By Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Ask David Simpson where crystal meth came from and he quickly answers, “Straight from hell.”
Simpson, of Tupelo, spent years as what he calls a slave to crystal meth and the lifestyle that came with being a “meth head.”
“I was strung out bad,” said Simpson, who says he no longer uses the drug. “It’s a powerful thing. Drugs, in my opinion, are the most powerful things on earth when it comes to controlling a person’s life, and meth to me is definitely the worst.”
Many people think the crystal meth epidemic is fairly new compared to long-standing drug problems like cocaine and crack, but it’s quite the contrary.
If drugs were classified on a family tree, methamphetamines and amphetamines would be the great-uncles and great-great-uncles of the drug family.
The drug’s history dates back to the late 1800s when a German chemist synthesized the first batch of amphetamines. It was developed from the ephedra plant and was used as a decongestant early on, according to Dr. Glen Hanson, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Utah.
It wasn’t until 1919 that methamphetamines were created in Japan. During World War II, meth was given to Japanese and German soldiers, especially fighter pilots and tank operators, as a way to reduce fatigue and suppress appetites, according to Addictionsearch.com.
They were referred to as “work pills.” It wasn’t long after the war that the drug was being used for other legal and illegal purposes.
Early on, methamphetamine was produced in pill form and was used as a weight-loss drug, as well as a drug that helped with narcolepsy.
Sterling Braswell is author of “American Meth: A History of Methamphetamines” and “Crazy Town: Money, Marriage and Meth.” A computer consultant by profession, Braswell became interested in the drug after his ex-wife got addicted to it and became a major meth manufacturer in Texas. She eventually spent time in prison on meth-related charges. He said meth’s long and tattered path to infamy started with fairly good intentions.
“You had methamphetamines being used as a dietary supplement in the 1960s and ’70s,” said Braswell. “You had housewives using it and getting addicted to it. In small dosages it had great medicinal uses but when it began to be misused as a recreational drug is when the problems with meth began.”
Dr. David Smith has been practicing medicine in California since the ’60s and founded the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics in 1965. He said he’s been studying methamphetamines and amphetamines for 45 years and is one of the nation’s experts on the drug and its effects on the human brain.
When he started his research, Smith said a lot of the people he saw with meth dependencies were people who used diet pills.
“The pills were marketed as safe diet pills, so you had a lot of people using them,” said Smith. “They soon became addicted, but they weren’t the group that were addicted to the high dosages of meth.”
Smith said the hippie group began using meth shortly after, which formed a new group of addicts.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, truck drivers started using the drug as a way to stay awake and biker gangs like the Hell’s Angels began transporting and selling it, according to Smith. But because of the passage of the 1974 Drug Control Act, the medicinal usage of all amphetamines was drastically limited, virtually eliminating its large-scale use.
Because California was the main headquarters of the Hell’s Angels and other biker gangs dealing meth, the problem was mainly isolated to cites like San Francisco and San Diego.
Becoming an epidemic
It wasn’t until the drug hit the southwestern states in the 1990s that it was considered a real problem.
“It really got a lot of nationwide attention when the South started seeing meth,” said Smith. “Meth had been on the West Coast for many years before places like Mississippi started seeing it. It was really taking over in rural areas because of the seclusion and the fact that many of the precursors to make the drug were already on the farm.”
It wasn’t long before the manufacturing of meth became a household affair. Because it was easy to make and all of its ingredients could be found in any grocery store, Hanson said meth cookers went from organized biker gangs and Mexican drug cartels to everyday people.
“The chemistry behind making meth was not rocket science,” said Hanson. “In fact, it is very simple and very cheap to make and that’s why its popularity grew so fast among home meth cooks. Before the laws changed, restricting decongestants like pseudoephedrine, a person could go and buy a whole bunch of the stuff and sit at home and cook it up.”
Hanson said about $80 in over-the-counter products can produce about $1,000 worth of meth. By the mid-1990s homegrown meth labs began to explode in popularity.
When drugs like crack cocaine and powdered cocaine became too expensive for many in the late 1990s, users turned to meth. Simpson said the accessibility of the ingredients and the ease of manufacturing meth are what drew him to the drug.
“I was introduced to meth from a friend of mine who had been using for a while,” said Simpson. “He was cooking up some and I was broke and in need of some kind of fix, so he let me try it and that was it. I was hooked. I used and cooked meth for years. I was arrested several times, but it really didn’t matter because as soon I got out I was back to using. The laws have changed and so has the way people cook meth.”
In 1986, Gene Haislip of the Drug Enforcement Administration proposed legislation requiring companies creating 14 kinds of chemicals used in making the illegal drug to keep sales and import records. These chemicals included ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. The bill also affected sellers of nonprescription asthma and diet pills containing ephedrine and cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine.
Laws steadily progressed over the years, causing the way meth was manufactured to evolve. Labs became smaller after laws were passed limiting the amount of pseudoephedrine a person could purchase. Instead of the larger super labs used to produce mass quantities of meth, smaller, more intimate labs were formed. The smaller labs were more mobile and could be found in the trunks or back seats of cars or other places where it could be picked up and moved quickly.
Now with all the restrictions on products used to make meth, police say the Mexican drug cartels are producing it even more and having it shipped to the U.S.
Further restrictions on purchasing the products caused users to go to a primitive form of meth manufacturing called shake-and-bake, according to Braswell. This method allows people to be able to make small dosages of the drug by simply placing the ingredients in a bottle and just shaking them up. Now a public restroom can be used as a meth lab.
To date, Mississippi and Oregon are the only states that have made pseudoephedrine available only by prescription, which has slowed the production of meth dramatically over the past few months.
Smith said even though reducing resources will never totally end meth, it has done a great job in limiting or decreasing the general exposure of the drug.
“Laws like making the pseudoephedrine available only by prescription has really helped to slow the problem and we support those efforts fully,” said Smith. “It’s going to take things like drug courts to help deal with the people who have the problems.
“As for the large Mexican cartels that are producing the drugs at massive quantities, the only answer is for law enforcement to handle them as strictly as possible.”
Contact Danza Johnson at (662) 678-1583 or firstname.lastname@example.org.