By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It seems to be driving it ever eastward, out of Southern and Central California, in diminishing intensity. If you look at the DEA’s map of labs seized per state in 1998, 1,784 were in California. Mississippi Valley states like Iowa and Arkansas had 339 and 445, respectively. But meth seems to be only just arriving on the eastern seaboard, with only nine labs found in Pennsylvania, and only two in New York state. a
Early on in working on a television documentary about meth, my colleagues and I spend the afternoon with a 19-year-old methamphetamine addict from the South Bay named Amber. We meet her for lunch, at Fred Segal in Santa Monica. Amber tells us that she wants to be a model. She has the look, but her skin is pallid. ”Recently, a little boy saw me without my makeup,“ Amber tells us. ”He said that I look like I‘m dead.“ Initially, Amber seems okay -- though, as we find out, that’s because she‘s just shot up in Segal’s restroom. Then, in the reverse way of meth, as the drug wears off after a few hours, Amber begins acting stoned, her speech slurring. She tells us that she can‘t remember when she last slept. Two nights ago? Three? After a while, to keep from passing out, she has to shoot up again, and so ducks into the restroom of a franchise coffee shop in the Beverly Hills area. Because of my Y-chromosomes, I wait nervously outside, but my female colleagues go in with her to observe. When they come out, they look shaken, but Amber looks fine. I hand her the chai latte that she ordered before going in. She sips it calmly before taking her leave of us to drift back out into the world of L.A. on no sleep.
The stimulant methamphetamine is the artificially synthesized version of the human body’s natural adrenal hormone, epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline. In the short term, it makes you, not high, strictly speaking, but more: more capable, more powerful, more attractive, more clever, more sexy, more smart, more efficient, more happy. It boosts you into the euphoria of superlatives. And initially, it can be tough to see what‘s wrong with that.
”It feels like jumping out of an airplane for 12 straight hours,“ one meth fan tells me, which doesn’t make it seem appealing, but I can sense his enthusiasm.
About a hundred years ago, methamphetamine was first produced from a weaker stimulant called ephedrine. Ephedrine is the active ingredient in an herb called mahuang, which had been known for centuries in China, in much the same way that coca leaves and opium poppies were known long before late-19th-century pharmacologists were able to process their active ingredients into cocaine and heroin, the world‘s other two hard drugs. With cocaine and heroin, society quickly realized the drugs’ dangers and banned even prescription versions. The dangers of methamphetamine took a little longer to notice. During World War II, methamphetamine and its milder variation, amphetamine, were made available to the soldiers of the United States, Germany and Japan as a way to keep them brave and alert. Afterward, pharmaceutical methamphetamine became popular, legally or illegally, with dieters, truck drivers and students cramming for exams. It was particularly popular in the ‘50s and ’60s, when even President John Kennedy had a prescription. You can still get a prescription for amphetamine if you have attention-deficit disorder or suffer from narcolepsy.
At first, meth apparently can make ordinary life vividly engrossing. People take it to do boring, repetitive work. People take it to work out. People take it to clean their closets or to pick the lint out of their carpets -- one piece at time, by hand.
Meth can also stimulate increased sexual activity. Perhaps you‘ve seen the posters around L.A. that read SEX + METH = AIDS. Users sometimes have sex or masturbate until they injure themselves. ”I’ve had people come in after taking it on Friday, staying up, masturbating the entire weekend, without coming,“ says Dr. Alex Stalcup, a Bay Area physician and one of the nation‘s leading specialists in meth addiction. ”Medically speaking, I’d term that blue balls to the max.“
But mainly, the people who take enough meth end up not sleeping -- one night, two, five, more, according to physicians who treat hardcore addicts. And as any parent of a newborn can attest, not sleeping takes its toll.
”The paradox of meth,“ continues Dr. Stalcup, ”is that it seems to take away whatever you want from it. You take it for sex, you can‘t have an orgasm. You take it to work, you become more and more inefficient.“
Biologically speaking, adrenaline is the fight-or-flight hormone. And so at the extremes -- and meth seems to quickly go to extremes -- there is aggression, belligerence, paranoia. It’s too much -- too much of everything. People see through walls. The CIA follows them around. ”We saw Waldo,“ one meth user told us.
And those are the minor problems.