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Article Summary

Meth 101

What is methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine, or "meth," is the number one drug problem in rural America and the fastest-growing drug threat in the nation.

Typically, meth comes in the form of an odorless, bitter-tasting powder that dissolves easily in water or alcohol. This powder may be white, yellow, pink, red, tan, or brown, depending largely on the ingredients used to make it. There are hundreds of street names for meth, including speed, crank, chalk, crystal, ice, glass, shabu, zip, pep-pills, and go-fast.

Meth is a synthetic drug, meaning that people manufacture it. Synthetic drugs may be contrasted with naturally-occurring drugs such as marijuana, which are cultivated rather than manufactured. Most of the meth found in Illinois is produced in small, rural, makeshift "laboratories," using equipment and ingredients that are, for the most part, readily available at local drug, hardware, and farm supply stores.

Because meth is highly addictive, relatively inexpensive, and easy to make, it has spread rapidly through the western, southwestern, midwestern, and southeastern United States, as well as through other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia and New Zealand.

How does meth affect the user?

Meth is a powerfully addictive stimulant that has a dramatic effect on the central nervous system. Essentially, meth tricks the brain and body into thinking that it has limitless stamina while in fact draining critical energy reserves needed to maintain the body's vital organs and functions. As a consequence, meth produces bursts of energy and euphoria but ultimately leads to severe depression, brain damage, physical deterioration, and – in some cases – violent paranoia.

Meth is a stimulant – a drug that increases the energy of the user. Caffeine is a very mild stimulant, while cocaine and methamphetamine are more intense, addictive, and dangerous stimulants. Stimulant drugs such as meth and cocaine may be contrasted with narcotic drugs like heroin and morphine, which do not stimulate the nervous system but instead tend to dull the senses and induce relaxation, stupor, and sleep.

How is meth used?

Meth may be ingested, snorted, smoked, or injected. When meth is snorted or ingested (i.e., swallowed), it produces a sense of euphoria that may last as long as twelve hours. When meth is smoked or injected, it produces a more immediate and intense "rush" that may last for as little as a few minutes, followed by a lower-level feeling of euphoria.

Addicts often follow a progression of meth use in which they begin ingesting meth, then snorting it, then smoking it, and then finally injecting it. Consistent with this pattern, meth users who are relatively new to the drug are often found ingesting or snorting meth, while hard-core users are often found smoking or injecting it.

No matter how meth is used, it tends to cause increased activity, decreased appetite, and a false sense of well-being in the short term, followed by damage to the brain, body, and central nervous system in the long term.

What is crystal meth?

Crystal meth is a type of meth that takes the form of large crystal-like chunks or, in some cases, small glass fragments or shiny blue-white rocks. It is usually smoked in a glass pipe like crack cocaine, but it may also be dissolved and injected. Although crystal meth produces effects similar to those produced by powder meth, it reportedly produces more intense and longer lasting highs. Like chronic use of powder meth, chronic use of crystal meth causes damage to the brain, body, and central nervous system.

Who uses meth?

The typical meth user is a lower- or middle-class white person in his or her 20's or 30's, living in a rural community. Although this description is technically accurate, it masks a great deal of variation in meth use. For example:

While meth use is concentrated in rural communities, it is a popular "club drug" in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and other urban centers across the country.

While the typical meth user belongs to the lower or middle class, meth addiction has afflicted upper-class Americans as well, including members of wealthy and prominent families.

While most meth users are in their 20's or 30's, meth use is on the rise among teenagers, and – at the other end of the age spectrum – it is not uncommon to encounter meth addicts in their 40's or 50's.

Do women use meth?

Yes. Meth use has been rising steadily among women, and it can no longer be said that the typical meth user is male. Female meth addicts report that they were initially attracted to the drug because it helped them lose weight and heightened their energy level, increasing their ability to face the multiple challenges of work and family – in the short term. In the long term, of course, meth has the same effects on women that it has on men: acute addiction, mental instability, and physical deterioration.

