By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The feds now restrict the sale of those three chemicals, but some meth cooks make their own, or buy them on the black market. Most smalltime operators substitute a stunning assortment of over-the-counter products to allow them to keep cooking.
A combination of iodine and the swimming pool chemical muriatic acid may be used to replace hydriodic acid. Drano and Red Devil lye take the place of sodium hydroxide. Red phosphorous can be obtained from grinding road flares, or by scraping the strike pads off matchbook covers.
Oddly, the hardest ingredient for American ephedrine reduction cooks to come by is ephedrine itself. To the contrary, Mexican cartels are able to buy bulk ephedrine with ease, since their government doesn't restrict the chemical's importation.
As a result, the common cold has become the greatest ally of local meth cooks.
Most over-the-counter cold products contain ephedrine or its clone, pseudoephedrine. When a label says, "Won't make you drowsy," it means, "Legal speedball inside."
Otis Thrasher says meth labs are proliferating in Arizona, but cautions to keep the numbers in perspective:
"The [anti-meth] diversion effort just got to the point where you can't buy bulk ephedrine . . . so you end up with the situation we have now--a bunch of guys cooking with coffee pots and Mason jars, using cold tablets and drain cleaner. And these guys are 'meth chemists,' and that little hot plate in their kitchen, well, that's a quote-unquote 'meth lab.'"
"It's certainly not the guys you see getting busted on TV who are putting most of the meth on the streets. It's the Mexican families, and most of their labs are in Mexico."
People seem to be more afraid of using a needle than they are of eating Drano. Okay, so they may not know it's Drano--it's still got to feel like death itself going down. Meth users are hard to figure.
Barb was a hit at Arizona State University when she started classes there in 1993. Blessed with a sweet personality and great smile, the Illinois native from a well-to-do background had a knack for making those around her feel good.
Barb was an alluring blend: She was shy, but also liked to be around people. And had the body and face to win a spot on a college swimsuit calendar.
She majored in psychology as an undergraduate, but hadn't decided on a career when she took a detour into serious methamphetamine abuse.
"I was, quote, a good girl," she says, flashing a nervous smile. "Then I started not being so good anymore."
A girlfriend turned Barb on to cocaine, then to methamphetamine. She was quickly hooked on meth, and went on a months-long binge she calls "the time I was lost."
"I thought I was on top of the world, but I wasn't, to put it mildly," she says. "The good part of meth was fun at times. But there's a lot of stuff that comes along with doing meth, and that's the stuff hard to shake. I felt powerful when I first got on it. Then I started getting dumb."
Now in her mid-20s, Barb is trying to collect the pieces of a life she nearly lost.
"There's so much I can't remember anymore that it's weird. Someone will tell me something I did, and it doesn't sound at all like something I'd do."
But Barb remembers enough:
She recalls fiending for meth so hard that she and a girlfriend would park outside porn shops in a red convertible, hoping guys would offer them tweak.
She recalls earning money to buy meth by winning bikini contests at a Tempe bar--high every time she took the stage.
She recalls faking illness during a family vacation to Colorado, so she could get back to Tempe--and to her meth dealer.
She recalls being rushed to an emergency room during a crash cycle, after lying by a pool for hours thinking someone had glued her hands together.
She recalls obsessively organizing her clothes by color for hours on end, then reorganizing them.
"I'd be doing something for three hours and think it was 10 minutes," Barb says. "I talked to a curtain one time for the longest time--a curtain!"
She worked as a receptionist at a local health spa in 1995, but says she wasn't overly friendly.
"What I'd be thinking about was getting back to the woman's room and getting that floor cleaner. I'd scrub the tiles, between the tiles, over and over, because I thought they needed to be cleaner. Being cleeeeeeeean was very important to me."
She also was a compulsive exerciser. Someone practically pulled her off a running machine at the spa once after she lost herself on it for more than an hour at top speed.
Barb says she got so skinny during her tweaking days that a friend lifted her in the air by her pelvic bones.
"Eventually, I wanted to be by myself," she says. "I'd stay in my apartment for days, thinking about nothing but how pathetic my life was, and how I needed to get higher at that very moment."