Once it was heroin, then crack cocaine. Now crystal meth seems to have taken on the dubious mantle of being "the most dangerous drug". In the US it's estimated that one in 16 young people try meth before they leave high school, though in many states the figure is higher. A town in Arizona recently established a separate school for its meth-addicted teenagers, while a district attorney in Oregon called the drug's spread "an epidemic and crisis without precedent". But the problem isn't confined to the US.
Crystal meth has made its presence felt in Australia, Asia and parts of eastern Europe. So far the UK has remained largely untouched - but for how long? The Association of Chief Police Officers has already warned that meth is now made in the UK. Should we brace ourselves for an epidemic? Or has the Government learned enough from other countries to prevent the drug spreading? And what is it about crystal meth that makes it such a danger?
What is crystal meth?
Crystal methamphetamine is a derivative of amphetamine. Its scientific name is crystalline methylamphetamine hydrochloride but, like most drugs, it goes by dozens of street names including ice, crank, tina, yaba and tweak.
The opaque white crystals look similar to coarse rock salt and can be smoked, swallowed or snorted, or dissolved and then injected.
Methamphetamine is a stimulant which increases the brain's production of the chemicals - particularly dopamine - that act as neurotransmitters. It also works to prevent their re-uptake. The result is that users generally experience a sense of heightened awareness, alertness and confidence. Heart rate and blood pressure go up, and sex drive also increases, while appetite is suppressed. Methamphetamine is a man-made drug, created in Japan in 1919, almost 30 years after the first manufacture of amphetamine. Its stimulant properties soon attracted the attention of the military and in the Second World War it was administered to troops to help them stay awake.
Hitler was said to be a regular user, and the drug is sometimes still referred to as "Nazi crank", though in fact it was just as widely used by Allied troops, issued under the name of Pervitin.
In the 1950s, methamphetamine became available on prescription and was used to treat obesity, depression and narcolepsy. In the 1960s it appeared on the black market as a recreational drug, usually in pill form, both in the UK and the US. But by the 1970s it had gone almost completely out of fashion, and didn't reappear on the drugs scene until the late 1980s, when it began to be manufactured in crystal form, making it easy to smoke and ensuring a bigger "hit" than the pills or powders that had gone before.
Methamphetamine is no longer a prescription medicine in the UK, but some drugs used to treat ADHD, such as Ritalin, are similar in their basic chemical structure.
Dangers and downsides
Even a single "street-strength" dose of crystal meth can cause heart failure, though this is relatively rare. The real dangers lie in long-term use. The body begins to lower its dopamine production levels, to counter the effects of the drug, which leads to depression and anxiety. It also means users need to take more to achieve the same euphoria. At high dosage levels methamphetamine damages cells and blood vessels in the brain, raising the chances of a stroke.
Regular users lose weight, and those who smoke the drug can suffer from "meth mouth", where residue left on teeth causes them to decay and drop out. Another common condition is "tweaking": users develop nervous twitches and exhibit compulsive behaviour such as teeth grinding or jaw clenching.
Over time the drug has a powerful neurotoxic effect and can cause schizophrenia and paranoia, a situation not helped by the fact that heavy meth users often remain awake for four to five days at a time, resulting in hallucination, extreme anxiety and a weakened immune system.
Finally, there are the secondary dangers associated with hard drug use such as the increased risk of HIV, either through sharing infected needles or having unprotected sex while using the drug.
The world's most addictive drug?
"There's no such thing as a league table of addictive drugs," says Dr John Marsden of the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College, London. "But if there was, crystal meth would be right up there. It's an ugly customer." In a strictly physiological sense, methamphetamine is probably no more addictive than alcohol, but it asserts an enormous psychological pull. As with other hard drugs that can be inhaled, the fact that crystal meth is smokable makes it especially potent. Smoking places the drug in extremely rapid contact with the brain, which means the user experiences an intense rush of pleasure. But what makes crystal meth so appealing is the length of time that high can last. "With crack cocaine the initial rush of euphoria lasts about three to six minutes," says Dr Marsden. "With crystal meth it lasts for up to four hours." Coupled to that, users are unlikely to experience unpleasant physical sensations during the high, such as the thumping heart which often accompanies cocaine use.
It's not just the effects that make it easy to become addicted, it's also the price. In the US, a single dose of meth costs as little as $3, making it widespread in poor rural and suburban areas and earning it the nickname "redneck cocaine".
One estimate suggests that $150 worth of raw materials can be turned into crystal meth with a street value of about $2,000. Unlike heroin, cannabis and cocaine, which are based on plant extracts, methamphetamine is an entirely chemical concoction. The key ingredient is ephedrine (or pseudoephedrine), which is found in a range of decongestants. Most of the other substances needed are available in household products. And though the chemical reactions involved are volatile, little specialist equipment is needed. As a result, small-scale "meth labs" can be set up in an ordinary kitchen, making it difficult for police to track them down - unless they explode, which they often do.
Meth use in the US grew rapidly throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. In the west coast states of California and Washington, special task forces were established to clamp down on illegal meth labs. In 2001 police in Washington state uncovered almost 2,000 labs; five years earlier it had been fewer than 100. In 2003 a government survey estimated that 12.3 million Americans had tried methamphetamine, while "Monitoring the Future", a 2004 study by the University of Michigan, reported that one in 16 senior high school students had taken the drug.
But what these national surveys failed to reflect was the extent to which crystal meth use had taken hold in many rural and suburban areas. The sheriff of Snohomish County, north of Seattle, caused controversy when he speculated that as many as one in four middle and high school students in his area were addicted to the drug.
