Ephedrine And Pseudoephedrine

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The chemicals ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are like cousins to each other. They share the same molecular formula but are structurally different. However, the structural differences between ephedrine and pseudoephedrine do not affect meth production since they are mirror images of each other. They can be used interchangeably as precursors in meth recipes. Precursors are substances that, in nature, might be inactive, but when combined with another chemical, create a new product. Methamphetamine starts with an inactive compound (ephed-rine or pseudoephedrine) and other chemicals are added to produce the drug.9, 11

Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine are often used legally to alleviate congestion. When irritated, the tissues lining the inside of the nose and the respiratory system become swelled, which causes congestion. Ephedrine and pseudoephedrine cause the blood vessels to shrink, which brings down the swelling and allows easier breathing. Pseudoephedrine is used primarily in cold and allergy medications. Ephedrine is used more often in asthma medications as a bronchodilator. By acting on the blood vessels in the lungs, ephedrine helps ease breathing by relaxing and widening air passages.7

Only nine factories in the world make these two critical components of meth. There is one factory in Germany, one in the Czech Republic, two in China, and five in India. Superlabs run by illegal drug traffickers require large amounts of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, and must purchase their supply of these chemicals from these international sources. Drug traffickers use sophisticated methods of acquiring these raw materials used to make meth including purchase through black market sources and obtaining the drugs from legal pharmaceutical warehouses. Cutting off this supply source would vastly reduce the street supply of methamphetamine.

Ephedrine Drum Factories Vietnam
Figure 2.1 In the Philippines workers stand guard over rows of metal drums containing ephedrine. © Pat Roque/AP Images

While U.S. drug enforcement recognizes this reality, international economic and political realities have made it difficult to accomplish this goal.11

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