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Lucid Feature: Meth-head or Madness

Meth-head or Madness

Life In The Fast Lane: New Zealand’s Methamphetamine Problem
by Nicholas Keesing

First published by Lucid Magazine
Website: http://www.lucid.org.nz/main.html

Wellington has weed. Wellington has E. Wellington has L.S.D. Sweet poetry to some maybe, but not all. A veritable drug cornucopia awaits today’s youth for experimentation and enjoyment. Look around you. Have lots of girls you know suddenly lost weight over the holidays? Are friends of yours exhibiting strange, aggressive personality shifts or looking really grey and tired? Chances are that they are into New Zealand’s latest drug craze-methamphetamine. Articles in Auckland’s Metro magazine, the Listener, and others, and an expose on 20/20 have all attempted to provide information on this phenomenon. Most fall short of the real truth. Yes, it seems that hard drugs are here to stay. It is the responsibility of government then, through setting effective policy to ensure that the least amount of harm accrues to both the individual and society. Education on such issues should be one of the more effective means of combating many of the negative effects of drug use. Drugs though, are a contentious political issue and so the information out there ranges from moderately inaccurate to the downright fallacious.

Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch, and other centres around NZ are in the grip of this new epidemic of unparalleled magnitude. Many students and staff here at Victoria University are drug users. The NZ Herald 24 Jan 2001 carried a story about a United Nations committee into worldwide drug usage that reported seizures of ATS (amphetamine-like stimulant) by law enforcement authorities had quadrupled from 1990 to 1998. For once, I’m prepared to believe that it’s not all government paranoia. Police Association President Greg O’Connor said in March this year that “methamphetamine seizures are up and so is violence. The two are directly related.” Bianca Zander in the Listener, April 16, 2002 reports that in 1998, 2 meth laboratories were busted; 9 in 2000; and for this year to date; 41. By extrapolation, this becomes 130 labs for 2002. She also goes on to say “2002 looks like being the year for methamphetamine”. Such throwaway comments do little to communicate the real nature of the problem; New Zealand is coming of age and ‘P’ is here to stay, not just for 2002, and is freely available in the ‘scene’. Why is methamphetamine becoming the drug of choice for so many young people? Are there any answers to the problems associated with its use? How can we reduce its price so that the ordinary student can enjoy its effects as well? But all joking aside, this article is an attempt to redress the lack of realistic education on issues surrounding methamphetamine.

A chequered history

January 18, 1887. An auspicious day in the history of recreational drugs. Amphetamines were first synthesized by German chemist L.Edaleano. In 1919, the more potent and easily made methamphetamine was discovered in Japan. Nothing too much happened until the 1930’s when an amphetamine OTC (over the counter) de-congestant inhaler was marketed under the name ‘Benzedrine’. In 1937 a prescription tablet form for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) became available. During WWII, amphetamines were widely distributed to soldiers to keep them fighting. In the Vietnam conflict, American forces used more than the total usage by all forces in the Second World War. By 1942, dextro-amphetamine and methamphetamine were widely available in the United States. A large post war surplus resulted in an epidemic of speed usage in Japan. In the early 1970s, the party ended. Worldwide, prohibitionist ideologies swept the globe and amphetamines became a class B controlled substance here in New Zealand.

Patterns of use and abuse

Americans are the best at everything, including nasty drug problems. Consistent P use and guns are an unusual mixture for a government to promote. The American scene is rife with anecdotal evidence regarding the use of methamphetamine and its effects upon society. Methamphetamine users fall into one of three categories. The recreational user has a pattern of low intensity and occasionally ‘burns’ speed. Many ’snort’ their special treat. The next step up is the binge user. These people go through episodic phases of continued use. They prefer to smoke or ‘blast’ the product intravenously and often spend several days under its continued influence. High intensity users continually smoke or inject the drug. This addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease of the mind, characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use accompanied by functional changes in the brain. At the end of such continued binges, nothing the user will do will take away the feelings of emptiness and dysphoria, including taking more methamphetamine. American law enforcement authorities consider the heavy methamphetamine users or ‘tweakers’ a real threat to the lives of officers.

