Methology - Part III
A Convict's Warning
What I do find appalling is that there are a lot of people in here simply for having big mouths and a lack of common sense. I estimate that only 25 percent of the crimes of manufacturing and conspiracy to manufacture meth were actually directly involved in cooking dope. And, there are literally thousands of us in here. The other 75 percent are fringe tweaker wanna-bes, like a lot of the idiots I'm seeing online, who were stupid or unlucky enough to get snared by the DEA.
Think of this: Tim McVeigh comes online a few months ago and says, "Fuck the feds. They burned up those kids in Waco. Now I want to blow up a federal building. Please E-mail me the formula for a 5,000-pound fertilizer bomb." If you sent him the formula, you would now be his cellmate in El Reno, Oklahoma, facing the death penalty for conspiracy to commit murder.
--an October 1995 message to an America Online "chat room" from an ex-meth cook serving time in a Tucson federal prison
These days, if you can make a batch of peanut brittle, you can make a batch of meth.
All you need, to quote a popular recipe, is a few hundred cold tablets, road flares, iodine, Drano and a bucket of Red Devil lye.
"It's a logistical nightmare to get a substance from a coca leaf in the Andes ridge to the streets of Phoenix," explains meth czar Alex Mahon. "However, Joe Schmo taps into the Internet or goes to a bookstore and finds a recipe, then makes a couple of stops at a Circle K and a hardware store for the ingredients, then cooks himself up an ounce. It's a no-brainer."
Adds longtime DPS drug cop Otis Thrasher: "More and more of these jackasses are learning to cook it. It doesn't take a Rhodes scholar to follow a recipe."
One popular tome, Secrets of Methamphetamine Production, by "Uncle Fester," is available in at least one Valley bookstore. It's in its fourth edition.
Underground manufacture of methamphetamine hasn't always been so easy, or widespread.
Thrasher says the first lab bust in which he was involved, in 1988, happened at the home of an Arizona State University chemistry professor.
"This guy had systematically raided ASU's chemistry department for everything he needed," Thrasher recalls. "He had exotic chemicals, triple neck flasks, you name it. He really knew what he was doing. It's rare to see that anymore."
That's because the process of making meth then was far more complex than it is today. For years, cooking meth centered on a chemical used legally to make perfume and cosmetics. Called P2P for short, the chemical was the key ingredient in the production methods favored by biker gangs--and, incidentally, by the ASU chemist.
You didn't need to be a chemistry professor to cook meth with P2P, but it helped. Compared to the crude methods used by most domestic cooks today, P2P cooks were Einsteins.
But P2P is old school, replaced by a cheaper, faster and far simpler cooking process known as ephedrine reduction.
Minus one oxygen-hydrogen molecule, ephedrine's molecular structure is a carbon copy of methamphetamine's. Put ephedrine through a chemical process that deletes that molecule, and poof--you've got meth.
Police lab tests show the methamphetamine yielded from the ephedrine reduction process as twice as strong as its predecessor. It's also at least twice as toxic, because of the different chemicals used.
Ephedrine reduction meth is harder to detect by smell than P2P, which produces an awful cat-piss stench. Because of that, meth production during the P2P era was concentrated in rural areas.
Now, almost anywhere will do.
"Cheap hotel rooms are popular," says DEA special agent Duncan Lingle, who leads a statewide meth lab task force. "Storage spaces, apartments, houses, trailers, junkyards, farms, shacks, you name it."
DEA, which compiles statewide statistics, reports that 103 meth labs were seized in Arizona during fiscal 1996, and 136 in fiscal 1997, which ended September 30. Since then, Lingle says, 27 more labs have been shut down.
Almost all of them used ephedrine reduction, Lingle says, and two thirds were in urban areas, mostly the Valley.
But the term "meth lab," Lingle cautions, can be deceptive. Most of the setups used by today's meth cooks are as close to scientific laboratories as moonshine stills are to microbreweries.
Lingle estimates that only about 30 percent of the meth labs are run by people who possess even a basic understanding of what they're doing. He puts the vast majority of cooks in the "Beavis and Butt-head" category.
Dozens of meth-recipe variations are available for the looking, but all have two things in common: They contain highly toxic ingredients and their chemical waste byproduct is substantial. Many of the cooks dump that waste wherever they are, which poses a health hazard to those around the labs.
