The new meth and the impact on homelessness

(AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Atlantic published a lengthy but interesting story yesterday about the history of meth. If you’ve seen Breaking Bad you might already know a little of this history but the basic point of the article is that there are really two types of meth. Starting in the 1980s and up until the late 2000s, a lot of the meth on the streets was made by cooking batches of ephedrine which came from over the counter cold medicine. That meth was certainly bad news for those who used it but because it had to be made from cold medicine in fairly small batches, the amount of meth on the market was somewhat limited and the price was pretty high.

However, there is another way (or ways) to cook meth that doesn’t rely on cold medicine at all. This alternative meth can be made from any number of chemicals that are used in various legitimate industries.

Before the ephedrine method had been rediscovered, this other method had been used by the Hell’s Angels and other biker gangs, which had dominated a much smaller meth trade into the ’80s. Its essential chemical was a clear liquid called phenyl-2-propanone—P2P. Many combinations of chemicals could be used to make P2P. Most of these chemicals were legal, cheap, and toxic: cyanide, lye, mercury, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, nitrostyrene. The P2P process of making meth was complicated and volatile. The bikers’ cooking method gave off a smell so rank that it could only be done in rural or desert outposts, and the market for their product was limited.

The downside of P2P meth is it’s harder to produce and uses highly toxic chemicals but the upside is you’re not relying on cold medicine. Instead, you can potentially order unlimited quantities of legal precursor chemicals. And in places like Sinaloa, Mexico where cartels were in control, that meant you could have mass production of a kind that wasn’t really possible with ephedrine-based meth:

Drugs made in a lab were not subject to weather or soil or season, only to chemical availability: With this new method and full access to the world’s chemical markets through Mexican shipping ports, traffickers could ramp up production of P2P meth in quantities that were, effectively, limitless…

…in June 2011, Mexican authorities discovered a massive P2P meth lab in the city of Querétaro, just a few hours north of Mexico City. It was in a warehouse that could have fit a 737, in an industrial park with roads wide enough for 18-wheelers; it made the Tlajomulco lab look tiny. Joe Bozenko and his colleague Steve Toske were called down from Washington to inspect it, and they wandered through it in awe. Bags of chemicals were stacked 30 feet high.

Hundreds of those bags contained a substance neither Bozenko nor Toske had ever thought could be used to make P2P. Bozenko often consulted a book that outlined chemicals that might serve as precursors to making methamphetamine, but this particular substance wasn’t in it. Well-trained organic chemists were clearly improvising new ways to make the ingredients, expanding potential supply even further.

Working through all the chemicals in the plant, by Bozenko’s estimation, the lab could have produced 900 metric tons of methamphetamine. Against a wall stood three 1,000-liter reactors, two stories tall.

Nothing like this had been achieved with ephedrine, nor could it have been; no one could have imagined the accumulation of 900 metric tons of the chemical. Later, Mexican investigators would report that of the 16 workers arrested at the Querétaro lab, 14 died over the next six months from liver failure—presumably caused by exposure to chemicals at the lab.

So the P2P based meth began flooding the market in quantities never seen before. That meant it got much, much cheaper and attracted more users. But the drug itself was different. Whereas the ephedrine-based meth gave people a certain high, the P2P based meth seemed to promote more damage to the brain and to lead to more extreme and sometimes violent behavior. The article points out that people on meth don’t tend to OD, instead they “decay.” The P2P meth create a new wave of addicts who were simply out of their minds.

The symptoms were always similar: violent paranoia, hallucinations, conspiracy theories, isolation, massive memory loss, jumbled speech. Methamphetamine is a neurotoxin—it damages the brain no matter how it is derived. But P2P meth seems to create a higher order of cerebral catastrophe. “I don’t know that I would even call it meth anymore,” Ken Vick, the director of a drug-treatment center in Kansas City, Missouri, told me. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are afflictions that begin in the young. Now people in their 30s and 40s with no prior history of mental illness seemed to be going mad…

Susan Partovi has been a physician for homeless people in Los Angeles since 2003. She noticed increasing mental illness—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder—at her clinics around the city starting in about 2012. She was soon astonished by “how many severely mentally ill people were out there,” Partovi told me. “Now almost everyone we see when we do homeless outreach on the streets is on meth. Meth may now be causing long-term psychosis, similar to schizophrenia, that lasts even after they’re not using anymore.”

It’s true that most homeless people cycle in and out of homelessness, often in a matter of months as they change jobs or find a new place to live. But the chronic homeless, the ones living in tents on the street long term, most of these people have drug and mental health problems and the new meth appears to be part of that.

The article covers a lot more territory. If you’re interested in the drug problem or the issue of homelessness it’s definitely worth a read.