Drugs of modernity – crystal methampetamine

Drug use has always been driven by the dynamics of demand that criminalisation has not dampened.

The use of the drug ice in Australia is said to be at “epidemic'' levels. There is nothing new in this claim for both Australia and much of the rest of the world.

Epidemics have accompanied the use and misuse of stimulants since the late-19th century. John Rainford traces that history in the final part of this three-part series.

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The rise in the use of crystal methamphetamine, or ice, shows the self-defeating mechanism of drug prohibition.

Cocaine use became fashionable again in the US in the 1970s when the supply of amphetamines decreased with the introduction of legislative restrictions. Initially it was popular among the middle class rather than the working class labourers it had been associated with earlier in the century, and who had contributed so much to its prohibition.

The market expanded considerably when clandestine chemists worked out how to manufacture crack cocaine in the early 1980s. In its white crystalline powder form, cocaine hydrochloride is a water-soluble salt that can be snorted or injected. Removing the hydrochloride results in cocaine that can be smoked (called freebase). This means it gets to the brain faster; it also has a more intense effect.

Early attempts at freebasing in the late 1970s involved ether, which has the unfortunate tendency to explode at light-up time. A more reliable method — treatment with baking soda that produces small rocks, which emit a cracking noise when smoked — was developed in the early 1980s. Crack cocaine could now be sold in small amounts that the urban proletariat could afford.

In 1986, laws reflecting this class divide were enacted in the US that provided for mandatory minimum custodial sentences for cocaine possession. With crack cocaine — commonly used by African-Americans — a 10-year sentence was triggered for violations that involved 50 grams. With powdered cocaine — whose users were mostly white Americans — the same sentence did not come into effect unless the amount involved was five kilograms.

Before the 1986 laws, the average sentence for federal drug law violations among African-Americans was more than 10% higher than for whites. By 1990 it was closer to 50%. Seven years later, 90% of those convicted for crack cocaine distribution were African-Americans — even though most users were white.

Of the 21% of prisoners incarcerated for drug offences, 90% were African-Americans. This sentencing disparity crossed the gender divide, with African-American women eight times and Hispanic women four times more likely to be incarcerated than white women.

The only effect this punitive regime has on consumption is to either increase it or lead to the consumption of other drugs.

Home-made methamphetamines

The beat poet Allen Ginsburg was living in San Francisco when his first book, Howl and Other Poems, was published in 1956. Injecting liquid amphetamines with heroin was a feature of the beats' drug use that was shared by various groups of African-Americans in the city.

The amphetamines were sourced from two drug company products: Desoxyn and Methedrine. When these two drugs were withdrawn in 1962 and 1963, demand for a powdered form of water soluble speed was sufficiently large to open up a new market in supply that has been evident in one form or another ever since.

Bathtub crank made its debut in San Francisco in late 1962. As the name implies, the first batch of illicit methamphetamine was made in a bathtub, which, appropriately enough for San Francisco, was located in a flower shop.

However, an immediate problem surfaced with the production method — the smell. All those chemicals bubbling away gave rise to a distinct odour that neighbours or passers-by were unlikely miss, and the assault on the olfactory senses was such that it could have easily provoked complaints to the authorities.

The problem was solved by resorting to the methods that Chinese opium smokers had developed after opium was first prohibited in San Francisco in 1875: windows and doors were covered with wet blankets to contain the obnoxious fumes.

Home-made crank, which could be injected or snorted, soon developed a consumer base beyond bohemians and African-Americans, and bikie gangs in California came to control much of the distribution and sale of the drug in the state.

Bikie dominance of the speed market and its association with violence led to a change in both consumption patterns and the consumer base during the 1960s. The beats began to show a preference for major hallucinogens such as LSD, and the minor hallucinogen cannabis. Middle class occasional users moved away from speed and embraced the different drug experience of the legally available Valium.