“the tweaker does not need provocation to react violently; however, confrontation increases the chance for a violent reaction. Law enforcement officers should consider the potential for violence when determining that a suspect is tweaking. For example, case histories indicate that tweakers react negatively towards the sight of a police uniform. Confrontation between the tweaker and law enforcement officers often results in verbal or physical assault upon the officer.”

Part of the problem lies in the synthetic nature of methamphetamine. The body finds it much harder to metabolise into waste products than other naturally occurring substances. This profoundly affects the reaction to the drug and tolerance development is rapid. The toxic build-up results in particularly adverse effects for heavy users who show increasing deterioration both socially and occupationally. Psychotic behaviour can continue for years. American authorities (long considered the experts on such drug problems) much prefer their addicts to be on cocaine rather than meth simply because of the violent, aberrant behaviour typical of speed smokers. California police implement programs that will result in a rise in the price of meth so that users are forced to purchase cocaine instead. This sounds like good policing to me!

Here in New Zealand, methamphetamine use continues to rise. One major reason is the lack of similar, readily available, cheap drug substitutes on the market. Casual cocaine and heroin use in New Zealand only exists for the wealthy, strippers/hookers and for the dealers and their coteries of course. Healthy addiction avoidance techniques such as taking different drugs to avoid developing tolerance and thus the need for ever-increasing dosage levels are denied to the Kiwi connoisseur by an unfortunate geographic accident of fate.

Pharmacology

Methamphetamine affects several kinds of neuro transmitter, not just those that are dopamine specific. It is believed that the recycling of dopamine is suspended with the neuron being fooled into re-uptaking by the methamphetamine. This causes a person to feel enhanced pleasure for many hours. Preferred routes of administration are oral, nasal, respiratory, and intravenous in order of increasing immediacy of onset and thus the level of the ‘high’. The effects can be felt almost immediately as in the case of an injection, or can take as long as 30-40 minutes if ingested. Duration is highly subjective but is about 4-6 hours. Methamphetamine stays in the plasma for 4-6 hours and can be detected in the urine one hour after use and up to 48 hours after use. Dosages are difficult to standardize because metabolic rates vary between individuals and drug strengths vary as well. A phenomenon known as ‘tolerance’ occurs, where a more frequent user requires a higher dose than those less fortunate to enjoy such a luxury. Most users are ‘burners’ or smokers of the product and also tend to work to an open ended scale as regards these dosages.

The effects can be loosely grouped into short term and long term. Short term effects include increased attention, decreased fatigue, increased activity, decreased appetite, euphoria and rush, tooth grinding, incessant over-opinionated talking, increased respiration and hyperthermia. More long term effects are dependence, addiction psychosis, paranoia, hallucinations, mood disturbances, repetitive motor activity, and a favourite with the girls, that of weight loss. Other possible physiological effects are inflammation of the heart lining and irreversible stroke producing damage to small vessels in the brain. Methamphetamine is the only drug that is reported to damage neural networks. This basically means that you are being rewired semi-permanently, which is probably not a good thing. Meth is a strong bronchiodilator (opens up your chest), a vasoconstrictor (blood vessel tightener) and generally increases the activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Methamphetamine’s effects are due to its similarity to naturally occurring adrenaline in the body.

Physiological properties of cocaine and methamphetamine: A quick comparison.

METHAMPHETAMINE…………..COCAINE
Man-made…………..Plant-derived
8-24 hour high …………..20-30 minute high
50% of drug gone in 12 hours …………..50% of drug gone in one hour
Limited medical use…………..Used as local anaesthetic in some surgery

Source: Los Angeles Police Dept, 19/2/98

Manufacture

We’ve been told that a step by step recipe is a legal no no. A mixture of Psuedoephedrine and HI/I in the presence of phosphorus will produce methamphetamine. Recipes abound on the net. should produce results. Some of them are accurate. A word of caution. Remember when you made that first cake when you were a kid, the one that got burnt and didn’t rise. Organic synthesis is harder. Don’t become that cake. Don’t fuck with chemicals unless you have experience. If it is that easy, why do stories circulate about cooks being kidnapped?

