Amphetamines, particularly methamphetamine hydrochloride, have become increasingly popular around the world in recent years and are currently among the world’s most widely abused drugs. By some estimates there are 30 million amphetamines users worldwide, compared to 13 million for cocaine and 8 million users of heroin. And, while cocaine and heroin use have declined, amphetamine use has increased.

Amphetamines effects, which can last from 2 to 14 hours, include appetite suppression, euphoria, sexual arousal, dry mouth, tremors, and insomnia. People who take them feel alert, energetic and talkative. When they come down they often are agitated and irritable.

Methamphetamine is a powerful amphetamine. The drug is known as shabu-shabu , kakuseizai or hirropon in Japan and Asia and "speed," "crystal," or "crank" in the United States. "Ice" is a free-base form of the drug that can be smoked.

Websites and Resources: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ; Vaults of Erowid ; United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ; Wikipedia article on illegal drug trade Wikipedia ; Frank’s A-to-Z on Drugs ; ; Council of Foreign Relations Forgotten Drug War article ; Illegal Drugs, country by country listing, CIA

Books: Buzzed by Cynthia Kuhn Ph.D. Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., Wilkie Wilson Ph.D. of the Duke University Medical Center (Norton, 2003); Consuming Habits: Drugs in Anthropology and History by Goodman, Sharratt and Lovejoy; Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times and Places by Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter (Cambridge University Press).

Amphetamine Use

Methamphetamine can be smoked, inhaled, swallowed or injected. If injected or smoked it can produce an intense, euphoric rush, sometimes described as orgasmic. Users can be high for 12 to 24 hours at a time, and often feel they can handle anything and go long periods without sleep.

Amphetamines can be taken at work or for fun. Those that take them at work do so to stay awake or to make boring jobs more tolerable. They are also popular with students cramming for exams; truck drivers who spend long periods of time on the road; and are sometimes prescribed by doctors for obesity treatment and attention-deficient disorder. Some say they lowers sexual inhibitions.

Methamphetamines sell for about $75 to $100 a gram and the high usually lasts for about eight hours (compared to 10 minutes a for a crack hit). The high can be intense and exhilarating but it can also disrupt the brain’s production of dopamine. The amount of energy it gives users can be astonishing, Users sometimes go two weeks without sleeping. There are instances of users who have been shot several times by police yet continued advancing towards police.

In Asia, it has become increasingly popular to smoke methamphetamines sold in pill, powder or crystalline form. Describing what that is like, former heavy user Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote in Time, “I inhaled the smoke from smoothed-out tinfoil sheets folded in two, holding a lighter beneath the foil so that the shards of shabu liquified, turning a thick, pungent, milky vapor. The smoke tasted like a mixture of turpentine and model glue: to this day I can’t smell paint thinner without thinking of smoking speed.”

History of Amphetamines

Natural stimulants such as coca, caffeine and betel had been used for centuries. In 1892, Japanese scientists extracted ephedrine from mahuang, a Chinese drug long used as a pick-me-up and treatment for asthma and other breathing problems. In the 1920s, K.K. Chen of the Eli Lilly company identified the chemical composition of ephedrine. Ephedrine is difficult to extract and make. Scientists trying to make it in the laboratory invented amphetamines instead.

Amphetamines in the form of Benzedrine were initially prescribed as decongestants but were also used as appetite suppressants. Users found that the drug also produced a pleasant, stimulating effect and kept them awake. Scientists in Germany developed several kinds of amphetamines intended to help Nazi soldier fight longer. Amphetamines were issued to Japanese and British soldiers in World War II to keep them awake and alert when there were on missions or pulling night duty. The drugs continue to be used by soldiers today. Some of the friendly fire mistakes made by American pilots in Afghanistan were blamed on amphetamine use.

After World War II, there were huge stockpiles of amphetamines left over in Japan, and many of the drugs found their way onto Japanese streets. There was widespread abuses. Some abusers developed a form of madness called “amphetamine psychosis.” In the 1960s, portent speed could be purchased over the counter at Japanese pharmacies.

In the 1950s and 60s American housewives took amphetamines to lose weight. In the 1960s, hippies used it and called it speed. In Britain it was associated with youth movements, particularly with mods, who liked to mix amphetamines with barbiturates known as Purple Hearts.

