ELKO — You’re getting high on methamphetamine.
You smoke it, inject it, snort it, or ingest it.
The high depends on the purity of the drug and how it entered your body.
As the meth enters your bloodstream, your heart beats faster. Your blood pressure rises. Your pupils dilate.
Dopamine releases inside your brain and you feel more alert and energetic. You aren’t tired or hungry and you think you’re more focused. In some cases, you become sexually aroused. Your fight-or-flight response kicks in.
“It’s like a euphoria,” said James Corgan, who has used meth since he was 13. “As soon as you take that first hit you get a tingly feeling in the back of your head and you feel like Superman. You’re untouchable. You have the ultimate energy.”
But your high reaches a plateau and falls. The drug turns and you’re turning with it. The euphoria dissipates into a nightmare. You begin to shake. Your mood changes. You feel anxiety, paranoia, or both. You might hallucinate that bugs are crawling underneath your skin and you begin to scratch. You could develop violent or suicidal behavior.
“You go through pretty much all the emotions in the end. Super paranoia. Despair. Anger,” Corgan said. “You’re irritable. Paranoia is one of the biggest ones, though. When you’re up that long you see all the shadows moving. Your mind doesn’t comprehend. It opens up things in your mind that you shouldn’t be able to open up, I guess.”
The anatomy of a nightmare
Meth is simple to make, if you know how to do it. The drug can be produced through various chemical processes that use household materials, such as Drano, lithium batteries, matches, lighter fluid and cold medication. The chemicals used from the items to make meth are called precursors.
“A lot of people think meth is dangerous because of all the chemicals that go into it, but that’s not necessarily true,” said Barry K. Logan, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, during a phone interview with the Free Press. “All those chemicals can be toxic in themselves ... but together they create their own chemical, methamphetamine.”
Logan, who holds doctorates in both chemistry and forensic toxicology, is also the national director of NMS Labs, an independent forensic laboratory in Willow Grove, Pa., that specializes in new drug detection and forensic analysis for criminal justice and death investigation agencies.
Meth is a central nervous system stimulant, Logan said.
“Once the drug gets into the brain, it releases a cascade of brain chemicals inside the user,” he said. “Meth makes people think everything is moving fast around them. They get motor restlessness syndrome and they can’t stand still, they have to be constantly moving.”
Throughout his research, Logan found that many users reported a sense of contentment before the fall.
“Euphoria is gradually replaced with mounting anxiety, inability to concentrate, and delusions,” Logan wrote in an article about the effects of meth. “The user is anxious, irritable, short-tempered, and introspective. Pseudohallucinations can occur, and paranoia sets in.”
This tweaking phase may last for hours and repeat for days, known as bingeing.
If you’re a severe abuser, you may go on “runs” that could last as long as 30 days.
These runs, known scientifically as high-intensity binges, gradually deteriorate your state of mind and frequently end in a psychotic state, according to Logan’s article.
Aside from the mental disorders associated with meth abuse, the drug takes a deadly toll on the body as well. Chronic use of meth can lead to cardiovascular disease, liver disease, stroke, neurological complications (like seizures) and pulmonary problems (like pneumonia).
Addicts commonly have missing or fractured teeth and are subject to gum disease, according to a report written by Dr. Richard A. Rawson, associate director of the Integrated Substance Abuse Programs at UCLA.
Sexually transmitted diseases are also common among meth addicts due to increased risky sexual behaviors and other associated risk behaviors, such as sharing needles, while being on the drug, Rawson wrote.
Despite its lethal consequences, meth remains a staple crop of the drug industry and because of ongoing efforts to stop meth production, the hardcore drug continues to evolve.
A Brief History
As with many drugs that are currently illegal, methamphetamine was originally used to treat common problems.
Meth derived from amphetamine, a chemical developed in 1887 to treat fatigue and overeating, according to an article about the history of meth published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in 2000.
Amphetamine was first used in 1932 as a nasal spray to treat asthma and was subsequently used to help treat narcolepsy, hyperactivity, overeating and fatigue, according to the article.
Unlike amphetamine, meth was considered a more dangerous drug.
Meth first became popular during World War II, when Japan, Germany, and the United States gave doses of the drug to their military personnel in order to increase endurance and performance, the article continued.
It wasn’t long before people discovered large doses of amphetamine, including meth, could produce mind-altering effects — resulting in the Drug Abuse Control Amendments of 1965, which placed restrictions on the substances.
Despite efforts to curb the meth problem, a steady supply of the drug continued to reach its users.
Although difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for the proliferation of illegal meth activity, it’s clear that biker gangs played a role in its distribution, said Sarah Pullen, special agent and public information officer for the Los Angeles Division of the Drug Enforcement Agency, in an interview with the Free Press.