The first generation of ephedrine reduction recipes called for three main chemicals other than ephedrine: hydriodic acid--a dairy disinfectant---highly flammable red phosphorous, and sodium hydroxide, which will dissolve almost anything.
Combining ephedrine with hydriodic acid and red phosphorous removes that molecule that marks the difference between ephedrine and methamphetamine. The introduction of sodium hydroxide to the chemical stew completes its conversion to methamphetamine.
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.
--Ed Cathcart, head of the Maricopa County attorney's narcotics unit
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.
"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."
Barb neared what she considered the point of no return in late 1995. She contacted her mother--a businesswoman based much of the time in Hong Kong--and begged for help. Her mother flew back to the States, and tended to Barb's rehabilitation in the Chicago area.
She says she had a recurring meth-related nightmare after she quit using--a phenomenon common to many recovering addicts:
"There was this meth dealer in a black mask tugging at me from one side, and my mom was tugging at me from the other. I'd wake up before I found out which one got me."
Before she returned to Arizona last year, a friend from Tempe mailed her some meth: "I had one of those decisions to make, didn't I? I called my mom, and she came by and we flushed it down the toilet together. It was like watching a part of my life disappearing, a bad part of my life."
Barb completed her undergraduate degree, and now is attending graduate school at ASU, again focusing on psychology. Meth-free, she says, for almost two years, Barb is still trying to understand why she became a tweaker.
"I'm interested in the mind and what makes it tick," she says. "I don't know why one person becomes a drug fiend and another doesn't, or why one person commits murder and another doesn't. I want to get healthy enough where I don't have to think about my own stuff. I want to be able to help other people with their stuff."
It's not the fuzzy fuchsia pants that give Scotty away, or the spiky blond hair. It's the pacifier. He's sucking on it for the same reason many tweakers chew gum--to keep from grinding his teeth.
"I hate the jaw thing," he says.
A well-publicized survey released in September by the Washington, D.C., think tank Drug Strategies said almost one in five Arizona high school students claim they've tried meth.
Scotty, 17, is one of them.
Standing in the outdoor courtyard at a Phoenix rave--an all-night, all-ages dance party with electronic music and multimedia visual displays--the Scottsdale high school senior twitches in time with a drum machine beat.
Not all ravers are tweakers--but more are now than ever before. The traditional rave drug is MDMA, or Ecstasy, a chemical cousin of methamphetamine that produces a less powerful energy boost but a more powerful sense of euphoria. Ecstasy also produces strong feelings of empathy, and is known as a "love drug," a reputation meth does not share.
Coming down on Ecstasy is cake compared to a meth crash. But Ecstasy is far more expensive than meth ($20-$25 per hit in the Valley), and the high lasts only three or four hours. As a result, in cities where methamphetamine use is epidemic--Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco--more and more ravers who use drugs are converting to meth.
Meth's rapid rise in rave culture has paralleled the rise of faster, darker subgenres of electronic dance music collectively called "hard core." Now, just as meth is rivaling Ecstasy, hard-core is rivaling "old school" rave music, which also is upbeat, but smooth and flowery by comparison.
Tweak has become a dividing force in rave culture: Many nontweaking ravers point to meth as a sign that their Utopian-minded subculture is falling from grace, just as meth dragged down "hippie"-era San Francisco.
Two large raves were held in the Valley on the night New Times first spoke with Scotty. The one in the East Valley was called Recess. Scotty attended Apocalypse, where the headline entertainer was DJ Speedy, out of Vegas.
Scotty pulls out his pacifier to field questions, but frequently repeats the first word of a sentence several times, or abandons a response halfway and starts over. When he's done, he replaces the pacifier and resumes his gnawing.
He says he first tried meth in the fall of 1996, and didn't like it. Scotty snorted three tiny lines with high school friends and went to a party. Instead of having fun, he couldn't stop feeling the inside of his mouth: "I had like this white guck all over my tongue."
The next time was "way better." It started on a Friday night last January or February, when he snorted two lines of what may have been "glass" (an extremely pure, potent form of methamphetamine). Scotty was wired for about 35 hours, most of it pleasantly intense.
"I hung out with friends a lot," he recalls. "I played a lot of Sega, and I skateboarded."