A second wave of speed use occurred in 1980s when an inhaled form or methamphetamine called crank became poplar and a third wave occurred in the late 1990s when a smokable form (ice) caught the attention of drug users. In the United States, the drug was often manufactured and distributed by motorcycle gangs such as Hells Angels.

How Amphetamines Work

Methamphetamine structural formulae
Unlike opiates which work mainly by stimulating pleasure-producing receptors, cocaine and amphetamines work by blocking receptors that tell the body to stop producing pleasure compounds and neurotransmitters like dopamine and adrenaline and the help them remains in the bloodstream to bring pleasure.

Amphetamines force dopamine out of vesicles, little sacs used by neurons to store dopamine. This increases the amount of dopamine in the blood makes it harder for the body to break it down, prolonging its effect.

Describing the affects of amphetamines, former heavy user Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote in Time, “When the brain is awash in dopamine, the whole cardiovascular system goes into sympathetic overdrive, increasing your heart rate, pulse, even your respiration. You become, after your first hit of speed, gloriously, brilliantly, vigorously awake. Your horizon of aspirations expands outward, just as your mind eye for capacity for taking effective action to your new, optimistic goals has also grown exponentially. Then, eventually, maybe in an hour, maybe in a day, maybe in a year, you run out of speed, and you crash.”

Amphetamines and Health

Acute deaths caused solely by long tem amphetamines use are very rare. Death is more likely to occur from the effects of a single dose. Lethal doses can cause seizures but more often they cause lethal cardiac effects and/or hypothermia.

People who do a lot of speed sometimes stay up for four or five days straight; have open sores on their arms and hallucinations of transparent spiders; and are very thin. When they are high the often fidget uncontrollably; scratch themselves a lot; and do repetitive tasks over and over.

Amphetamines increase blood pressure and heart rate, constrict blood vessels, dilate breathing tubes and increase body temperature. They can strain the heart, cause irregular heartbeats and are particularly dangerous when used by people who are exercising. Several professional cyclist have died by pushing themselves too hard while on amphetamines.

Long-term amphetamine use can cause paranoia, psychosis, bursts of violence, numbness in the arms and legs, breathing problems, kidney problems, depression, memory loss and damage to the heart, brain, lungs and liver. Injecting amphetamines has a strong impact on the nerves. Excessive use can lead to large ulcers, which d not heal and result in high fatalities.

Amphetamine Users

About 12 million Americans are estimated to have tried methamphetamines, also known as Ice, Tina and Nazi Crank (so called because Hitler was rumored to have injected it every day). It also is a major problem in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Thailand.

Before and after photographs of methamphetamine users can be quite striking. There are ones that show attractive young women turned into sour-faced hags in a couple of years. Years of hard core use speed up the aging process, turn the skin scabby, cause ths skin to recess, producing skeletal features, and rot the gums in what users call “meth mouth.” Many users constantly scratch themselves as toxins in their bodies seep through their skin.

One 36-year-old former methamphetamine user from Missouri told the Times of London that she first tried it when offered it by a female friend and became instantly hooked, “I felt good about me.” But it wasn’t long before the unpleasant side effects set in. “I was once awake for 16 days. I was in a zombied state doing things by instinct. There is a lot of sweating. I lost 60 pounds (27 kilograms) in a month, going from a size 14 to a 5. My eyes were sunk...I was skeletal. There was a time I picked myself so badly I looked like I had crusted mosquito bites all over my body. The stuff is trying to get outside of you. It’s toxic: it’s like drinking half a pint of battery acid.”

Brains of Amphetamine Users

20120528-methamphetamine brain.jpg
methamphetamine brain
In a study published the Journal of Neuroscience, M.R.I. scans of the brains methamphetamine addicts who had abused the drug for more than a decade revealed that 8 to 11 percent of the crucial cells in their brain “were dead and gone.” The areas o the brain that suffered the greatest loss were ones associated with emotion and rewards (the limbic system) and memory (the hippocampus). The leader of the study, UCLA’s Dr. Paul Thompson, told the New York Times, the brains were “a forest fire of brain damage...We expected some brain changes but we didn’t expect so much tissue to be destroyed.”

