Methamphetamine is arguably the most demonised, stigmatised and generally misconceived drug in global circulation. Within the Australian context, we have all seen the confronting, graphic and gratuitously violent imagery of anti-ice advertisements, depicting ‘ice’ users in diabolical fits of rage lashing out at authorities, families, loved ones and innocent bystanders, seemingly consumed by a vile addiction to be condemned by civil society.
As stigmatising and stereotypical as these images are, one cannot deny they are factual, albeit they are by no means an accurate representation of all ice or methamphetamine users. For inquiring minds, the viewer is left with arguably more questions than they have answers. What exactly is methamphetamine? Is it truly as addictive as authorities would have you believe? Why and how has this drug saturated the market to the extent that Australia sees itself in an ‘ice epidemic’ where of per capita consumption per 1,000 people per day, we consume on average 49 doses, compared with 60 doses for the highest-ranked country, Czechia; Australia has the third highest consumption of methamphetamine in the world. For those of us with a penchant for drug related health sciences, the big question is ‘is it really methamphetamine that we are seeing at street level in its purest form and if not, why might this be?’
To answer these questions, we need to look at the chemical composition of methamphetamine over the course of history. Methamphetamine for a considerable duration of time was derived from ephedrine, a naturally occurring substance derived from the ephedra plant. For centuries ephedrine was used as a decongestant, anti-asthmatic medication, and stimulant. The first known chemical alteration of ephedrine molecules for the synthesis of crystal methamphetamine occurred in Japan in 1919. Fast forward to World War II and it was being marketed in Japan under the name hiropon a word that combines the Japanese terms for ‘fatigue’ and ‘fly away’ (Much like Red Bull giving you wings!) it was given to Japanese armed forces to increase alertness.
Throughout the 1980s and into the 90s ephedrine was the active ingredient in the over-the-counter decongestant Sudafed, this followed a long boom in the methamphetamine and MDMA market as production was cheap and relatively easy to make. Come the turn of the millennia and health authorities were clamping down on this, eventually making drugs containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine prescription-only medication almost universally.
What followed from here on in was a decline in Sudafed based methamphetamine and MDMA and a rise in another method used to make methamphetamine, that in the 80s and 90s was largely confined to outlaw bikie gangs, the Hells Angels is the most notorious of which. The meth cooked up by the Hells Angels during this period only had a small niche market, due to the fact that the base ingredient was not ephedrine, but rather a far more toxic chemical known as phenyl-2-propanone (P2P).
P2P is a clear liquid that is mostly derived from phenylacetone, however, all kinds of toxic ingredients can be used to manufacture P2P; cyanide, chloroacetone (tear gas), benzene, lye, mercury, sulfuric acid to name but a few, and the process is as volatile and highly toxic method that can only really be done safely in hazmat suits in rural or desert outposts (think Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in the TV series ‘Breaking Bad’ who use the P2P method to make meth, hence Jesse’s infamous line ‘chili P is my specialty!’).
The multitude of chemicals that can be used are cheap, legal and unlike ephedrine is readily available in a wide array of industries; fuel, tanning, mining, perfume, cosmetics, photography, and many others where law and health enforcement cannot restrict the chemicals in the same way it has with ephedrine, not without damaging legitimate sectors of the economy. Additionally, this creates numerous ways of making P2P, a drug that is essentially not subject to weather or soil erosion, only chemical availability, which is effectively limitless, thus ramping up production of P2P meth globally.
Adversely, the P2P method produces two types of methamphetamine that produce very different effects. D-methamphetamine has neurological effects and produces a powerful stimulant high, whereas L-methamphetamine will increase blood flow and heart rate, but has little neurological effect, thus it does not produce a high, it is essentially a waste product that if more widely known amongst meth cooks would be disposed of. However, the reality is the separation of ‘D’ and ‘L’ meth is far beyond the skill sets of your average clandestine chemist, and what results is a product that is significantly inferior to ephedrine-based meth, so much so that it begs the question ‘WOULD YOU EVEN CALL IT METH ANYMORE?’
Among the consequences of this shift, the price of meth collapsed due to increases in volume, and with this came a plethora of public health issues, as unlike ephedrine-based meth which tended to have more gradual associated harms, P2P meth which came to be known as ‘bikie crank’, among other various street terms seemed to accelerate associated harms, particularly damage to the brain. Whilst methamphetamine affects the brain no matter how it is derived, P2P meth has been shown to create a much higher order of cerebral damage.
The use of mind-altering substances by humans is no new phenomenon, but we are entering a new era, largely driven by a narrative of a shift in drug supply from plant-based drugs, such as weed, coke and opiates towards drugs that align with the human psyche to push boundaries. We want to go faster, higher, harder, longer in addition to meeting our insatiable need for convenience, quick, cheap, made anywhere, available always.
If we are to have a positive impact on the ice epidemic, then we need to examine the vast communities that partake in this behaviour. We need to cast aside our prejudice, stereotypes, stigma and discrimination, and understand that regardless of why someone may engage in this behaviour, it is human behaviour performed by people with human emotions. Many of which can be particularly vulnerable, and it is only until we begin to look out for the most vulnerable communities among us, that we can expect any reason for them to abate.
AIVL has been actively working on a project to do with people who engage in sexual activity under the influence of methamphetamine, a practice referred to as ‘chemsex’ . There are many reasons why people engage in chemsex, often it becomes a vice to feel free and disinhibited from the stigma, discrimination, shame or cultural taboos attached to various sexual acts, kinks, fantasies, desires, practices and sexual lifestyles and identities.
AIVL will be producing a suite of resources and animated videos to help keep communities safe in chemsex environments and stop the spread of hepatitis C, BBVS and STIs in addition to promoting services that can assist people with methamphetamine addiction through harm reduction models of practice.
Article by Adrian Gorringe
Some of this article has been adapted from Sam Quinones’ novel ‘The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth’.
AIVL is the national organisation representing people who use/have used illicit drugs and is the peak body for the state and territory peer-based drug user organisations.
CEO, AIVL – email email@example.com