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History of Methamphetamine

Spread of meth abuse treatment admissions, 1996

First synthesized in 1887 Germany, amphetamine was for a long time, a drug in search of a disease. Nothing was done with the drug, from its discovery (synthesis) until the late 1920's, when it was seriously investigated as a cure or treatement against nearly everything from depression to decongestion.

In the 1930's, amphetamine was marketed as Benzedrine in an over-the-counter inhaler to treat nasal congestion (for asthmatics, hay fever sufferers, and people with colds). A probable direct reaction to the Depression and Prohibition, the drug was used and abused by non-asthmatics looking for a buzz. By 1937 amphetamine was available by prescription in tablet form.

Methamphetamine, more potent and easy to make, was discovered in Japan in 1919. The crystalline powder was soluble in water, making it a perfect candidate for injection. It is still legally produced in the U.S., sold under the trade name Desoxyn.

During World War II, amphetamines were widely used to keep the fighting men going (during the Vietnam war, American soldiers used more amphetamines than the rest of the world did during WWII). In Japan, intravenous methamphetamine abuse reached epidemic proportions immediately after World War II, when supplies stored for military use became available to the public.

In the United States in the 1950s, legally manufactured tablets of both dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine) and methamphetamine (Methedrine) became readily available and were used non medically by college students, truck drivers, and athletes, As use of amphetamines spread, so did their abuse. Amphetamines became a cure-all for such things as weight control to treating mild depression.

This pattern changed drastically in the 1960s with the increased availability of injectable methamphetamine. The 1970 Controlled Substances Act severely restricted the legal production of injectable methamphetamine, causing its use to decrease greatly.

Methamphetamine trafficking and abuse in the United States have been on the rise over the past few years, as indicated by investigative, seizure, price, purity, and abuse data (see "trends" below). As a result, this drug is having a devastating impact in many communities across the nation. Although more common in western areas of the country, this impact increasingly is being felt in areas not previously familiar with the harmful effects of this powerful stimulant.

Clandestine production accounts for almost all of the methamphetamine trafficked and abused in the United States. The illicit manufacture of methamphetamine can be accomplished in a variety of ways, but is produced most commonly using the ephedrine/pseudoephedrine reduction method. Large-scale production of methamphetamine using this method is dependent on ready access to bulk quantities of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. During the past two years, several bulk ephedrine seizures destined for Mexico focused attention on the magnitude of ephedrine acquisition by organized crime drug groups operating from Mexico and in the United States, and set in motion an effort to focus international attention on the ephedrine diversion problem and to take action to prevent such diversion.

Drug law enforcement efforts against clandestine methamphetamine producers constitute a "cat and mouse" game between efforts to cut off chemical supplies and efforts to obtain them from non-regulated sources. Past experience has demonstrated that methamphetamine traffickers are relentless, flexible, and creative in finding new ways to obtain chemicals by evading the network of international controls that has been established. The Federal Government currently is preparing regulations to further reduce the diversion of pharmaceutical products containing chemicals, such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, that can be used to produce illegal drugs. It has consulted with corporations within the pharmaceutical industry to develop a solution to the diversion problem that does not unduly restrict the availability of these chemicals for legitimate use.

Domestically, large-scale production of methamphetamine is centered in California. In addition, methamphetamine increasingly is produced in Mexico and smuggled into the United States. Methamphetamine laboratory operators often are well-armed, and their laboratories occasionally are booby-trapped and equipped with scanning devices employed as security precautions. Weaponry, ranging from single firearms to arsenals of high-powered weapons and explosives, are commonly found at laboratory sites. Not only are methamphetamine laboratories used to manufacture illegal, often deadly drugs, but the clandestine nature of the manufacturing process and the presence of ignitable, corrosive, reactive, and toxic chemicals at the sites have resulted in explosions, fires, toxic fumes, and irreparable damage to human health and to the environment.

Traditionally, the suppliers of methamphetamine throughout the United States have been outlaw motorcycle gangs and numerous other independent trafficking groups. Although these groups continue to produce and distribute methamphetamine, organized crime drug groups operating from Mexico currently dominate wholesale methamphetamine trafficking in the United States for several reasons: these organizations established access to wholesale ephedrine sources of supply on the international market; these organizations are producing unprecedented quantities of high-purity methamphetamine on a regular basis; and, they already control well-established cocaine, heroin, and marijuana distribution networks throughout the western United States, enabling them to supply methamphetamine to a large retail level market. Their expansion into the methamphetamine trade has added a new dimension to their role in the U.S. drug market and has redefined the methamphetamine problem in the United States. Presently, these organizations are poised to supply methamphetamine to the rest of the country in response to any increases in demand.

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