Thursday, August 03, 2006

The meth don't stack

In the fast world of drugs, crystal meth is on a mission. It’s cheap, highly addictive and ultra-powerful. It can be smoked, swallowed, snorted, or injected. It can even be inserted anally. In Australia its popularity has outstripped heroin and there are an estimated 70,000 users across the country. Since the late 1990s there's been a steady and notable increase in the use of the drug, which is the purest form of speed and is either injected or smoked.

People who use crystal have as many backgrounds as reasons for using the drug. Crystal is often used recreationally as a 'party drug', is used to stay awake for long periods, and also to heighten extended sexual pleasure. The drug heightens arousal and increases sexual stamina by delaying orgasm, but impotence is just as common a side-effect. This impotence is commonly referred to as "Crystal Dick" a state where the user is sexually aroused but fails to maintain or even achieve an erection.

Crystal meth goes by a variety of names such as ice, crystal, methamphetamine, speed, chalk, tina, krank and many others. It looks like clear chunky crystals resembling ice, which can be inhaled by smoking. It is harmful in very small doses. Heavily dependent users can suffer episodes of psychosis and describe feelings of persecution, such as believing people are "out to get them".

Ice is filling emergency wards with psychotic and dangerous patients, to the alarm of doctors who thought they’d seen everything. One doctor told the ABC, "They’re the most out of control, violent human beings I have ever seen in my life - and I’ve been around for a long time. It makes heroin seem like the really good old days."

Though it has only recently taken off as a major scourge, methamphetamine has been around for 90 years. It was first synthesized in 1919 by the Japanese chemist Akira Ogata using a reduction of ephedrine using red phosphorus and iodine. It was used during World War II by both sides and distributed under the name Pervitin. The Nazis widely distributed methamphetamine to their soldiers for use as a stimulant, particularly to SS personnel and Wehrmacht forces in the Eastern Front. The quack doctor Theodore Morell who was the personal physician of Adolf Hitler took it and also prescribed shots of methamphetamine to his star patient. In the 1950s, it was released in the US under legal prescription and treated an assortment of ailments such as narcolepsy, alcoholism and obesity. It is still used today in the treatment of these ailments as well as being used for AIDS patients and ADHD sufferers.

The recreational use of methamphetamine did not take off until the 1980s. It is easy to make in back yard labs. These labs use typical kitchen equipment: coffee filters, hot plates, electric skillets, Pyrex dishes, plastic tubes, funnels, rubber gloves, breathing masks and glass jars. Most of the chemicals necessary to make it are readily available in household products (salt, drain cleaner, camping fuel and paint thinner) or over-the counter medicines. There are recipes of doubtful quality on the Internet and almost every method of synthesis involves highly dangerous chemicals and processes and explosions are not unknown in home labs.

Crystal users may suffer 'amphetamine psychosis' which has symptoms resembling those of paranoid schizophrenia. Once a user has experienced 'amphetamine psychosis' they are likely to continue experiencing these symptoms again every time they use the drug. The use of very high doses can cause permanent damage to blood vessels in the brain and, in extreme cases, death. More common effects include headaches, nausea, dizziness, blurred vision and tremors.

Dr Rebecca McKetin from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, says it has become a drug of choice for many young people. “People used to take speed back in the 1990s and not worry too much about the use of speed. Now what we're seeing is people taking up crystal meth use, or ice use and becoming dependent on the drug” The same ABC report stated that 73,000 Australians are dependent on methamphetamines and 3.2 per cent of people have used the drug in the past year. Crystal is superseding most others as the drug of choice for many Australians, and frontline workers fear that the full scale of the drug's devastating side effects is yet to be seen.

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