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What is meth?

a baggie of meth

Meth in powder form.

Methamphetamine -- its slang terms include 'crystal,' 'crank,' 'glass,' 'ice,' 'speed' and 'Tina' -- is a powerful, addictive synthetic stimulant that causes the brain to release a surge of dopamine, creating a high that lasts from six to 24 hours.

Like cocaine, meth comes in two forms: powder or rock. The powder form is usually white, odorless and bitter-tasting and can be snorted, smoked, eaten, dissolved in a drink and ingested, or heated and injected. The purer form of the drug, called "crystal," "glass" and "ice," appears as clear, chunky crystals that are usually smoked or injected. Meth can also come in small, colored tablets, but they are less common.


How is meth made?

Making methamphetamine is a multi-step cook process. The key ingredient is ephedrine or its cousin, pseudoephedrine. Both are chemicals found in over-the-counter cold, cough and allergy medicines. Additional chemicals are used to isolate the ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, cook it into meth, and process it into a form for consumption. These chemicals can be cheap, everyday household items like ammonia, lye, and red phosphorus scraped from matchbook covers. Start to finish, the cook process takes about 48 hours and can be hazardous because at one or more stages, the solution needs to be heated, producing toxic fumes and the chance of explosion.

| See more on meth labs in The Oregonian's award-winning series, including a graphic showing the cook process.


What are the effects of meth on the body?

Methamphetamine causes the body to release large amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter, resulting in a prolonged sense of pleasure or euphoria for the user; however, over time, this causes severe side effects. With repeated use, meth depletes the brain's stores of dopamine and actually destroys the wiring of the dopamine receptors. This is a major reason why users become so addicted to the drug; without it they are no longer able to experience pleasure (a condition known as anhedonia), and they usually slip into a deep depression. Although dopamine receptors can grow back over time, studies have suggested that chronic meth use can cause other permanent brain damage, such as declines in reasoning, judgment and motor skills.

In addition, meth is a powerful stimulant that causes the heart to race and the blood vessels to constrict, which can lead to a number of serious medical problems, including heart attack, stroke and even death. During these energy-fueled meth "runs," which can last days, users generally exhibit poor judgment and dangerous, hyperactive behavior. For instance, many addicts have committed petty and violent crime when high on the drug, and even for casual users the drug can increase the libido and lead them to engage in risky, unprotected sex. Long-time users have been known to develop symptoms of psychosis, including paranoia, aggression, hallucinations and delusions.

| See "How Meth Destroys the Body."


How does one recover from meth addiction?

Experts once thought cases of meth addiction were hopeless -- a high percentage would always relapse -- but today they know that recovery is possible, although it may take years of medication and behavior therapy.

Because methamphetamine changes the brain's wiring by destroying its dopamine receptors, users need almost a year to allow those receptors to regrow. Until then, addicts cannot experience pleasure without the drug, and most slip into a deep depression that may cause them to relapse. This depression can be treated with psychopharmacology, and now many treatment programs include prescriptions for anti-depressants.

In addition, meth addicts must relearn certain behaviors. Because meth has trained them to associate all pleasure with the drug, they need to learn to modify their thinking and expectations. Counseling helps them cope with their cravings, examine the personal issues that lead to the abuse, and help them avoid situations that may cause a relapse. Many treatment experts insist that out-patient treatment is essential to recovery, with some programs starting to work with addicts even while they are still using the drug. In addition, some experts believe that because the disease is so debilitating and the recovery process so protracted, meth addicts also need help and reinforcement from the criminal justice system; many newly-formed drug courts keep track of users in recovery and install penalties for not participating in treatment programs.

| Read one journalist's account of her own sister's harrowing meth addiction.

| For information about drug treatment options in your community, see the U.S. government's Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator.


How does meth differ from other stimulants such as cocaine?

Although both cocaine and methamphetamine are psychostimulants that trigger the release of dopamine, the drugs are quite different. For one thing, methamphetamine produces a stronger and longer-lasting high than the high produced by cocaine. Animal studies conducted at UCLA show that cocaine releases 350 units of dopamine, while methamphetamine releases almost four times as much -- about 1,200 units (See a slideshow on the neuroscience of meth). Similarly, smoking meth produces a high that lasts from six to 24 hours, while smoking cocaine produces a high that lasts only 20 to 30 minutes. And it takes the human body about 12 hours to remove about 50 percent of methamphetamine, compared to only one hour for cocaine.