A Bright Idea.

Here’s a nifty device for smoking the stuff, saving you valuable dollars. Take a light bulb-it can be frosted or non-frosted but non-frosted is best. Wrap the bulb in a towel and pound hard on the very end with the back of a knife. Try to hit the lead lumps at the end of the bulb. Prise these off. The small wires will break as you do so. Shatter the black glass by putting the point of the knife into the small holes where the snapped wires stick out. Dig out all the glass and carefully shatter the interior filament mount. Shake this out. Wash the bulb in water if it is frosted and dry. Place the methamphetamine in the bulb using a straw cut at an angle and put in a rolled up bill. Apply heat to the crystals, melt them and breathe just hard enough to stop the stuff recondensing on the surface of the bulb. You should be able to get almost half a point (.05 g) in one breath if you do it right.

As you can see, this is all rather too easy, one of the main reasons why this substance is such a scourge to law enforcement authorities. Any psuedoephedrine-containing product such as Telfast can be used in this synthesis, provided that the pseudoephedrine is purified first. Yes, a bit of stage one chemistry and you’re away laughing. Or not laughing. Remember, only the state and obscure drug companies are allowed to make this stuff legally. You could poison yourself, or worse, others. If you are caught with your illicit sack of dust, you could face a jail term of about 12 years and if the bikers in there find out what you’ve been up to, your new prison name may well be something like Harley.

Burning speed, the wallet, and the brain.

Methamphetamine also exhibits another disturbing effect. Upon administration of most drugs, readily discernable changes occur in the user. When you smoke a joint, you get stoned and when you drink alcohol, you get drunk. The ‘pure’ is altogether different. Users sometimes only experience a feeling of being unusually awake and are unable to perceive any other alteration to body or mind state. They take another dose and another in the search for the ultimate high. I’ve personally seen a person inhale 2 grams in three hours without batting an eyelid. This is extremely damaging to the body and is where the chief danger to the user lies. Medical rumour has it that the damage accrued by the lungs by one year of dedicated ‘burning’ is the equivalent of 30 years smoking cigarettes. It is a far more sensible strategy to combine meth usage with other activities and not sit around the table all night burning away that expensive stash fruitlessly.

The extent of the criminal scene involving the drug industry in NZ is well documented. Several undercover operatives have successfully infiltrated the organized crime scene. They found that a sophisticated structure existed with minutes even being taken by some gangsters! The Magogs (Taranaki), the Titans and Outcasts (Waikato), the Greasy Dogs (B.O.P.), the Filthy few, the Hells Angels and the Head Hunters all were found to be networking in an efficient and businesslike manner. The Highway 61 and the Tribesman had contacts with Australian syndicates. The Mongrel Mob and the Black Power, whilst being rather fiercely more independent are also reported to be networking to increase turnover. Mind you, with all the police paranoia and misinformation out there we’ll probably never know the truth of these things. And it’s an industry worth knowing about. Again, the Herald reported that William John Wallace and Beverly Carolina Wallace made $1 057 812 over the 20 months to June 1997, from the proceeds of meth sales. That’s over three times the rate at which a high court judge is paid. No wonder our judiciary have an unpleasant attitude towards methamphetamine entrepreneurs. Sales of glass pipes now outstrip cannabis pipes at paraphernalia outlets. Business is booming.

Mr Vile.

