Ice Ain't Nice: A Cautionary Drug Tale

In mid-October, Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards decided to make methamphetamine a focus of his stump speeches in the Midwest.

"Methamphetamine has become a cancer in rural areas and small towns in this country," he told reporters via conference call just after a rally in Newton, Iowa. He then launched into a list of things that John Kerry and he would do if elected: increase law enforcement budgets, make it harder for people to get bulk quantities of cold remedies and diet aids that contain the chemicals needed to manufacture meth, and increase funding for education and treatment. The Bush camp responded that they have increased the number of meth lab busts during the president's term and supports expanding federal drug courts to deal with meth use and abuse.

Whether either camp is actually in touch with the issue is in question. But it is an issue, and it may be on its way to becoming a bigger one.

"About two or three years ago we began to see a change in attitude on the dance floor," says Dr. Chris Mann, founder of MedEvent, a volunteer organization whose members attend large public gatherings around the country and watch for people who are having bad drug reactions. "The Ecstasy crowd was a lovey-dovey, huggy sort of crowd. This crowd is angry, pissy, aggressive. That changes the attitude of the social environment."

The crowd Dr. Mann is talking about uses "ice," a highly refined methamphetamine that's pure enough to smoke, and is often done in social settings, with people passing around the pipe. A lot of the work MedEvent is asked to do is at gay dance clubs, where there has traditionally been some drug use for heightened sexual pleasure. "The change we saw with the introduction of ice into the scene was very apparent," says Mann, a professor of sports medicine at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

Mann's position with MedEvent gives him a unique perspective on drug trends, whether in gay dance clubs or at large sporting events. He says that most people in social settings deal well with the drugs they've taken. They're dancing, after all, or focused on the sports event. But ice, he says, is different.

"People have short tempers when they're on it, and they're very sexually aggressive. ... And where with meth you might be high for 4-6 hours, with this you're high 10-12 hours and it's several times stronger than meth."

Even for people who are accustomed to using meth, he says, ice is often a problem. "It just seems to take people over like nothing I've ever seen. They can maintain their lives for years with meth, but with this they forget about their jobs, their families, everything. The only thing that matters is ice. I've talked with chemists and medical people and even people who make it, but no one has been able to explain why this is so much stronger. It just is."

What's particularly worrisome, he says, is that during the last six or eight months he's been seeing it integrating into the straight clubs, "and those people have no idea what they're in for when they do this. The straight crowd isn't doing a lot of meth anyway, so it comes right out of left field for them. And that's going to cause some problems for people."

"Odds are the stuff will never come your way," says John L., a former speed freak and ice cook who lives in Pennsylvania. "On the other hand, if it does you're better off saying 'no thanks' than messing with it. Because if you do, odds are you are going to find yourself in a battle you're not going to win."

John moved to Pennsylvania from the Midwest to get away from the crowd he hung with after he was released from prison in 2001. "What helped me get clean after 25 years was just getting fed up with the life. I figured I was hitting 50 and it was time to grow up, that's all."

John's high of choice was methamphetamine, an orange, yellow, reddish or white powder that's generally retailed in quantities that run from $10 for a taste to $100-150 for an eightball, 3 1/2 grams or an eighth of an ounce. Generally snorted, sometimes eaten, or injected by serious users, it sets off something akin to the adrenaline "flight or fight" rush. Users are quickly more alert, more focused. Senses are enhanced. Both men and women say it enhances sex. Euphoria comes on. Life is crystal clear.

Unfortunately, like with most substances that instantly change your perceptions and mood, it's sort of like borrowing from tomorrow to enjoy it today, and there will be a bill to pay. In the case of meth the price includes paranoia and frequently the feeling that life simply doesn't seem worth living without the drugs: too slow, too unfocused. Then there are the physical problems: meth users lose their appetites take on a pallid, emaciated look; they often develop nasty body sores and wreck their livers. Those who inject add the typical needle user problems: collapsed veins, risk of contracting hepatitis, HIV and a host of other diseases that all microbe-collectors expose themselves to.

"Whatever meth is, ice is 10 times that," says Lisa Walker, 39, a resident of Cenikor, a long-term rehab facility run by former addicts in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. "I just hit the bottom," she explained. "Twenty-three years of meth and the last five with ice and I just had no place to turn anymore. The last straw was a nine-day ice binge."

Unlike many of the Cenikor's residents, who were mandated to treatment by the courts as an alternative to prison, Lisa came to the therapeutic facility on her own.

"I started partying with meth when I was 17, you know, like a lot of people. It made life so clear, so focused. I liked it. But then, sort of on a dare, I began to shoot it up. That was much more of a rush than eating it or snorting it. And it wasn't long before I was using every day."