Injecting and otherwise heavy users of speed became associated with marginalised working-class youth, establishing its reputation as a redneck drug. The aggressive and violent presence of these “speed freaks”, as they were known in San Francisco, shattered the promise of a “summer of love and peace” made by those on a different drug trip in 1967: the hippies.

Prohibition impossible to enforce

It is the chemical composition of drugs like speed that illustrates the impossibility of enforcing their effective prohibition. As the early amateur chemists in San Francisco discovered, speed is not that difficult to make. It is not quite as easy as cultivating cannabis in the backyard, and care needs to be taken in the cooking process. But it is not necessary to have a chemistry degree to interpret the instructions of a basic recipe — available via Google, which provides “how to make crystal methamphetamine step-by-step” instructions. Nor is access to sophisticated industrial capacity required to produce profitable amounts of the drug.

For the past 50 years, the larger producers have dominated the market, as they tend to do with most commodities. But the illicit status of speed, with its concomitant high profitability, justifies the risks associated with production.

This helps explain why a cottage industry of small producers has grown up around the world. They make speed at home, and in premises rented for the purpose, as well as mobile labs.

Since the 1970s, the market for speed has expanded in the rich economies. This is partly because the number of users from among the socially marginalised has grown — together with their overall numbers — and partly as a result of increased consumption by recreational users determined to extract the maximum amount of pleasure from weekend activities without being bothered by the inconvenience of sleep.

Crystal meth or ice

The latest amphetamine epidemic to emerge is centred on the use of a smokeable form of methamphetamine: crystal meth or ice. Initially imported from Asia, it first surfaced as a problem in Hawaii in the late 1980s, following a police operation that eradicated the local cannabis product known as “pakalolo”. By 2003, between 10% and 15% of Hawaii's population were using the drug.

In 2005, homemade ice was fuelling an epidemic among predominantly white users in rural areas of the US, including Iowa, Missouri and Tennessee. The rise in violence and crime associated with ice led to a remarkable result in Arkansas — the racial majority of the prison population changed from African-Americans to whites.

Australia's per capita illicit drug consumption has consistently been among the highest in the world, and ice, which delivers a high that typically lasts for 24 hours, is no exception.

Demand is supplied by both imports and local speed labs. In 1999, 137 speed labs were detected; in 2004 it had risen to 346. In 2011, 703 labs were detected, with Queensland and Western Australia disproportionately represented. The number of undetected labs is probably numbered in the thousands.

Criminalising drug use

Criminalising drug use has its origins in racism and fear. Opium smoking was first prohibited in San Francisco in 1875 and Queensland in 1891 to punish and marginalise Chinese immigrants. The fear of working-class use was an important consideration when the more general use of opium was curtailed in Britain in the 19th century.

Cocaine and heroin use were criminalised in the US largely because the drugs were associated with African-Americans and working-class “deviants”. Criminalising cannabis use in the US was made easy in terms of public acceptance because of its links to Mexicans and African-Americans. The criminalising of amphetamine, LSD and ecstasy use in the second half of the 20th century had more to do with who the consumers were — bikies, radicals and ravers — and why they were consuming — for pleasure.

Drug use has always been driven by the dynamics of demand that criminalisation has not dampened. Since drug controls were first introduced in the 19th century, drug use has increased.

If there were a legal market for recreational drugs where product innovation would be encouraged and preference freely exercised, the likelihood is that consumption of the more dangerous drugs would decrease and that of less dangerous drugs would increase. Less harmful drugs, such as coca wine and opium teas, could make significant inroads into the more harmful cocaine snorting and heroin injecting markets. Cannabis consumed as a drink or a food would be less harmful than smoking. The variety of products available would likely reduce alcohol and tobacco consumption.

In 2001, Portugal made the heroic decision to decriminalise all previously illicit drugs. Fourteen years later, the proportion of the population reporting having used drugs at some time has declined. But don't tell that to the owners of the private prisons where profits are made from incarcerating illicit drug users.

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