But there is a darker side to the trade in methamphetamines. I made the bad mistake of moving into this house in Auckland’s Hillcrest last year. It was full of the most insane speed freaks you could ever want to imagine. The leaseholder, the dumpy, aggressive cousin of a mate of mine, who despite his best efforts hadn’t had a girlfriend for over twenty years suddenly had droves of unusually young and attractive girls interested in him. I noticed that they needed far less sleep than my usual 5 hours a night. Their strange friends would arrive at 3 o’clock in the morning and begin to party. They would talk the most stupid, incomprehensible shit for hours and continue to do so in the most sage-like and righteous manner possible. Fights would break out over strange things like whose turn it was to hold the lighter or for looking at someone. Constant accusations of who was rooting whose girlfriend circulated the 5-bedroom flat, often escalating into violence. A sad, unpleasantly violent atmosphere permeated the house. Everyone wandered around in a daze, zoned out in the ‘P’ world. Back at University, I began to hear stories about my leaseholder from various young girls who had been to the retail mall where he worked until recently. A good friend of mine, Erica, was approached and asked if she wanted some pure speed. Then we found out that her boyfriend’s flatmate’s girlfriend had been offered the same. The last straw was when my mate Becks, being the magnificent women that she is, somehow avoided stage one of proceedings; “show me your titties and I’ll give you some pure speed”, was the greeting she received. Then I heard why this behaviour was going on. This loser had been engaging in sex with as many as six young girls in a week, usually on the floor of his shop or behind his counter. Apparently it only took three or four repeat smokes of the pure to get them more than willing to perform such acts. And there was no shortage of the stuff, given to him at the cut-price rate of 400 dollars a gram by a grateful and thankfully nameless biker who had received a handed down girl already addicted to the substance. These girls are known in the trade as ‘speed moles’ and are flicked around quite casually among the drug fraternity. Finally his girlfriend attacked me because of the phone charger being on her area of the kitchen bench and so I moved out after 7 weeks onto the street and friends’ couches and felt the better for it.

I wasn’t too surprised then to pick up the Listener and read about ‘the house in Hillcrest’ the other month. It was only a matter of time before someone set up a lab there. I’d been told that several neighbours had already visited before I moved in, saying things similar to, “You up late. Lots of young girl, you run brothel…I call police….” I was told that the house was watched when I lived there and there were several false alarms resulting in people diving out of windows, or frantically running around in circles in the lounge trying to hide various things. A quite decent bag of cannabis ended up as dishwash. But later on in the piece, some criminal mastermind decided that the Coronation Rd house was the perfect place to indulge in a bit of organic synthesis. Interestingly, when they got busted, the meth cook was nowhere to be found.

Friends of mine at Auckland, Otago and Victoria University are hooked on methamphetamine so badly that they have abandoned all studies. Most of them are girls and two of them are now going out with speed dealers who have them totally under their control. They believe that life is the best it has ever been, and have lost all academic aspirations. A few others (4) have exhibited strange psychoses including violent episodes and out of character behaviour. Still others have had to fight their habit due to its expensive nature. I’m accustomed to informal market sector denizens but this is quite scary seeing all of these happenings at several universities here in New Zealand.

These are of course examples of the most hideous abuse of what at times can be a most pleasant substance to take. Speed is responsibly used by chefs, by bar staff, by many students at exam times; in short by anyone who needs to stay awake with a smile on their face. There is little harm in regulating one’s intake to one or two occasions per month. What many people fail to realise because of the poor nature of the drug information out there, is that smoking pure or injecting is a whole new ball game and consequently, most drug users here in NZ don’t realise the potential dangers. Los Angeles, Sydney, Wellington…it’s an evolutionary progression, driven by prohibitionist policies and the free market.

