Methamphetamine is a stimulant drug, similar to cocaine, which is derived from the coca plant, but made entirely of human-made chemicals (synthetic). Some stimulants are used every day by many people; others, like amphetamines, are available only with a doctor's prescription; and some, like cocaine, have no legal use whatsoever. One everyday stimulant is caffeine, which exists naturally in coffee, chocolate, and many sodas. Whether natural or chemical, legal or illegal, stimulants speed up the nervous system. Stimulants in regular doses can make some people feel awake, alert, energetic, and not hungry. Too much stimulant can create unpleasant skin-crawling, jittery sensations for some, but euphoria for others.
Methamphetamine is more powerful than cocaine or any natural stimulant. When taken in large amounts, it can cause violence, hallucinations, and psychosis. Typically methamphetamine is produced as a crystal-like powder, a larger chunk of crystal, or in tablets. It can be snorted, eaten, smoked, or injected. It has dozens of street names but is most often called meth. It is also known as crank, glass, speed, and ice. Motorcycle gangs in the 1970s used to hide meth in the crank cases of their bikes, leading to the nickname crank. The terms ice or glass come from the rock-like form of meth, which, in contrast to its powdered form, looks like pieces of ice or glass.2, 3 4
Although methamphetamine is synthetic, it traces its roots to a small leafless bush called Ephedra that grows in China and North America. For more than 5,000 years, Chinese healers have dried and boiled the stems of this plant to make a tea called mahuang that opens air passages and makes breathing easier, helping those suffering from asthma and other respiratory illnesses. The tea also increases energy and general well being. In 1847, when Mormons settled in Utah, they discovered that the native peoples of the western United States enjoyed an exciting drink made from Ephedra. Since
coffee and tea were forbidden by their religion, the Mormons named it "Mormon tea," and enjoyed frequent cups of this stimulating brew.2
In the late 1800s, scientists isolated ephedrine (named after its biological name Ephedra) as the active compound in mahuang. In 1887, a German chemist succeeded in creating the synthetic drug amphetamine that had the same stimulating effects as ephedrine. Lacking any identifiable medical use, the drug was shelved.5
In 1919, a Japanese chemist synthesized methamphet-amine. It was easier to make than amphetamine and produced a crystalline powder that could be injected intravenously (directly into the veins), snorted, or mixed in a beverage. Meth-amphetamine was found to be very potent, with greater and longer lasting stimulating effects than amphetamine, especially when injected.5
Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company, manufactured a new asthma drug using ephedrine in the 1920s. At the time, ephed-rine had to be extracted from limited supplies of the Ephedra plant; no one had figured out yet how to make a synthetic version of ephedrine from laboratory chemicals alone. However, in 1927, an American researcher named Gordon Alles recognized the therapeutic potential of amphetamines and realized that amphetamine could be used as a chemical substitute for the plant version of ephedrine. Beginning in 1932, amphetamine was marketed as an easily available nasal inhaler called Benzedrine. This new drug provided relief from nasal congestion for asthmatics and people with allergies and colds. In 1937, a tablet form of amphetamine became available by prescription to treat narcolepsy (a sleeping disorder), obesity, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).5, 6
Throughout human history, people have sought to escape reality with mind-altering substances. Amphetamines proved no exception. People discovered that amphetamines increased energy and sexual libido while decreasing appetite and the need for sleep. In higher amounts, they also produced a euphoric high. In the 1950s and 1960s, doctors prescribed the drug frequently, and the use and eventual abuse of amphetamines soared during this time.5
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