higher than among nonusers. Worse yet, some scientists now believe that methamphetamine may actually accelerate the progression of the HIV virus on a cellular level. In a study of cats with feline immunodeficiency virus, researchers at Ohio State found that the virus replicated as much as 15 times faster when exposed to methamphetamine.

Meth's stimulant effects linger much longer than the euphoria. During the high that follows the rush, users experience a sensation of heightened mental clarity and, often, aggression. Blood pressure and pulse rate increase. Sometimes there are heart palpitations. And the appetite disappears. That's one reason why users tend to lose a lot of weight. And, researchers say, it is a big factor in the drug's rising popularity among teenage girls and women. In the 1950s and '60s, amphetamine tablets were frequently prescribed as a diet aid. Today, treatment of obesity is one of the few medically sanctioned uses of pharmaceutical-grade meth.

Heavy meth users go on binges that sometimes last up to two weeks. More typically, binges are between one and three days. During this period, users often engage in compulsive or repetitive acts, such as housecleaning or disassembling appliances. Meth also produces an array of strange physical sensations. One of the most common is called formication--the delusion of insects crawling under the skin. The cause of formication is not entirely understood. Some research has suggested that toxic adulterants in meth (perhaps from the solvents used in the manufacturing process) accumulate in the skin cells, which then begin dying. In response, sufferers begin to pick or scratch until they form open sores. The phenomenon is referred to as "crank bugs" or "meth mites."

Meth does not have classically hallucinogenic properties. However, the sustained sleep deprivation that is a product of meth use can cause auditory and visual distortions. On binges, users frequently report catching glimpses of so-called shadow people. Not surprisingly, this serves to heighten the drug's paranoia-inducing effects. After the high, users begin to tweak. Tweaking occurs when continued intake no longer induces the release of dopamine. At that point the user is often unable to experience any pleasure--a condition called dysphoria--yet remains under the effect of the stimulant. The tweaking phase is the part of the cycle most closely associated with violent or antisocial behavior. In an effort to allay the unpleasant effects, many users turn to other drugs, such as alcohol or heroin. Then comes the crash. Once the body is depleted of adrenaline, users are left listless and profoundly fatigued. Sometimes they sleep for days.

Chronic meth use can have a host of effects on the body's organs. It has been linked with sometimes-fatal kidney problems, hypertension, and gastrointestinal disorders. Among meth users who smoke the drug, lung problems are common. And long-term users often suffer a host of complications as a result of poor nutrition related to the drug's appetite-suppressing quality. At drug treatment centers, counselors say, you can identify the meth users by their terrible teeth, which are either rotted away or ground down.

But meth's most profound and disturbing effects are on the brain. When used heavily, the drug can produce psychotic symptoms that are all but indistinguishable from paranoid schizophrenia. "We sometimes see similar symptoms with crack cocaine users, but it's much more prominent with methamphetamine," observes Christine Cloak, a neuroscientist at Brookhaven National Laboratories. So much so, in fact, that researchers like Cloak are hoping further study of methamphetamine abuse might shed some light on the mysteries of schizophrenia.

The long-range neurological consequences of meth use remain a subject of considerable disagreement. Some scientists believe the drug permanently ages the brain, and that it may lead to the premature onset of Parkinson's and Alzheimer-like conditions. In a study at Brookhaven, Cloak and her fellow researchers examined brain scans of 15 former heavy meth users. The images showed lower than normal levels of dopamine transporters, which confirmed what had been found in numerous animal studies: Meth is neurotoxic, meaning it damages brain cells. In monkeys, high doses of methamphetamine have been shown to cause damage to as many as 50 percent of the brain's dopamine-producing cells. Now those results appear to be mirrored in humans. And significantly, the researchers at Brookhaven found that people with depressed levels of dopamine also performed more poorly on tests of motor skills and mental acuity. But whether those effects are permanent is not clear. Why? "We just haven't been able to look at people who have been abstinent for multiple years in large enough numbers to know," says Cloak.  

Nobody has any idea how many users or cooking facilities there are in Minnesota. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1998, an estimated 9.4 million Americans have tried meth at least once; that is roughly four percent of the total population. But if you ask cops, especially ones in the harder-hit parts of rural Minnesota, they describe a burgeoning plague. "I can't tell you how many thousands are addicted, but it's swallowing up tons of people. Pretty soon, meth is going to be in every corner of every county of every state in the country," declares Paul Stevens, a special agent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Stevens, who trains local police in meth lab response, has watched with dismay as the number of lab busts has skyrocketed in recent years. "Six years ago we had maybe 15 labs. Last year, we had 297. Those were just the ones where the DEA sent out a cleanup team. There are a lot of labs that don't require a cleanup, or that don't get reported because the county or city didn't fill out the proper paperwork." In other words, the real numbers are higher, possibly around 400 or so. And those are just the ones that police know about. Stevens thinks the cops are getting, at best, a tenth of the labs.

