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A-Z of Drugs


M is for Meth

Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson

M is for Methamphetamine, or Crystal Meth

One of the most successful and critically acclaimed TV series ever shown followed the transformation of a mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher (Walter White) into a drug kingpin as he cooks more and more of his signature blue-tinted Methamphetamine. The series finished in 2013 but re-runs, spin-off series (‘Better call Saul’) and films still continue.

Many imagine the drug is a recent phenomenon, but its history goes back to the late 19th century when a Japanese scientist first isolated the chemical Ephedra from a common shrub that had been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. When a German pharmaceutical company later combined it with red phosphorus and iodine the new substance of Methamphetamine (Meth) was created. It had strong stimulant properties were noted and in time it became trade-marked as Pervitin.

Military forces soon took notice and as the second world war unfolded both Japanese and German troops were being issued with Meth in various guises to boost their morale and ability to stay alert. German tank crews were especially targeted consuming Panzerschokolade  or ("Tank-Chocolates") where the Meth was infused into the sweet chocolate. Use by the German military was suspended in the spring of 1941 due to the unpredictable nature of the side effects and an unknown number of deaths. Use among factory workers continued during the war and well into the 1950’s.

As commercial marketing of the drug began to fall away a newer injectable form of the drug appeared during the 1960’s. In those days it was often seen as a drug that was within the control of American motorcycle gangs, usually connected to Mexican drug trafficking organisations who had set up ‘superlabs’ in California. It was against this this backdrop that Vince Gilligan the creator of ‘Breaking bad’ found the inspiration and canvas on which to weave his stories.

Substantial demand for the drug in the United States first really took off amongst workers in large-scale American meat factories. They felt that they needed something to withstand the dangerous and physically demanding work. A typical ‘kill line’ in an industrial abattoir can process up to 140 chickens per minute. In time Meth (as it commonly became known) was viewed as the No.1 drug problem across large parts of the Southern and Western States. As the use of the drug spread into other areas of society producers began to develop a variety of production methods.

Walter White in his mobile meth lab (a Fleetwood Bounder motorhome, or RV as Americans call them) produces meth using ‘old school’ methods. His commitment to chemical method led in the programme to the creation of his own blue-tinted brand of Meth. The producers purposely hid some of the key details of the process to try an prevent others imitating his efforts.

Most small-scale producers actually use a simplified method where all the ingredients are ‘cooked’ together in one pot. The key ingredient is Ephedrine or Pseudoephedrine which can usually be obtained from certain cold-flu remedies. US states brought in strict controls on the purchase of these products to try and curb the practice of ‘smurfing’ (named after little Belgian cartoon characters) whereby small amounts were bought or stolen from many different pharmacies prior to their use in the production process.

The ‘Papa Smurfs’ (or Meth cooks) could then add the other ingredients that could be easily bought from most hardware stores. These other ingredients would commonly include ammonium nitrate, sulphuric acid, lithium (from batteries), automotive starting fluid, ether, butane and drain cleaner. This ‘shake ‘n’ bake’ method may have simplified the process but it has also lead to dozens of flash fires and several fatalities when the unstable ingredients were mixed together.

Walter White, as a highly experienced chemist, produced batches that removed nearly all of the impurities and thus gained reputation as a premium product producer. Although his product was purely fictional it didn’t stop real-life producers jumping on the bandwagon. Meth cooks tried to reproduce the look and colour of Walter’s best in order to drive sales and profits. Usually it consists of nothing more that their regular product with added food colouring.

Whether in the real world or Walter’s world the effects of Meth use are often profound. Perhaps the most well known of these side-effects is ‘Meth-mouth’. Meth use dries the salivary glands of the user, allowing cavities to take over. This and the effect of premature aging has led to several hard-hitting anti-drug campaigns, often featuring ‘before and after’ photo shots of individuals. The existence of Meth-mouth has however been doubted by some dentists who believe that it due to most Meth users poor levels of oral hygiene.

Other long-term effects of Meth use include permanent damage to the blood vessels of the heart and brain leading to heart attacks, strokes and death. Other major organs such as the lungs, liver and kidneys can also be strongly affected. As regards mental health Meth use has been strongly linked with psychosis, depression, psychological dependence and Alzheimer’s-like symptoms. The drug causes thousands of overdose deaths every year. In some US states it leads to more hospitalisations and deaths than opioids.

Although a fictional drama series rather than a documentary, Breaking Bad did face some criticism for a seemingly glamorisation of both Meth production and use. It’s difficult to make a call on that one but we can be clear that Walt’s obsession with the purity of his product is somewhat misplaced. The market for high-end Meth does exist and is mainly centered around its use as a Chemsex product for men who have sex with men (MSM). It’s ability to create extreme sexual urges fits with the particular sub-culture of male-only sex parties. Most Meth production is aimed at servicing much poorer communities, especially the impoverished backwaters of rural America. Most Meth production is also “stepped on” or heavily diluted. It comes down to a question of economics. Meth is a classic textbook example of inelastic demand. It was perhaps more colourfully put by the character Stringer Bell in another drug-based American TV series ‘The Wire’. As he explains to a Baltimore police officer: 'When it’s good, they buy. When it’s bad, they buy twice as much. The worse we do, the more money we make."

Rather oddly the Meth used in ‘Breaking Bad’, a prop of course, can easily be created by anyone. If you possess a sweet tooth then you might however want to be somewhat wary of this highly potent mix of light corn syrup, granulated sugar and food colouring. Somewhat ironically it was said that the cast and crew of Breaking Bad munched incessantly on the stuff between takes.

This article was written by Neil Wilson, Education support Worker with the WRDATF.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

L is for LSD
N is for New Psychoactive Substances (NPS)