“I would imagine that since the 1965 Drug Abuse Control Amendment greatly restricted amphetamine formulations and limited the prescription of those substances, the demand for the drug on the black market increased — providing a profit source for outlaw motorcycle gangs,” Pullen said.
Because meth could easily be produced, there was a steady supply of the drug — if you knew where to look and who to ask.
Motorcycle gangs in the Bay Area of California dominated the meth market by manufacturing and distributing the drug along the Pacific Coast in the mid-1960s, according to the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs article.
Because drug abuse continued, the U.S. Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, which listed methamphetamine and amphetamine (among other drugs) as Schedule II Narcotics.
In addition to the new restrictions set by the act, law enforcement focused on the biker gangs in the 1980s.
But meth production didn’t stop; it moved closer to the southern border, where the drug was smuggled into California from Mexico.
But when the Internet arrived in the 1990s, a new group of cooks was born.
The Internet revealed many meth-trade secrets, resulting in a new batch of home-produced meth.
“The drug market is dynamic,” Logan said. “In the early 1980s, making meth was like an art form. There were special recipes and methods of production — but by the ‘90s, those recipes circulated online and there were more small-batch labs.”
People learned how to make their own meth, rather than rely on the bigger suppliers, he said.
Those bigger suppliers, also known as super labs, are a main concern for the DEA. Capable of producing 5 pounds of meth at a time, these super labs are able to provide a larger supply to a broader range of users than small, “Mom-’n-Pop labs,” Pullen said.
The main producers of American-made meth were located on the West Coast in California’s San Bernardino and Riverside counties, Pullen said, and “a lot of that (meth) was going to Nevada.”
“The whole situation with meth has been on a roller coaster the past 10 years,” she said. “The increase in (domestic) meth labs started to peak in 2004. In 2005, the numbers started going down, as far as lab seizures.”
According to a 2012 report from the El Paso Intelligence Center of the Department of Justice, 15,790 meth labs and 54 super labs were seized throughout the country in 2004; in 2005, those numbers dropped to 10,678 meths labs and 34 super labs.
Pullen attributed the decline in domestic labs to the restriction of pseudoephedrine sales, the national anti-meth initiative “Operation Wildfire,” and better drug awareness throughout the country.
The restriction of pseudoephedrine, and other prescription chemicals used to make meth, was part of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005, which became law in 2006. Other states implemented similar laws to combat the manufacturing of meth in the mid-2000s.
“The state and federal laws that restricted the availability of precursor chemicals were successful in reducing the production of meth in the U.S.,” said Rawson, although he noted that despite legislation, Mexican supplies continued to increase. “Once meth gets a foothold in a community, suppliers will find a way to keep that supply up. (The suppliers) don’t just stop because they can’t buy pseudoephedrine.”
But where did the supply come from, then?
“In 2006, (production) was pushed south into Mexico,” Pullen said. “At the time, it was an easier place to ship chemicals from China. The cartels were able to receive thousands and thousands of pounds of precursor substances.”
Additional Mexican legislation and a heavier presence on the border curbed the problem to a degree, Pullen said, but meth is still being transported up through California and across the Western states.
“We’re getting large shipments here (in Southern California) and they’re distributed in smaller quantities,” she said. “They pass from hand to hand. We see (meth hidden in) secret compartments of tractor trailers and cars. Creativity is the strong point of the drug industry.”
The number of seized labs within the country has also increased the past few years. In 2007, fewer than 4,000 meth labs and only 11 super labs had been seized, according to the EPIC report. By 2012, more than 5,000 meth labs and 37 super labs had been seized.
“Small ‘Mom-’n-Pop’ labs have always been (in the country), but we’re starting to see more,” Pullen said.
She said the increase could be due to a new meth-production process that the DEA identified as recently as last year. Since obtaining pseudoephedrine is more difficult because of the added restrictions, different ingredients are being used in the new method to produce meth in small amounts.
“Some meth is manufactured here, but not in large factory batches,” Elko Police Lt. Ty Trouten told the Free Press in an earlier interview. “Most of the meth we see is coming from Southern California or Mexico. We have people who cook here, but not at the level we see coming out of Mexico. It’s mostly trucked in.”
Elko’s rural location doesn’t affect the supply of meth, either.
“Even though you’re in the middle of nowhere, Elko is still right off the highway,” making it a convenient pit-stop for drug trafficking, Pullen said.
There’s no current solution to the problem of meth, Trouten said, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth fighting.
“The (anti-drug) task force really is restarting again,” Trouten said. “We’re hitting local dealers to start. We compile notes on every arrest and everything we hear. It helps us understand the flow of drugs and who is moving in and out.”