He fell asleep early Sunday morning and awoke five hours later, lightly toasted, but still in one piece. By Monday morning, he says he felt "totally normal."
Since then, Scotty says, he's been tweaking two or three times a month, almost always on weekends. His parents are divorced, and he lives with his father, whom he is certain has no idea he uses meth.
"It's not like being drunk, where you have coordination problems. Just wear tinted glasses, and remember to speak slowly and keep track of the fact that your mind is moving a lot faster than anyone else's, and you won't have any problems."
Tweaking on a school night, Scotty says, is a no-no.
"That feeling you get when the sun's coming up and you haven't slept and you've got things to do that day . . . eggh. That's when you know what a vampire feels like."
Scotty looks up at an imaginary sun, shields his face with his forearms and hisses. Soon, he ducks into a nearby room with his girlfriend, who's also tweaking.
A half-hour later, they return with a newly compiled list of "Top Five Things Tweakers Say":
1. "No, no, dude. I can fix it."
2. "Get the guns--I'm sure I just heard our name on the police scanner."
3. "What time is it?"
4. "Are you sure there's no one out there?"
5. "I can drive. I got four hours of sleep on Wednesday."
Before moving along, Scotty agrees to continue the conversation later.
"I don't really have anything bad to say about speed," he says over the phone the following evening, sounding coherent and articulate.
"I've heard all the horror stories, but I've never gotten paranoid and started seeing things. I've never forgotten to take a shower, and I've never hurt anyone, including myself."
Scotty claims he controls his meth use, never buying more than $20 worth for a weekend: "Rule number one: Don't go buy more once you're out."
When he's high, Scotty likes to play video games, watch movies and attend parties. But his favorite thing on speed is to attend a Phoenix Suns game--he says he always gets good seats.
"I just get so into the strategy. It's like I can see what's going through the coaches' and players' minds . . . and the crowd cheering really gets me going. I feel like I'm out there playing.
"At a Suns game, you don't really have to worry about keeping yourself looking calm to other people. You can yell and jerk around and get excited and it's okay, because it's an NBA basketball game and you're a fan and that's what you're supposed to do. You know--NBA! It's Faaaaantastic!"
Scotty says he's applied "to a lot of good universities on the West Coast," and hopes his good grades will get him there.
Asked when and if he plans to quit using meth, Scotty waxes philosophical:
"Probably I will someday, just like I'll probably stop smoking cigarettes someday. But I only smoke cigarettes on weekends, too. My point is, if you can handle it sometimes, you can handle it. So instead of just saying no, I just say, 'Sometimes.'"
Alex Mahon, "Arizona's first meth czar," says he doesn't care much for his unofficial handle.
"Sounds hokey to me," says Mahon, who has a slew of official titles, including colonel in the Arizona Air National Guard and the director of Arizona's Methamphetamine Control Strategy.
Methamphetamine wasn't even mentioned in the White House's 1994 report on the nation's illegal-drug problems.
But by October 1995, ex-governor J. Fife Symington III appointed Mahon to develop a statewide strategy to try to reverse meth's mushrooming growth.
It's been a daunting mission on all fronts, says the eclectic czar, a straight-talking man in his early 50s whose resume includes stints as an attorney, a jet pilot, a college professor and a DEA agent.
"I'd like to tell you that all the hard work that everyone's doing has indeed turned the corner," Mahon says, "that we're doing this fantastic job. But, right now, we don't actually see objective indications that that's happening."
One of Mahon's frustrations was apparent a few weeks ago, during a trip to Washington, D.C. At a meeting of fellow antidrug warriors, someone pointed out that recent "DOVE reports"--which track arrestees' self-reporting drug use--indicate that meth is on the wane.
"I heard phrases like, 'I think we've turned the corner,' from people who should know better," Mahon says. "What they did is to rely purely on a single, flawed statistic to come up with this rosy assessment."
Mahon suggests another reason:
"The DOVE reports probably have little to do with real-world drug use. The guy who does meth isn't necessarily going to stay dumb. The first time he admits to methamphetamine use, he may not know the consequence of his statement, but the second time he's going to clam up. Nowadays, it's the last thing you want to admit to using because, holy smokes, meth users are being associated with people who cut their kids' heads off."