Psychological tests taken by methamphetamine addicts revealed that the addicts were depressed, anxious, unable to concentrate and scored much worse than control subjects of the same age on memory tests. The addicts used an average of four grams of the drug a week and had been high at least 19 of the 30 days before the study began.

In a study on how drugs affect the mind certain illegal drugs were injected into spiders to see how their webs would turn out. When spiders was given "speed" their webs were tangled and irregular.

Amphetamine Addiction

Meth lab in the U.S.
Amphetamines are regarded as psychologically addictive not physically addictive like heroin. Percent of users who are dependent: 12 percent (compared to more than 80 percent for nicotine). Addicts take about four weeks to detox and often need anti-psychotic drugs.

Heroin, cocaine, amphetamines, alcohol and nicotine are regarded as the five drugs hardest to give up. As of the late 2000s, 22 million Americans were hooked on at least one of these substances.

Methamphetamines have been called the most addictive drug known. Jason Ashwood, head of the ACPO methamphetamine working group told the Times of London, “Not every meth user becomes addicted, but compared with cocaine, crack and heroin, meth is also associated with higher levels of addiction, antisocial behavior and crime rates. The addict’s brain were also 10 percent larger than normal as a result of the inflamation of nerve fibers connected to different parts of the brain.

The 36-year-old former methamphetamine user from Missouri told the Times of London, “The depression I have been through [since quitting] is quite unbelievable. It’s a horrible drug, but there are some times I wish I could do it. I loved the feeling. I’ve put on weight since I quit. I say there are three sides to me: before crystal meth, during it and after it. It ruined everything. It takes about a week to get it out of your system, but mentally it stays with you forever.”

Amphetamine Production

Meth lab in Jakarta
According to the United Nations annual report on drugs, issued in June 2009, global production of stimulants---namely methamphetamines and ecstasy---rose in 2008. “What was once a cottage industry has become big business,” the report noted, particularly in Southeast Asia, where there are industrial-size laboratories.

While opium and heroin production are poverty based, amphetamine production is based solely on greed and therefore is regarded as more difficult to control. Unlike heroin, cannabis and cocaine, which all originate from field plants, amphetamine and ecstasy production can not be monitored by satellites because it takes place in garages, shacks and small factories that can not be easily identified.

A smell like cat urine or burnt rubber and discarded boxes of Sudafed are all signs of a crystal meth factory. The manufacturing process is so toxic and smelly the factories are often set up in remote rural areas to avoid being discovered. The ingredients are explosive and fumes from the process are poisonous. Many methamphetamine makers have died in explosion or by being poisoned.

Making Amphetamines

Amphetamines are easy to make. Anyone with some basic knowledge of chemistry and some relatively easy-to-obtain starter chemicals can brew them up in their kitchen All one needs to do is combine ephedrine, a common over-the-counter cold medication like Sudafed, with common chemicals like iodine, rock slat, battery acid, camping fuel and drain cleaner. Recipes are available on the Internet. Many of ingredients to make it can be purchased at drug stores, super markets or hardware stores.

Making methamphetamine from ephedrine via chloroephedrine

Making methamphetamine can be very dangerous. Explosion resulting from carelessly cooked ingredients can blow a house to smithereens. Every year there a couple hundred such explosions in the United States, resulting in a handful of the deaths, including children of mom and pop meth producers. One explosion from a makeshift lab set up in a hotel room caused the destruction of the entire hotel.

Efforts to combat the manufacturing of the drug in the United States have focused on making it difficult to purchase large quantities of ephedrine-based cold medicines in drug stores and supermarkets. Some people want to make over-the-counter decongestants with pseudoephedrine and ephedrine---which can be used to make methamphetamines--- prescription drugs. In many states in the United States Sudafed and similar product are stored behind pharmacy counters.

Image Source: DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration); Wikimedia Commons

ammonia tank, Otley. Iowa

Text Sources: Buzzed, the Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy by Cynthia Kuhn, Ph.D., Scott Swartzwelder Ph.D., Wilkie Wilson Ph.D., Duke University Medical Center (W.W. Norton, New York, 2003); National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wikipedia, The Independent, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2011

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