She married twice, divorced twice and has one son. "With meth I was still functioning. I raised my son till he was eight, and we maintained a good relationship for years. But then along came ice, and that was the end of that. He didn't want anything to do with me anymore. We're working on that now that I'm clean."

A Short, Speedy History

Amphetamine, a stimulant that works on the pleasure centers in the brain, was first synthesized in Germany in 1887. Methamphetamine wasn't synthesized until 1919 in Japan. By the late 1920s, amphetamine was beginning to be utilized in "stay-awake" and diet medicines, and recreational users found it a legal alternative to cocaine, which had been made illegal in 1914.

During World War II, both Germany and Japan began supplying amphetamine and methamphetamines to their troops to keep them focused and give them a euphoric, driving edge, a practice later adopted by the U.S. military, particularly for fighter pilots and members of long-range reconnaissance patrols.

In 1950, an amphetamine called Ritalin was patented and used to treat people suffering from narcolepsy, a condition in which sufferers fall asleep involuntarily. The drug was later tried on children suffering from attention deficit disorder (ADD), and since the early 1990s its use has ballooned.

Through the '50s and '60s, amphetamine and methamphetamine use skyrocketed. A subculture of meth users developed among bikers and long-haul truckers, particularly in rural areas, while a generation of women were prescribed amphetamine-based pills for weight loss. Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs were noted users of the drug. College students also used amphetamines to help them pull all-nighters cramming for finals.

Despite attempts by law enforcement to corral amphetamine and methamphetamine use since that period, each of those subcultures has continued to find a way to get their medication of choice, either through prescription or via the clandestine meth labs that produce the drug in various states of purity from ephedrine and pseudoephedrine – products routinely found in diet aids, cold remedies, energy pills and asthma medication.

Ice is a relatively new kid on the methamphetamine drug block. While street meth and ice are basically the same drug, ice is meth that's been further refined. The hydrochloride salt has to be very pure before the crystals that distinguish ice from meth will form. So as a rule, while street meth may have a purity level of 10-30 percent, ice has a purity level of 80-90 percent. And about 15 years ago someone figured out that it could be smoked, which maximizes its potency.

Ice first appeared in east Asia, perhaps Korea or Taiwan. From there, the drug made its way to Japan, and from there it went to Hawaii around 1990. A couple of years later it reached California's meth circles, and in about 1999 or 2000 it hit the Midwest and south, from eastern Oklahoma through Missouri and Kansas, down through Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Georgia. But because ice is so expensive, it didn't hit hard – not like crack, that hit as an epidemic, with little $2 vials all over the streets.

But it hit hard enough to be noticed by law enforcement.

Ice Melt

Last spring a north Texas drug task force busted a gang of Aryan Brotherhood members with 23 pounds of the stuff. In July, another Texas bust netted 22 pounds that came into town from Mexico, which traditionally produces meth rather than the more refined ice. In southern Missouri alone, nearly 3,000 meth labs were shut down by police last year; an unknown number of those were actually producing ice. It's still not on the street per se, however, and according to law enforcement officials, it won't be, so long as the price stays where it is.

"We're finding it in groups that were already in the meth scene," says Lt. J.T. Morgan of the Fort Worth Police Department's narcotics division. "It's at least twice the price of meth, so we have not seen it in poor sections of town like we did when crack hit. To be honest, you are not going to find a $10 bag of ice out there. You may find it, but it won't be ice."

"You've pretty much got to get it from a real dealer, someone who knows a cook or a distributor," says John L., "because ice heads don't want to give it up. It's too precious."

Not everyone agrees with Lt. Morgan's assessment of the situation. While Dr. Mann says he's seen it at straight clubs around the country with MedEvent during the last six to eight months, Christina B., a Midwest writer and former junkie, she says she's seen it at strip clubs for twice that long.

"The men like to give it to the girls instead of money," she says. Christina adds that though heroin was always her drug of choice, when the opportunity to smoke ice came up a year or so ago at a straight dance club she joined the gang. "Very overwhelming. Utterly euphoric. But I was still high 18 hours later and that was no good at all. I wouldn't think most non-drug users could handle it. It was just too much, even for me, and I was a pretty hardcore heroin addict."

In Mann's estimation, the use of ice at upscale gay clubs is already on the wane. "I think it peaked about six months ago, after just a couple of years, in part because of how fast it took people down, and in part because the gay community, because of AIDS, has a strong infrastructure. People saw what was happening to their friends with ice.

"I mean, with meth, people use it for years, on and off, and function. But ice becomes so overwhelming so quickly that you spend your money, forget your job, become aggressive and impatient, you don't get along with people, you get paranoid. It costs you in so many ways. I've just never seen people behave like ice makes them behave. I don't mean violently, not that, but they will lie to their families, they'll cheat, they'll steal to get it. That's generally a myth with most drugs put out by prohibitionists, but it really is a truth with this."

