It can be easily made in a house or an apartment, and its main ingredient can be purchased over the counter at the corner store.
Once the key ingredient, a standard component of cold remedies, is brewed with an assortment of more toxic chemicals, it turns into a highly addictive street drug — methamphetamine — that can lead to crime and violence and ruin families.
"It's a total nightmare drug. It destroys your thinking, it destroys your family life, your home," said Kathryn Jett, director of the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.
In 2003, for example, a Riverside County mother was convicted of child endangerment after the death of her infant son, who may have ingested a lethal dose of the drug from her breast milk.
The problem of methamphetamine use is spreading. In California, "meth" has become the leading substance that brings people into publicly funded treatment centers, topping heroin and alcohol. In much of the nation, law enforcement agencies consider meth their greatest drug threat.
More than 1.3 million people are said to have used meth in 2003.
"This isn't a fringe drug. It's a drug that's moving in the mainstream," Jett said.
With Congress pushing this week to restrict sales of the cold drug that is key to methamphetamine, Jett and two university researchers recently explained the drug's history and dangerous consequences:
Question: What goes into methamphetamine?
Answer: It is a synthetic drug and is "cooked" using a combination of man-made chemicals, many of which are toxic. The primary ingredient is pseudoephedrine, which can be found in cold medicines such as Sudafed and NyQuil. Methamphetamine results when pseudoephedrine is mixed with other easily available chemicals, including red phosphorus, the substance on the tips of matches; anhydrous ammonia, which is in farm fertilizer; battery acid; and a base, such as lye or drain cleaner.
Because the elements are so common, meth is cheap to make. As a result, while cocaine sells for $100 to $150 a gram, meth goes for about $25 a gram.
Q: Why is it so attractive to users?
A: Meth creates a powerful euphoria. It stimulates excessive levels of dopamine, the brain's natural pleasure chemical, said Richard A. Rawson, associate director of UCLA's Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, who has been studying meth use for 25 years.
The drug gives users a tremendous burst of energy, and a single dose can be effective for up to 12 hours. (Cocaine's effect typically lasts about an hour.) The drug also suppresses appetite, causing weight loss.
Q: What is harmful about it?
A: Meth is linked to severe skin and dental problems, causing some users to lose their teeth. It can also lead to heart attack and stroke. It affects parts of the brain that regulate judgment, decision-making and self-control. Thus, meth users do things "we know we should not do … but we can't help ourselves," said Edythe London, a UCLA professor of psychiatry and pharmacology.
Brain scans show that the cingulate gyrus, a part of the brain important to self-control, is switched off in meth users, London said.
The drug can also cause irritability and paranoia, because the stimulant affects the brain's response to danger and fear, Rawson said. Intoxicated meth users can commonly be seen peeking out the window. They may also say they are hearing whispers or they may work obsessively on repetitive tasks.
"In extreme cases, you see full-blown psychosis," Rawson said.
Violence can result if addicts feel they need to fight against imagined things that are chasing them, or if they are unable to obtain another dose.
Q: How did meth become so popular?
A: Manufacture and use of the drug became an increasing problem in the 1980s in the sparsely populated desert regions of San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties, where it was easy to operate illicit labs without attracting attention, Rawson said.
By the end of the decade, Mexican criminal groups had started making and selling the drug. Cartels began controlling meth production in California and targeted Salt Lake City and Des Moines, Iowa, as distribution hubs, he said.
Meth use migrated up the West Coast in the early 1990s, and by mid-decade, Midwestern and Rocky Mountain states had reported problems. By 2000, meth had become a problem in the South and the Great Lakes states.
Q: When did the drug start to appear?
A: It was widely used during World War II to keep soldiers awake and alert. In the 1960s, meth became popular among people working long shifts, such as driving trucks or doing construction, as well as athletes who thought it would boost their performance. Federal officials moved to restrict use of the drug in 1965.
Today, meth is still largely used by working people, Rawson said. "It's mostly affecting normal people working 40-hour-a-week jobs, and in the Midwest you see it in farming communities," he said. "A lot of workers find it useful, before it makes them crazy and gets them addicted," leading to a loss of a job.
Meth has also affected about as many women as men. Women account for half of all meth users, but make up only 30% of cocaine and heroin users. They are attracted to the drug hoping to lose weight or get through a grueling day at work or at home.
The drug has also become popular in the gay community, because it enhances sexual arousal. But it also leads to riskier behavior, prompting a rise in HIV infection rates.
Q: How are infants and children affected?
A: Mothers who expose their unborn children to methamphetamine tend to give birth earlier, suffer a higher miscarriage rate and have babies with abnormally small heads, Rawson said.
As they grow up, the children are often severely neglected by parents addicted to meth. Children sometimes test positive for methamphetamine just by being exposed to the fumes from homemade labs.
Q: Other than getting more users and manufacturers behind bars, what else is government doing to address this problem?
A: About 35 states have some form of restriction on the sale of drugs such as Sudafed, NyQuil and Claritin-D that contain pseudoephedrine. California, for example, allows the sale of just three packages, or 9 grams, of pseudoephedrine in a single purchase.
Some national retailers, such as Albertsons, CVS, Target and Walgreens, have acted on their own to move the cold drugs behind the counter. In reaction, drug companies have begun marketing alternative cold medicines that don't use pseudoephedrine.
Experts expect the measures to hamper the operations of smaller labs run out of homes or apartments. But they will probably not affect the super labs run by Mexican criminal groups, which produce about 70% of the meth supply, Rawson said. The cartels import pseudoephedrine in bulk from sources in China, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center.
Q: How hard is it to quit meth?
A: It is as difficult as giving up smoking, cocaine or heroin, Rawson said. However, after meth use is dropped, it takes longer for the brain to recover.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Methamphetamine has become the most abused drug in California and across most of the Western United States.
Primary drug abused by Prop. 36 clients
(7/1/03 - 6/30/04)
California passed Prop. 36 in 2000, which lets some drug offenders receive treatment instead of jail.
Drug abuse nationwide
In a 2004 survey by the National Drug Intelligence Center, law enforcement agencies were asked to identify the drug that poses the greatest threat in their area. The following percentages in each region named methamphetamine:
Sources: California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2005 Los Angeles Times