Short Overview of the History of Methamphetamine

meth crystals

The history of this drug resembles a game of cat-and-mouse. One person sets up a channel on which to receive precursor chemicals to make methamphetamine and another person makes that channel illegal. The manufacturer finds another source and then that channel is outlawed. A different chemical is found to make meth and then that chemical is made illegal. This has been going on for nearly thirty years, with no end in sight.

This game started with the synthesis of ephedrine in Japan in the late 1880s. Before this, ma huang, a rare herb, had been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years as a stimulant. In 1885, Nagayoshi Nagai isolated the stimulant part of the herb and two years later, a similar substance was synthesized in the lab. And in 1893, methamphetamine was born, again, synthesized in a Japanese lab.

In 1919, there was another significant milestone for this drug. The first crystallized methamphetamine was created in a Japanese lab. Crystallized methamphetamine is stronger, purer and when it began being abused several decades later, could be smoked. It is very quick to addict a person.

By 1932, amphetamine was being used medicinally as a decongestant and asthma medication. During the Depression, a person who wanted to get intoxicated could remove the inhaler strips and soak it in his coffee. By drinking the coffee, he would get high. The taste for stimulant drugs was growing.

Methamphetamine and the War

fighter planes during World War II

Methamphetamine was widely used during World War II. The Japanese gave it to their kamikaze pilots, Germans gave it to soldiers and Hitler reportedly got injections of methamphetamine every day. Allied armies gave it to soldiers and pilots but quit when it made the personnel aggressive and violent.

After the war, the Japanese had huge stockpiles of the drug left over and so dispensed it to the civilian population. This led to widespread abuse and addiction problems. Abuse spread to Guam and from there to the West coast of the US.

In Germany, post-war methamphetamine was marketed to the civilian population as Pervitin. In the 1950s, some Korean War veterans came home addicted to morphine. They were sometimes treated with methamphetamine as were heroin addicts in San Francisco.

While people in many European countries distributed, abused and suffered addiction to amphetamine, the Czech Republic was the locus of methamphetamine production and abuse in Europe starting in the 1960s.

Meth Abuse Becomes Recreational and Laws Begin to Change

By the 1960s, amphetamine or “speed” became a popular drug of abuse for people wanting to stay awake, lose weight, perform better athletically or simply get high. At the same time, methamphetamine was being distributed by doctors and injected illicitly by addicts. In 1967, there were 31 million prescriptions for methamphetamine in the US alone.

In the 1970s, the problem began to be recognized by lawmakers and the back-and-forth game of law enforcement and lawbreakers began.

First, methamphetamine began to be more strictly regulated under the Controlled Substance Act. The federal government also imposed strict controls on Phenyl-2-propane, one of the precursor chemicals for meth. Cooks on the West Coast soon found that ephedrine was even better and began buying the precursor chemical from Mexican drug dealers.

Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine were the next chemicals to be controlled. The Drug Enforcement Administration began regulating these drugs in 1988, but the pharmaceutical companies began to fight back. They demanded that finished products like cold medication not be strictly controlled. So of course, when ephedrine and pseudoephedrine supplies dried up, methamphetamine cooks in small labs all over the US (but heaviest on the West Coast and in the rural Midwest) just switched to buying cold pills. They developed new ways of cooking methamphetamine that resulted in a stronger drug than ever before.


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