In addition, drug enforcement officials have a better opportunity to limit the spread of methamphetamine than cocaine because of the way the drugs are produced. Cocaine is a natural (as opposed to synthetic) drug derived from plants that can be grown throughout the world. Methamphetamine is a man-made drug that requires a supply of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, chemicals found in cold and cough medicines and produced in bulk by only nine factories around the world. If drug enforcement officials could tighten control over the supply of these chemicals and to whom they are sold, experts says the meth epidemic could be stopped.


How is meth classified by the DEA and what are the sentences applied for meth possession or meth-related crimes?

The DEA classifies methamphetamine as a Schedule II controlled substance, the second-highest classification that also includes cocaine and morphine. According to the Controlled Substances Act, Schedule II narcotics are described as having a high potential for abuse, leading to severe psychological or physical dependence while having an appropriate medical use in certain situations.

The federal government sets minimum sentencing requirements for traffickers of methamphetamine depending on the amount of meth seized and previous offenses. One example: the federal government requires that first-time methamphetamine traffickers with possession of more than 50 grams be sentenced to at least 10 years in prison.


Who's using meth?

There are 1.4 million meth users in America, and the number is rising. Although meth has generally been associated with white, male, blue-collar workers in rural areas of the western United States, with meth's spread to the East Coast there's now more diversity among users. The National Association of Counties reports that users are both high school and college students and white and blue collar-workers as well as people in their 20s and 30s who are unemployed. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that more men than women have tried meth in their lifetimes, and vastly more whites than African-Americans, Latinos and Hispanics.


Is meth really a national epidemic?

map of the u.s.

View a state-by-state breakdown of meth abuse.

Yes. The nationwide spread of methamphetamine abuse over the past 15 years is well-documented. The most reliable source for measuring drug abuse is the data on drug treatment admissions which measure admissions per 100,000 residents. Between 1992 and 2002 the SAMHSA Treatment Episode Data Set went from having one state reporting more than 40 admissions for meth addiction per 100,000 residents, to 18 states reporting this rate of admissions.

| See the The Oregonian's illustrated map on meth's spread. (Note: PDF file; Adobe Acrobat required)

There are some observers who say the meth problem is blown out of proportion because the number of meth-related drug treatment admissions, seizures, and fatalities are relatively few when compared to those for heroin or cocaine. However, meth's impact on families and communities is much more devastating.

In 2005 it was reported that 58 percent of law enforcement officials in 500 counties surveyed by the National Association of Counties cite methamphetamine as their biggest drug problem. Half in the sample said that up to 20 percent of their inmates were incarcerated because of meth-related crimes, and some segments representing small counties and areas in the upper Midwest reported as many as 75 to 100 percent of their incarcerations as meth-related.

While that survey drew on a disproportionate number of counties in the West where meth is most widely available, the National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) in February 2005, published results from a larger, random sample of 3,400 drug enforcement agencies nationwide. In the NDIC survey, for the first time since they have been taking such surveys, a plurality (40 percent) considered meth their leading drug threat. Cocaine came in second at 36 percent, and marijuana at 12 percent.

The international picture is also troubling. According to the United Nations, meth is today the most abused hard drug on earth; the world's 26 million meth addicts equals the combined number for cocaine and heroin abusers.


Why is meth called an "unnecessary epidemic?"

As The Oregonian's award-winning 2004 investigation showed, Congress and federal authorities could have contained the meth epidemic, and still can. Unlike heroin and cocaine, which are distilled from plants grown across huge areas of Asia and South America, meth requires ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, two chemicals used to make asthma medications or cold and cough remedies such as Sudafed.

Only nine factories in the world manufacture the bulk of the world's supply of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. Tightening control over the supply of these chemicals has been pursued on and off over the past 18 years, but the regulations have contained loopholes which meth traders quickly exploited. Nevertheless, each time there have been new regulations it has made a real difference, as The Oregonian's investigation showed: the drug grew scarce and rehab centers saw fewer meth patients. What still has to happen is the implementation of sustained controls by government that could stop meth's continuing spread.


What is meth's impact on a community and families?

On families the impact can be devastating. Local officials are finding that meth brings increased cases of child endangerment, abuse and neglect. When parents crash after days of speeding on meth, their children are left to fend for themselves, sometimes for days. Parents under the influence of meth may also sexually or physically abuse their children. And, with parents cooking up meth at home, the children are exposed to toxic, combustible chemicals.

For a community, meth brings a crime wave. Property crimes, car theft and identification theft soar because addicts need money for their habit. Local jails have to house newly-arrested meth users and health care facilities must treat patients who overdose or are injured in lab explosions. Altogether, meth affects the whole range of a community's social and health services.