Still, Minnesota's meth problems don't look too bad by comparison to other states. Last year, Stevens points out, Iowa had over 700 meth lab seizures, Washington had about 1,500, Missouri over 2,600. One reason for the increased number of seizures both here and elsewhere is an increased law enforcement focus on meth. In 1999, Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey declared meth "the most dangerous drug this nation has ever seen," and police and lawmakers have reacted accordingly.

Some of that response has been a direct result of disturbing anecdotes about some users' worst behavior. In one highly publicized case from 1997, a meth user in San Diego commandeered an army tank and went on a bizarre rampage before being shot dead by police. The most notorious case, however, involved a 30-year-old Arizona man. Following an eight-day meth binge, he became convinced his teenage son was the devil. After stabbing the boy repeatedly, he cut off his head and threw it out a car window as he sped down the highway.

There has been no shortage of local corollaries, albeit not quite so gruesome. And they have caught the public's attention. "Five years ago, 98 percent of the people in out-state communities didn't even know what a meth lab is," Stevens observes. "People in Ottertail County didn't. Then there was a woman up in Fergus Falls who was arrested for cooking. When she was released, she went to pick up her two-year-old child. She executed the child, then she killed herself. After that, people in Fergus Falls knew about meth."

If every meth lab in the state were shut down tomorrow, that would only address a small part of the state's meth problem. While local labs represent the biggest meth-related risk to the non-using public, the vast majority of meth is imported. Stevens estimates that 80 percent of the meth in Minnesota comes from Mexico. Easy access to bulk quantities of precursor chemicals allows the operators of Mexican "super labs" to churn out up to 50 pounds of product a day. Police have yet to uncover a single super lab in Minnesota. The biggest to date, according to Stevens, was an operation in Grand Rapids that had a capacity to make about five pounds at a time. Meanwhile, NAFTA has also worked in favor of the Mexican producers. With a huge increase in truck traffic between the U.S. and Mexico, smuggling product from one nation to the other has became much easier.


Despite the rising number of meth-lab busts in the state, some experts think that the extent of the meth problem here may have been overstated. "We may have the beginning of a methamphetamine epidemic. But the increases are much less in magnitude and scale than the increases we saw with cocaine in the mid-1980s," says Carol Falkowski, the director of research communications at the Hazelden Foundation in Center City. Since 1986, Falkowski has been tracking drug trends in the five-county metro area. Twice a year, she generates reports based on such things as emergency room mentions, medical examiner records, and treatment program admissions. Those reports are then submitted to the national Institute on Drug Abuse, and are used to inform national drug policy.  

In 1997, Falkowski noticed a doubling in treatment admissions and a major spike in meth mentions in emergency room cases. The following year, those numbers went down slightly. "At the same time, the number of meth labs uncovered by law enforcement kept doubling. But we weren't seeing any of the other consequences. I wasn't picking up an increase in meth-related deaths or people coming into ERs or people in treatment." Falkowski's inference: A combination of publicity and targeted law enforcement efforts were fostering the appearance that meth was growing more quickly than it actually was. "Law enforcement kept talking about meth, so they kept getting federal grants. And whenever you get a federal grant for a particular drug, you are going to wind up arresting more people for that drug."

And, Falkowski notes, the numbers for admissions into treatment programs still suggest that the drug remains a distant fourth among commonly abused drugs in the five-county metro area. In the first six months of 2002, Falkowski says, treatment programs admitted about 4,800 people for alcohol abuse, 2,000 for marijuana, 1,000 for cocaine, and 460 for meth.

Still, Falkowski acknowledges that those figures may not accurately reflect relative levels of abuse. For one thing, meth users may be less likely to see treatment than alcoholics or pot smokers. Given the demographics of the drug, that seems plausible. Despite an increasing number of female users, meth users are predominantly 18-25-year-old working-class white males, a group less inclined to seek treatment than other addicts.


As methamphetamine use spread from the West Coast to the Midwest over the past decade, there have been a lot of scare stories. The conventional wisdom has it that meth addicts are highly resistant to treatment and, even after intervention, relapse at unprecedented rates. A recent Rolling Stone story put the problem in the starkest terms: Just six percent of meth addicts, the story claimed, get and stay sober.

The anecdotal evidence often appears to support such views, though the numbers vary. "The dramatic effects of this drug change the treatment dynamics considerably," offers Jack Whittkopp, the program director for chemical dependency services at the Austin Medical Center. "One of the alarming things that really stands out is that the relapse ratio is so high. Next to heroin it's probably the toughest drug to treat. You'll commonly see a 10-12 percent success rate for adolescents who've gone through treatment."

