Methology - Part II

Meth Roots
Methamphetamine is an all-American drug. It should come as no surprise that many embrace a high that can make running errands feel like the quest for the golden fleece.

As early as the 1830s, the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: "It is odd to watch, with what feverish ardor the Americans pursue prosperity and how they are ever tormented by the shadowy suspicion that they may not have taken the shortest route to get it."

Those shortcuts often have been expedited through chemicals. In 1885, the pharmaceutical firm of Parke, Davis and Company pitched its new product, cocaine:

"A drug, through its stimulant properties, can supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent, free the victims of the alcohol and opium habits from their bondage, and, as an anesthetic, render the sufferer insensitive to pain . . ."

Amphetamine was created two years after that, in 1887, but it didn't become popular until almost a half-century later. In 1932, another pharmaceutical company marketed amphetamine under the name Benzedrine, as an inhaler for asthmatics and cold sufferers. Soon, doctors began to prescribe amphetamine for depression.

Benzedrine caught on, and became a widely used--and sometimes abused--drug. A 1937 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association detailed a study at the University of Minnesota that had taken on a life of its own:

"Benzedrine tablets were used at the Department of Psychology to study effects on human thought. It was found that the substance increased alertness. . . . Apparently, the effectiveness of the drug in delaying the onset of sleep has induced many students to seek the drug in local pharmacies."

Methamphetamine's progenitor is ephedrine, commonly found in the Chinese herb mahuang. Physicians documented its stimulant properties more than 5,100 years ago.

The Japanese first synthesized the drug in 1919. It's easier to manufacture than amphetamine, and more potent.

According to several biographers, Adolf Hitler was a major-league tweaker, taking regular injections of meth. So was John F. Kennedy, if Seymour Hersh's new book is accurate. Hersh claims that Kennedy received regular meth injections during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

No great stigma attached itself in the 1950s to the use of speed in the States, and many doctors prescribed it upon request. Three types of speed were available by prescription--Benzedrine, a stronger form sold as Dexedrine, and the strongest, Methedrine.

Speed attracted athletes, bored housewives, The Wild One-era motorcycle gangs and truckers, among others. Beat Era poets and jazz musicians wove the drug into their subculture.

Allen Ginsberg said he wrote his classic poem "Kaddish" on a three-day speed jag. Jazz great Charlie "Bird" Parker habitually dipped an amphetamine-soaked cotton strip from a Benzedrine inhaler into his coffee.

Dealers illegally sold speed on the streets, but clandestine labs didn't exist in the 1950s, as there was no need for them. Federal Drug Administration reports indicate that, in 1962, eight billion--yes, billion--amphetamine tablets were sold in the U.S.

Drug police in the mid-1960s tried to restrict public access to speed with federal laws against rampant manufacturing and prescription of the drug.

As the demand began to outstrip supply, underground methamphetamine "labs" were born. Easier to synthesize and far stronger than straight amphetamine, meth was an obvious route for underground drug chemists. They guarded their recipes like those of gourmet cooks, far from the slipshod manner in which many of today's ersatz "cooks" operate.

The first U.S. meth lab busted was in Santa Cruz, California, in 1967, during the so-called "Summer of Love" in nearby San Francisco.

By then, however, speed had supplanted psychedelics as top dog in the trend-setting Haight district. That meant the streets of San Francisco were far meaner than most outsiders reckoned.

But the "speed kills" public-relations campaigns of the late 1960s and beyond was a rousing success. Speed fell out of mainstream favor in the 1970s and into the 1980s, replaced mostly by cocaine.

Speed did retain its blue-collar, white, mostly rural core constituency. Often called "crank"--bikers and truckers were said to conceal bags of dope in their vehicles' crankcases--methamphetamine for years was produced and controlled nationally by outlaw motorcycle gangs.

But as meth started its comeback this decade, the Mexican drug gangs jumped headlong into the game. Law enforcement sources differ on whether the Mexicans fueled the resurgence, or whether they responded to a burgeoning demand.

The old biker labs were capable only of producing relatively small quantities of meth--like most homegrown labs today. But the Mexican superlabs that dominate today's meth market have everything going their way:

* Access to key chemicals needed to make potent methamphetamine in bulk.
* A labor force willing to do perilous grunt work in Mexico and the States--the production, smuggling and distribution of the drug.