Why has there been a rise and fall in the purity of meth over the years? How pure is it today?

Purity reflects how the meth market is doing. If the drug is at peak production and supply meets demand, the cooks have little reason to dilute it with filler. However, if the supply of the key chemicals needed -- ephedrine and pseudoephedrine -- is reduced, it becomes more difficult to produce meth and purity falls. History shows that in periods immediately following a new government regulation on ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, average purity will fall.

Currently, the purity of meth is estimated to be as high as it's ever been, around 70 percent.

| See a timeline of government regulations over the years.


What is the average street price for meth? Has it varied over the years?

One hit of meth is about a quarter of a gram and will cost a user about $25. However, the price of meth is volatile and can get as high as $80 per hit. As with most drugs, the price depends on the drug's purity, the amount and where it is sold. An example: in 2002 the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) reported that a gram of pure meth was as high as $330 in Chicago but only $60 in Seattle. Although the price of meth, when adjusted for inflation, has declined since the early 1980s, it remains relatively high; today, an ounce of meth costs nearly 10 times as much as an ounce of gold.

Finally, while the real prices of most drugs have steadily declined over the years, the ONDCP confirms what reporter Steve Suo found in his investigation for the The Orgeonian's meth series -- the price of meth rises when government action leads to regulation restricting access to ephedrine and pseudoephedrine by meth traffickers.


What is the difference between the drug traffickers' super labs and amateur cooks' kitchen labs?

a super lab

Surveillance footage of a "super lab" in California's Central Valley.

The cook process is different. The super labs cook process is more efficient because it involves a standardized line of equipment and chemicals. Super labs can produce 100,000-plus doses of meth; the end product is often diluted with additives before it hits the street.

Home labs are cobbled together from various kinds of equipment and chemicals and produce no more than 300 doses, or enough for the amateur cook and a few local sales. The majority of seized labs are home labs.

| See graphics and details about meth labs in The Oregonian's meth series.


When was meth first recognized as a problem?

The DEA was aware of the dangers of this type of drug as early as 1980 when federal controls were put on phenyl-2-propanone, the key chemical needed to make amphetamine. In the mid-80s Gene Haislip, the DEA's number three man at the time, decided to go after the chemicals needed to make methamphetamine -- ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. But Haislip's solution was never fully tried because of opposition from the pharmaceutical companies who made cough and cold remedies containing the chemicals and didn't want regulation. During the 1990s there was not only a surge in meth abuse on the West Coast, particularly in California and Oregon, but the drug cartels also moved into the meth trade.


What have states and the federal government done to control the problem?

More than 35 states have passed legislation that in some way restricts sales of products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, either by placing limits on the amounts purchased, requiring that the drug be sold within a certain distance from the register, requiring customers to request the item from behind the counter or from a locked case, or requiring them to sign a registry. Some states have been even more aggressive. Oregon, for example, requires that purchasers of products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine obtain a prescription from their doctor.

Over the years, at the federal level, the government has implemented increasing restrictions on the sale of products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. It has also passed legislation to increase sentences for meth traffickers and to fund local police departments for more training on meth-related investigations and lab cleanup. Finally, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 is a bill to amend the PATRIOT Revision Act, which passed in March 2006. Backed by the bipartisan Congressional Meth Caucus, it will nationalize restrictions on wholesale and retail pseudoephedrine sales, toughen penalties against meth traffickers, and also step up the government's authority to stem the flow of pseudoephedrine from foreign manufacturers.


How much will state laws help?

sudafed on a store shelf

Many states are now restricting purchases of over-the-counter pseudoephedrine-based cold and cough medicines.

They will likely reduce the number of amateur cooks making meth in their kitchens because it will reduce their access to pseudoephedrine-containing cold and cough medicines sold over the counter. Some of the states that have these laws have seen a drop-off in the number of seized home labs. But local authorities in many of these areas are now concerned that the Mexican meth trade is simply moving in and filling the supply gap.

| See a state-by-state comparison of meth's impact


How have the makers of pseudoephedrine cold and cough remedies dealt with the problem of their products being turned into meth?

Ever since the federal government first tried getting DEA regulations in the mid-80s to deal with the meth problem, pharmaceutical companies have known that these products could be misused and turned into meth.

By the 1990s, with the DEA keeping up pressure to constrict the supply of ephedrine and pseudoepedrine going to meth, Pfizer, maker of the popular Sudafed, tried including additives that would make it harder for meth cooks to extract pseudoephedrine. However, the additives made it harder for the body to absorb the decongestant and the work was abandoned.