James Roberson, 29, and in a long-term rehab facility, agrees with Mann's assessment. "Cocaine was my drug of choice till I ran into ice."

Roberson says that at first ice was a great drug. While he didn't binge like so many other ice users – "who went down a lot faster and went to a lot worse places than I did" – he still managed to do about $150 worth nightly.

"I thought I could keep it up, like I had with coke or regular meth. But this was different. I noticed I was doing it at home, staying on the computer all night and finally I was doing it at work and that's when I knew I had a problem. And then I had a minor incident with the law and decided that was it. So I checked into rehab."

Roberson, who has been clean for 15 months, says he doesn't regret what he's done but is glad it's over. "I am going to look at it as a period of my life that I went through. It was something I did when I was young and dumb and is part of my story. But I don't want to repeat it."

Steve Black (not his real name) works with drug users in a large Midwestern city to get their urine clean enough to pass drug tests, and he has his own take on the scene. "This is a new ballgame. It's not your cat-urine-smelling type meth, this is a high-grade ride."

Black says that in the last two years people have been coming to see him to get cleaned up from ice in droves. Particularly from the well-heeled end of the gay community, but he's seen straight business people and athletes at his door as well. "This has an enormous rush and a lot of people who get on this stuff simply cannot shake it."

"People burn themselves out all sorts of ways. From working too much, to drinking too much to too much nothing. But from what I am seeing, ice turns you into such a raging, focused maniac that you will burn out faster, and probably harder, than anything you can imagine."

According to several police sources throughout the Midwest, the reason turf wars haven't developed is because of the way that ice, like meth, is generally made. The labs, Black says, are in motel rooms and mobile vehicles, or way out in the country in Arkansas and Missouri, and so there really isn't any turf to fight over. "How can you have a turf war when someone is renting a motel room for one night to make a batch he's going to sell in another city the next day? This is not like crack. There are no street corners owned by one group or another."

That's not to say that the ice trade is risk-free. Any time people deal with black market cash and use a drug that increases paranoia, things can get out of hand. As with the regular meth trade, arguments develop over money and delivery, or a lab blows up. John L. related the story of an ice deal that went bad a few years ago. He'd cooked and a woman friend was to deliver it to a store front where the buyers were waiting. But something went wrong and the delivery wasn't completed. The woman disappeared. "When her body finally turned up some months later," he says, "she'd been tortured, carved up. They did real bad things to her."

But that's the exception, rather than the rule. As are serious overdoses. Few meth or ice overdoses ever result in death, though it could be argued that people who share needles and wind up with HIV or dead of hepatitis are nonetheless casualties. The most frequent acute bad event associated with meth and ice use is amphetamine psychosis. It can can be brought on either by consistent heavy use or a single large dose, and its symptoms are almost identical to those of schizophrenia: vivid auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions.

Ice Ain't Nice

This isn't meant as a drug war scare story, but as a caution. An ice epidemic that was predicted to arrive in the U.S. on the heels of the crack epidemic in the early '90s never developed. It probably won't, either, though if Mann is right, there are bound to be a number of club-goers who find themselves in over their heads. His advice would be to simply not do ice, regardless of its euphoric promise. And his advice to those with friends in over their heads is to simply let them burn out on their own.

"They have to fall and they usually will fall fast. It's terrible to watch and you hold your breath, but most people get through it. They don't kill themselves. They may end up in a psych ward for a couple of nights, they may end up with skin infections, but they do get away. The problem is to keep them away. In fact, if there is anything good about ice it's the speed with which it will ruin you. You can start, get involved, lose everything and be back on the road to recovery in a year," he says, only half joking.

One thing that everyone connected with this story agreed on (with the exception of the police officers, who were not asked) is that jail is not the solution.

"I watched a fellow I know get sent up for 23 years for cooking ice recently," says Black. "He no more needed jail than the man in the moon. He had a drug problem, not a criminal problem. It was like watching them send someone to jail for having cancer."

"Hell, I was in and out of jail for 15 years and it never made me quit," says John L. "I quit when I got fed up. Not because of going to jail."

Dr. Mann goes one step further: "I believe that a lot of meth users are undiagnosed adult ADD patients who are self-medicating. I think people should be educated to this possibility, and if they notice that they're improved with meth, they might want to go get checked for adult ADD to see if that's their problem. Unfortunately, society's solution is to try to catch them and put them in jail. That's crazy now and always has been. This is a medical problem. What we need to do is expand rehabilitation and stop incarceration."

Unfortunately, most people seeking a free rehab bed will wait months for one, and during that wait a large percentage will be criminalized and find there is no waiting line for a bed in jail.

A few of the lucky ones, like Lisa Walker, find the bed when they need one. "I'm content," she says. "I'm even happy, and I didn't think that was possible."

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