The reason: the depression and attention deficit problems that commonly accompany meth use. "The average person experiences a depletion of dopamine at a rate of approximately six-tenths of one percent a year," Whittkopp points out. "Serious meth users can accelerate that depletion at rates that range from 24 to 90 percent, which is staggering.

"This drug ages the brain significantly, and we're only now starting to see studies that suggest the scale of the problems down the road. You see 19-year-olds with depleted dopamine levels that you generally associate with people who are 59. We could potentially be looking at a whole bunch of cases of early-onset Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and all sorts of other neurological complications. The horrible thing, of course, is that you're not supposed to experience this kind of neurological damage until you're aged."

Whittkopp has observed some notable differences between young meth users and other addicts. "You'll see kids in treatment who are primarily marijuana or alcohol abusers. They'll get it out of their systems and you can start to see changes in their whole demeanor. They're becoming normal, functioning human beings again. With meth users, however, even after significant periods away from the drug, you'll still see that frightening flat look. Something is still missing, and I'm afraid there's nothing in traditional therapy that's going to bring that back. There's nothing out there that's going to bring that pleasure back, and they're going to have to find their own compelling reasons for living without the drug."

To Carol Falkowski, such claims are reminiscent of what people were saying about cocaine in the mid-1980s. Falkowski doesn't believe the evidence supports such bleak conclusions about the prospects for meth users. "There has been a large body of research done on the outcomes of addiction treatment programs. What it finds is that there is not a big difference in outcome based on drug type. I'm not saying that there aren't some differences. But I've done addiction-related research for a long time, and I have never been able to document significant differences in outcome."

Hoping to get a handle on those numbers in the mid-'90s, researchers on a project called the California Drug and Alcohol Treatment Assessment looked at outcomes from a representative sample of some 150,000 people who had gone through treatment programs. The findings: outcomes for major stimulant abusers--meth and cocaine users, mainly--were comparable to the outcomes for alcohol users. And, interestingly, the study found that the treatment efficacy seemed to be the same across gender, age, and ethnic lines.  

Rick Rawson, a leading meth researcher at UCLA, also dismisses claims that meth addiction is all but untreatable. In Rawson's view, however, there do appear to be differences in relapse rates. While cautioning that the point still needs more study, Rawson is inclined to believe meth relapse rates are somewhat higher than alcohol, lower than heroin, and roughly equivalent to cocaine. As is the case with cocaine, he notes, there are no medications currently approved to treat meth addiction. That means that successful programs must rely exclusively on a combination of behavioral and cognitive therapy. "In general, 50 percent of meth users who enter a proper program should be drug-free at the end of one year," Rawson says.

Unlike alcohol, heroin, and nicotine, meth has no physical symptoms of withdrawal. That's not to say that kicking a meth habit is easy, or that many addicts succeed on the first try. But, Rawson says, most relapses tend to occur in the first six months, when the user's brain is still producing abnormally low levels of dopamine. As the dopamine production increases--and most research indicates that it does--so do the chances of successful recovery.


It is hard to imagine a drug with a worse reputation than meth. Other drugs (beginning with alcohol, but including cocaine and heroin) take more lives in Minnesota. Through the first nine months of 2002, Hennepin County medical examiners linked methamphetamine to a total of eight deaths--one fewer than caused by the prescription painkiller OxyContin.

And yet meth remains uniquely reviled. In part, this is because meth has stamped its imprint on rural, white America, which is not supposed to have "city" drug problems. And, of course, there are the properties of the drug itself, or at least the perceived properties. Meth, the conventional wisdom goes, makes people into violent monsters, causes them to chop the heads off their own children, or, at the very least, makes them into assholes. In a 1965 interview, Allen Ginsberg (who wrote his classic poem "Kaddish" on a three-day speed bender) took pains to make distinctions between meth users and users of other drugs, saying: "All the nice gentle dope fiends are getting screwed up by the real horror monster Frankenstein speed freaks."

There is still some reason to temper broad claims--and they've come from some unlikely quarters. In 1999, the National Institute of Justice, which is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, released a study that looked at the drug history of and criminal charges filed against 7,355 adults arrested in five western cities, including such meth hotbeds as San Diego and Portland. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, the study found that just 16 percent of arrestees who had used meth were charged with a violent offense. Among non-meth-using arrestees, that figure was 28 percent. The explanation of the study's authors: "The popular press has sensationalized cases in which violent acts occurred when the suspect was under the influence of meth."

Then again, Hitler received daily injections of methamphetamine from 1942 onward. Maybe Ginsberg was right after all.

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