Equally exasperating is the struggle police face against smalltime meth cooks:
"There's almost a professional disincentive for people to wrestle with an issue that's almost impossible to wrestle with. How can you possibly go into every suspect's home in a community, and try to keep him from cooking ounce quantities of methamphetamine in their kitchen? There's too many holes in the dike."
Mahon answers the question of why there's a meth czar and not, say, a crack czar or an acid czar:
Mahon says his unit's target groups include, in order: youngsters who've never tried methamphetamine; the parents of those youngsters; employers; and, last, people whose meth habits already are well-established.
"The latter group will eventually die," he says, "but you can't, to steal an old Navy term, just push them off the deck. You have to treat them humanely. But I really believe that, except for that segment that's too far gone on drugs, a large number of people will respond at some point."
To that end, the unit--with the pro bono assistance of Valley ad agencies--has started to air public service announcements.
"We're looking at the DHS' [state Health Department] series of anti-tobacco spots as our model," Mahon says. "Some very effective, meaningful, in-your-face stuff."
The advertisements won't be as histrionic as the videos produced recently by the City of Glendale, Tweakers for Teachers and Tweakers: The Grim Realities of Crystal Meth.
"What's everybody looking at?" a male tweaker asks himself as he meanders down a school hallway. "Something stinks. Is that me? Is that me? I'm itching. I'm itching! I'm crashing! Oh, God, let me just die!"
A young female commentator remarks grimly: "The stuff actually shrinks your brain."
She raises a point that hints at the extensive use of meth in the Glendale school district: "Crystal, we all know it's no good. . . . We've all heard of people who've lost it on crystal."
The Reefer Madness air of the videos notwithstanding, it's hard to fault Glendale's effort--at least the city made one. Arizona State University has no methamphetamine education component on campus.
Also, in a drug-use-on-campus survey last October, school officials neglected even to ask students about their experience with methamphetamine.
DEA spokesman Larry Hedberg identifies three local high schools in different parts of town to illustrate the growing methamphetamine use among teens: North Canyon High in north Phoenix, Trevor Browne High in west Phoenix, and Horizon High on the Phoenix-Scottsdale border. (Asked to comment on meth use at their schools, no administrators returned calls by press time.)
"There's a whole generation today that's never heard the 'speed kills' stuff," Hedberg says. "They think meth was invented just for them."
Steve and JoAnne
If she hadn't accidentally broken her glass pipe last night, JoAnne says, she would have smoked herself to death by morning.
It's late morning now, and time to reflect.
After the pipe shattered, JoAnne says, she decided to quit doing meth--again. In a sudden gesture, the 32-year-old threw the rest of her stash in the toilet and flushed.
But, JoAnne says, she changed her mind. She reached into the water, but it was too late.
JoAnne then called her fiance, 34-year-old Steve, and asked him to pick her up before he came here, to rehab, in the morning.
Now, they're sitting in a conference room at New Horizons, a Phoenix outpatient drug-treatment center. Steve says he's been clean for four days, and wants to stay that way. His manner contrasts that of JoAnne, his girlfriend of seven years.
She fidgets with her hands under the table, and looks down when she talks. He clasps his hands on the table, and looks an inquisitor in the eye. JoAnne is spaced out; Steve is focused.
Steve says he and JoAnne both had stayed away from meth for almost three weeks before they'd relapsed the previous Friday.
This is Wednesday.
He says he got high Friday night, then stopped cold. But JoAnne kept going. And going. And going. On Sunday night, she got paranoid, and accused Steve of having an affair with her sister, and kicked him out of their house.
Later, JoAnne physically attacked her sister, and spent a day in jail until her parents posted her bail. As soon as she was released, JoAnne says, she got right back on the pipe.
"I'm having a bad week," JoAnne says, trying to smile. "Sometimes I just get so frustrated. I just want to escape this whole world--this whole flipping, ugly world. I just want to escape my kids, all my responsibilities. Everything."
She falls silent. It's been about seven hours since her last hit.
"I hope to God I can stay off it," JoAnne says, finally, "because I think this is my last chance. I think I'm going to die if I go back."
Then she leaves most of the talking to Steve.
"I started doing meth in 1986," says the stocky construction worker in boots and denim jeans. In the mid-1980s, however, the college graduate toiled as a high-tech electrician.