Where is meth made?

Most of the meth found is produced in small, rural, makeshift "laboratories," using equipment and ingredients that are, for the most part, readily available at local drug, hardware, and farm supply stores. The majority of these meth production sites are located in rural areas.

These methamphetamine production sites are commonly referred to as "methamphetamine laboratories" ("meth labs" for short) or "clandestine laboratories" ("clan labs" for short). It is important to understand, however, that meth production sites are not really "laboratories" at all. When we think of laboratories, we think of highly-educated scientists in clean white coats conducting controlled experiments with advanced equipment in an antiseptic environment.

Meth labs are nothing like this. The equipment used to make meth consists not of advanced scientific apparatus but instead of common household items such as mason jars, coffee filters, and plastic soda bottles. Most of the ingredients used to make meth – such as cold tablets, lithium batteries, and Coleman fuel – can be purchased at local drug, hardware, and farm supply stores.

The best way to describe the appearance of a typical meth lab is that it looks not like a real laboratory, but more like a dirty kitchen.

How is meth made?

There is nothing secret about the means of making meth. Meth "recipes" are widely known and readily available over the Internet. The most common meth "recipe" is called the "Birch reduction method" or, more commonly, the "Nazi method" (because the German government used it during World War II). A second method that is common in the western United States is known as the "red phosphorous" or "red-P" method.

Whether a meth "cook" uses the "Nazi method" or the "red-P" method, he or she cannot make meth without ephedrine or pseudoephedrine – substances found in Sudafed, Claratin, and other over-the-counter cold medications that are widely available in local drug stores, supermarkets, and truck stops. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are to methamphetamine what flour is to bread – THE essential ingredient.

Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine become methamphetamine by means of a chemical reaction. A meth maker using the Nazi method brings about this chemical reaction by combining the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine with two other ingredients: anhydrous ammonia (a liquified fertilizer) and lithium (a metal extracted from lithium batteries). By contrast, a meth maker using the red-P method produces methamphetamine by combining ephedrine or pseudoephedrine with red phosphorous, iodine crystals, and water.

While these chemical reactions are the essential step required to turn ephedrine and pseudoephedrine into methamphetamine, both the Nazi method and the red-P method involve additional steps both before and after these chemical reactions. For a typical meth cook, using the Nazi method, the entire process of making a batch of methamphetamine lasts about four hours from start to finish.

Do meth makers get rich?

No, most meth makers are meth addicts, and they make meth to feed their addiction. Typically, meth makers are organized into loose-knit groups, or "cells," of roughly a half dozen meth addicts.

A typical meth "cell" is headed by a meth "cook" – a person who has learned the technique of making meth. The remaining members of the "cell" are assigned specific roles that support the meth production process. For example:

Some members of the cell may spend the better part of their time driving from store to store to store, stealing or purchasing pills containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. After obtaining hundreds or thousands of these cold tablets, they return to the meth production site, give the pills to the meth cook, and receive payment in the form of meth to feed their addiction.

Some members of the cell may spend the better part of their time driving around the countryside and stealing anhydrous ammonia from farmers' nurse tanks, especially at night. After obtaining a sufficient quantity of anhydrous ammonia, they return to the meth production site, give the anhydrous ammonia to the meth cook, and receive payment in the form of meth to feed their addiction.

Some members of the cell may spend the better part of their time stealing or buying the remaining equipment and chemicals needed to manufacture meth at local stores. After obtaining the appropriate supplies, they return to the meth production site, give the supplies to the meth cook, and receive payment in the form of meth to feed their addiction.

Although a typical meth cook or one of his assistants may sell small quantities of meth to persons outside the "cell," the purpose of such sales is not usually to make a huge profit but rather to obtain cash needed to purchase cold medications or other supplies needed to make more meth.

The bottom line is that meth is NOT big business. Most meth makers are addicts themselves, with limited resources at best.

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