The justice of it all

I believe that the blame for all this mess lies squarely at the feet of government. Past experiments with prohibition of alcohol and cannabis have all failed. Humans will continue their various behaviours in the face of the most draconian punishments. The prohibitionist model simply furnishes inmates with information on manufacturing and networking, and provides organised criminals with a means to generate cash. In today’s user pays environment, police resources are stretched and subject to budgetary constraints. Detective Sergeant Mike Beale of the drug squad though takes the ‘old school’ hard line. Beale states, “All drug taking is inherently selfish. People who take drugs know this….” But is this actually a sane analysis of the situation? Policemen doing forensics at university avow that they would much prefer to catch rapists, thieves and murderers. They want the government to legalise all drugs and thus gain control of a market currently dominated by the gangs. Users could register and buy what they need and effective checks and balances could be maintained upon individual drug habits. Both the purity of the product and effective age restriction could then be regulated. The inability to educate people under the current prohibitionist system has resulted in the majority of users failing to treat meth with the same respect that most pot smokers and drinkers afford their drug of choice. The government would be able to produce methamphetamine for a fraction of the cost removing much of the undesirable behaviour that is associated with its use. Admitting these inescapable points and factoring them into effective drug policies are challenges that face all modern societies. Eventually the drug would be no more controversial than alcohol or sugar. With the lure of indulging in illegal activities gone, effective drug education programs would have a chance in the fight against pro-drug popular sub-culture. Interestingly, the hypocrisy behind organised crime is only too obvious with the ‘P’. Gangsters reportedly frown upon their members taking methamphetamine and have banned its consumption yet quite happily profit from sales.

Advice for the innocents

First a warning. Here in New Zealand, it’s still a very underground scene. You won’t find any methamphetamine without a search. This scene is not the cannabis scene. It’s all very undercover and hush-hush because of the stigmatisation of hard drug usage by prohibitionist legislation and the resultant harsh penalties. Many dealers are themselves psychotic and prone to irrational bouts of violence. Do not associate with these people to be cool because in medical reality they are actually crazy. This stuff ranks right up there with heroin and cocaine as far as addictiveness goes. Respect it and it may respect you. Abuse it and you will be abused.

Always plan your drug taking activities in advance. Make sure only your favourite friends are with you and that you are in a familiar place. Currently the price of a gram of pure is about 700 dollars. Users typically purchase points or 0.1 of a gram for the market standard price of one hundred dollars. Obtain your meth from a familiar dealer and only take your dose once you have seen someone else happily under its influence. Meth in its pure hydrochloride salt is colourless. The best resembles broken, colourless glass. Poorly made product will contain impurities. A purple tinge means there is still iodine present, a green tinge means that copper salts from a metallic reaction vessel are still present, and a brown tinge is iodised colouring or tableting agent. To check its purity, vaporise a small amount. If what you have is pure, very little or no residue will remain. Cut it down 5:1 with brewers sugar and snort it. If you must smoke it, then a glass pipe is best but digging out the two lead bits in a clear light bulb and prising the glass out of the metal ferule will furnish you with a usable speed-burning device. Because meth vaporises at a fairly high temperature, a wind proof lighter is preferable. Finely dividing methamphetamine hydrochloride with an equal amount of sodium carbonate to convert it into the free base form is apparently quite cost effective and even more addictive.

Using a needle is a big decision. Many wilful and strong people end up on the streets and in the gutter because of the sheer addictiveness of intravenous use and the associated expense. Speed is no less potent and damaging than heroin. Think carefully before you make that choice. If you think that you may have an addictive personality then try and make do without the needle in your life. If you just can’t say no to the call, then at least be bloody responsible and carefully dispose of needles after each use. Although most I.V. use is anonymous, a fair proportion of the I.V. users I know have had problems in their lives directly attributable to its addictive nature.

Final Bleat

Always remember, while you have control of the drugs they wont be able to control you. Also remember that control is hard to define as a user. Don’t even try. Listen to your friends’ opinions on what may well be your overuse of recreational drugs. It’s notoriously difficult to tell anybody in the grip of the pure anything at all that they don’t want to know, but if you have friends in this situation, tell them anyway. It seems that if one has a predisposition towards any mental ailment, methamphetamine will find it out. If you must use harder drugs then I recommend occasional use of a variety of substances because the chances of addiction are that much lower when a tolerance hasn’t formed. Again, a warning; methamphetamine isn’t the most user-friendly drug out there. If you must use it, do so sparingly. Be careful and keep smiling.

- ENDS

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