And Warner-Lambert Co., now owned by Pfizer, holds the patent to another possible solution: a "mirror image" form of pseudoephedrine that can't be turned into methamphetamine. But product development hasn't been pursued because getting FDA approval would be a long, very expensive road. (See interview with Pfizer's Steven Robins). Over the years, Congress has not seriously debated financing research into a cold remedy that can't be turned into meth, or making it easier for Pfizer to get federal approval for its "mirror image" drug.

Pfizer now has on the market a version of Sudafed, Sudafed PE, with the decongestant phenylephrine that can't be turned into meth. But time will tell if it's as popular with consumers as Sudafed, which Pfizer continues to sell. Other companies are beginning to put phenylephrine into their cold remedies, as well as other alternatives such as the combination of acetaminophen and the cough suppressant dextromethorphan.

Critics of the pharmaceutical companies say their long opposition to regulating ephedrine and pseudoephedrine at the wholesale and retail level so that it can't be diverted to the meth trade has been a key factor in the growth of meth abuse that now affects 1.4 million Americans.

| Read the full story of how the pharmaceutical industry addressed the issue of finding a meth-proof cold medicine, and why nothing came of their efforts, in Part 4 of The Oregonian's award-winning series on meth, "Shelved Solutions."


What is the difference between ephedrine and pseudoephedrine?

Although they are cousin chemicals -- both have the same molecular formula and bonds -- they are structurally different. Both serve as decongestants by basically shrinking the blood vessels in the nose; there is less tissue swelling and people can breathe better. Pseudoephedrine is more widely used in sinus and allergy medications, and ephedrine is used in asthma medication. Ephedrine alkaloids also naturally come from ephedra, the herbal supplement banned by the FDA in 2004.


What's the international angle to the meth story?

pouring ephedrine

A factory in India manufacturing pseudoephedrine.

Making ephedrine and pseudoephedrine -- the chemicals needed to make meth -- is a sophisticated, expensive process and just nine factories worldwide manufacture them in bulk: one each in Germany and the Czech Republic, two in China, and five in India. Because drug traffickers' super labs require large amounts of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, cartels are reliant on these international sources for their supply.

DEA authorities believe that the spread of meth can only be halted if the chemicals ephedrine and psuedoephedrine can be regulated at their international sources and if countries are required to only import enough of the chemicals to satisfy legitimate national demand for pseudoephedrine-containing cold and cough remedies.


What are the challenges in battling the Mexican cartels' meth trafficking?

If the last 15 years are any indication, it will be difficult to shut down the cartels, at least six of whom are involved in the meth trade. After every regulation handed down from Congress that has in some way limited the ephedrine and pseudoephedrine supply, the cartels have adapted their operations, either by finding overseas sources for the chemicals, figuring out how to extract the chemicals from pill form, or even developing a mechanism to punch pills out from blister packs. Their latest adaptation has been to move operations from California to Mexico where, until very recently, chemical imports were not regulated. According to The Oregonian investigative reporter Steve Suo, who spoke with FRONTLINE about the cartels, there are signs that the cartels are already readying to adapt again should their local pseudoephedrine channels dry up, either by moving to other countries in Latin America or by importing finished meth from Asia, where the drug is very popular.


What is the Bush administration's position on stemming the meth abuse problem?

While deputy drug czar Scott M. Burns has defended the administration's approach of not focusing on one illicit drug over another, officials in the Office of National Drug Control Policy have become more vocal in their support of lawmakers' efforts to control pseudoephedrine.

President Bush's proposed 2007 budget suggests a mixed commitment to combating the meth epidemic.While the budget provides $40 million to the DEA for the clean-up of methamphetamine lab sites (a 100 percent increase over the 2006 allocation), it also contains some changes that have drawn criticism from congressional lawmakers. The budget proposes transferring the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Program, which funds anti-drug efforts in the hardest-hit regions and is currently operated by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to the Department of Justice. The administration argues that the transfer will allow for better coordination of anti-drug efforts of other federal agencies and allow the program to better focus on primary national drug trafficking areas. The proposed transfer reduces funding for HIDTAs from $225 million to $208 million. The Budget also proposes the elimination of the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants which are general-purpose state and local law enforcement grants that state and local officials say are key to fighting meth in their communities.

| More on federal policy and initiatives on meth.


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posted feb. 14, 2006; updated march 22, 2006; updated may 16, 2011

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