Other statistics have established a link between meth use and crime. In San Diego in 2004, one in three people arrested tested positive for the drug, while a survey of police departments in spring last year showed that in some areas almost half of all people in jail were there on account of meth-related crime.
On the way out?
Despite its continued high media profile, evidence shows that crystal meth's popularity in the US has peaked and may be in decline. "Monitoring the Future" found that only 3.5 per cent of senior high school students had used it in the past year, down from almost 5 per cent in 1999. And only 0.3 per cent had used it in the past month.
These statistics suggest that the vast majority of people who try crystal meth do not go on to be regular users or addicts. Better drug education in schools - sometimes involving a demonstration of how meth is made, showing children the range of toxic chemicals which go into the mix - has played a part in stemming the tide. And many states have tightened laws surrounding the sale of ephedrine-based products, restricting them to prescription, or making customers produce ID. There have also been grisly poster campaigns in schools and on billboards, picturing emaciated bodies and rotten teeth.
And meth's cheapness, initially responsible for its popularity, has now made it a less fashionable choice among image-conscious youngsters in the big cities.
On the way here?
Crystal meth is still relatively rare in the UK. It's hard to be precise about the extent of its use, however, because figures on methamphetamine are currently lumped together with those for other forms of amphetamine.
(In 2000, the British Crime Survey estimated that one in seven 16 to 19-year-olds had experimented with amphetamines.) At present meth seems to occupy a niche market on the club scene, where it retails at much higher prices than in the US.
There are fears that, like many transatlantic trends, the American meth problem will be replicated in the UK. "This is a drug which has moved eastwards across America, and westwards from Australia and Japan into Europe," says Dr Marsden. "The UK is right in the middle, so it's been slow to reach us." What might prevent crystal meth gaining a hold in the UK is that the drug companies here have changed the formula of their decongestant products, making it more difficult to manufacture methamphetamine from them. This means that dealers wanting to sell crystal meth in the UK have to import the raw materials - or the drug itself.
But there are signs that the drug is beginning to find a foothold. The Association of Chief Police Officers' drugs spokesman, Andy Hayman, has warned that there is already evidence of crystal meth being made in the UK, albeit on a limited scale. Meth production is also on the increase in other European countries such as the Czech Republic, making importation to the UK more likely. But while methamphetamine use seems certain to become more common in the UK, an American-style epidemic remains unlikely. "It's important to be on the lookout for new trends," says Petra Maxwell of the charity Drugscope. "But just because a drug is popular in the US doesn't necessarily mean it will cross over."
Home Secretary Charles Clarke has talked of the need to learn from the US experience of crystal meth and to take "strong preventative measures to halt its use". Those measures have so far revolved around attempts to make the raw materials for methamphetamine more difficult to buy. The Government has also asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to report annually on the drug's prevalence in the UK.
In the UK, crystal meth - like other amphetamines - is rated a class B drug. The Home Office last year confirmed that status after the ACMD report said crystal meth use was still rare and expressed concern that re-classifying it as category A, alongside heroin and cocaine, would glamorise it and create interest among potential users. But the drug's current classification may increase its appeal to dealers, who face a maximum of 14 years in prison, as opposed to a possible life sentence for supplying class A drugs.
Crystal meth poses a dilemma for teachers as well as the Home Office. Drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy and cocaine are widely available, and it's clear that children should be taught about them in drug education lessons. But crystal meth is still rare, so is talking about it really necessary? Or will doing so merely raise its profile and make children curious?
Dr Jenny McWhirter, head of education and prevention at Drugscope, says that children have a right to factual information, but suggests asking pupils to name the substances they would like to know about. "If crystal meth is mentioned," she says, "then go ahead and discuss it." She points out that there's a similar predicament concerning ketamine, a form of animal tranquilliser and relatively minor recreational drug, which has recently been designated a class C illegal substance, raising interest in the media - and in the classroom.
Dr McWhirter advocates exactly the same approach with these drugs as with the more common ones, which means giving children accurate information about the extent of their use. "Children assume that drugs are much more prevalent than they really are," she says. "And that can create a false sense of peer pressure." Andrew Brown, co-ordinator of Drugs Education Forum, agrees and says the important thing is to give children the skills to resist peer pressure or drug offers, if that is what they want to do.
"Teachers need to recognise that the drugs scene is changing and be comfortable talking about new drugs. But whether it's alcohol, cannabis or crystal meth, the principle is still the same: to give children the confidence to make positive decisions."
* Drug Education Forum (www.drugeducationforum.com) offers a wide range of advice and resources for drug education.
* Drugscope's website (www.drugscope.org.uk) also has resources and information and you can access the latest report on methamphetamine by the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs.
* You can read a parent's account of their son's meth addiction at http:observer.guardian.co.ukmagazine story0,,1596638,00.html
* The following sites offer information and statistics about the situation in the US:
www.tes.co.ukfriday has direct links to these websites
Did you know?
* Crystal meth, a derivative of amphetamine, is a man-made drug first created in Japan in 1919
* Its stimulant properties soon attracted the attention of the military and in the Second World War it was administered to troops to help them stay awake
* Some medicines used to treat ADHD, such as Ritalin, have a similar chemical structure
* In the US, a single recreational dose can cost just $3, making it widespread in poor rural and suburban areas and earning it the nickname 'redneck cocaine'
* One in 16 high school students admits to having used it
* It is still relatively rare in the UK, occupying a niche market on the club scene where it sells at much higher prices than in the US
Photographs: Alamy; Panos; Corbis; Reuters Additional research: Tim Black
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