"The company I worked for started 24-hour service, and I was always on call. I was making good bonuses, but I needed something to keep up with the pace. First it was just caffeine pills--No Doz, Vivarin--but once I started pissing blood from eating too many, I switched to meth. I'm a workaholic. I didn't do meth for fun. I did it so I could work more."
Steve was on meth for about four years, he says. He claims the longest he ever went without lying down to sleep was 90 days. He grabbed catnaps, and often fell asleep on his feet at work, but, mostly, he says, he was just up--smoking at least a half-gram a day.
"That sort of sleep deprivation is a nightmare I wouldn't wish on anyone," Steve says. "I was tearing the drywall out of my house, looking for little cameras. I was crawling around in my attic with a crossbow, because I thought someone was hiding up there."
Steve says he often drove a utility truck during that period, flying high and hallucinating.
"Sign posts turned into beautiful women, cars would disappear and reappear. This was a three-quarter-ton company truck, fully loaded with tools and parts."
Somehow, Steve says, he never had an accident, "Thank the Lord."
In 1990, Steve quit doing meth for three months. He says he stayed in bed for a month, in the worst mood of his life, and lost his job. After he got up and around, he met JoAnne, a meth user with two toddlers.
Soon, Steve was back on the stuff.
"I wanted to get my own [repair] business going," he explains. "I told myself I needed the energy and motivation."
It never got off the ground. Steve kept smoking meth, and before long was back up to half a gram a day. He worked various jobs--laying insulation, door-to-door sales--high all the while.
"When I was at work, I was focused on work. Once I got home, I'd kick on the computer, play games, kind of go into my own world. I liked tearing apart old equipment and rebuilding it--motors, drills, whatever. I'd invent things, build them from scratch. . . . I liked tearing things apart, putting them back together, and just watching them work."
Paranoia and hallucinations didn't trouble him much, Steve insists.
"You just have to learn to tell what's real and what isn't. It becomes a survival skill. Anytime you think the police are about to break in the door, you just go outside and look. Reassure yourself. It's when you start hiding and worrying that you get in trouble. You remind yourself that the shadow people are not real, and wipe them away with your mind."
Steve says he's trained himself to "maintain" as a meth addict.
"Most of the people I know who are crystal-meth addicts are functional. They all have jobs and families, and they take care of their jobs and families. They've attained that level where you can be high all the time, and no one can tell. You can pull it off on meth. You just have to concentrate, and regulate how much you do and when."
The quality of meth in the Valley, Steve says, has dipped badly in the last few years. "The stuff I used to get was really pure. I used to get a lot of stuff that really didn't have a downside. I used to really love lemon drop, but the guy who made it got busted, and that recipe must have died with him."
JoAnne breaks in for the first time in half an hour.
"For me, it doesn't matter how good it is, or how spun I am," she says. "It's never enough. It's never, ever enough."
Steve says he and JoAnne do meth for different reasons.
"I do it to take care of everything, to take care of the kids, and get rid of the dreary sleepiness every morning," says the surrogate father.
"She just zones out. I just smoke it in the morning and go to work, then smoke it again when I come home. But she just smokes and smokes and smokes, and never gets out of her room to do anything."
JoAnne nods her head in agreement.
"I just veg out. I don't move. I just stare at myself in the mirror and pick at my body. I pick whiteheads and blackheads apart. I never get anything done, because I always go back to the pipe. I'll sit there, and I'll pick, and then I'll say, 'Well, okay, in order to get something done, I need to do more meth,' and then I do more, and I just start picking again."
A few minutes later, JoAnne clutches her stomach, stands up and leaves the room. Steve excuses himself, then returns alone a few minutes later. He explains that JoAnne is having kidney problems, and he's got to take her to a doctor.
"I'm worried about her," he says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- FEMA May Deploy Response Team to Navajo Nation Following Mine Spill
Sat., Sep. 12, 6:00pm
Sat., Sep. 12, 8:00pm
Sun., Sep. 13, 1:05pm
Mon., Sep. 14, 6:40pm
- Phoenix Suspect in Garland Attack Demands New Lawyer, Complains About DNA Testing
- As Arpaio's Trial Approaches, More MCSO Shenanigans Pop Out of the Woodwork