A cheap high churned out by home labs

Crystal meth — or methamphetamine — is a growing problem in Canada. The drug is cheap to make in home labs.

According a report released by Statistics Canada in May 2009, police-reported drug offences hit a 30-year high in 2007. That's been happening as the overall crime rate has been declining.

Why are home meth labs so dangerous?

Some of the chemicals used in the production of methamphetamine are highly volatile or flammable. They may ignite or explode if mixed or stored improperly.

Other chemicals used in the process pose health risks such as dizziness, nausea, disorientation, lack of coordination, pulmonary edema, serious respiratory problems, severe chemical burns, and damage to internal organs.

The agency says that doesn't necessarily mean that more drug crimes are taking place. It could be that "targeted initiatives to crack down on drugs may result in more incidents being identified by police."

Marijuana offences have been declining since 2002, but they continue to be the most common reported drug offence, accounting for 62 per cent of drug-related offences identified by police in 2007.

Offences involving other drugs — including crystal meth, ecstasy, "date rape" drugs, LSD and barbiturates — have risen by 168 per cent over the past 10 years. That's the largest increase of any category.

The RCMP busted 43 methamphetamine — or crystal meth — labs in Canada in 2008. Most were in family dwellings in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. Police say Canadian-produced crystal meth was seized in several countries, including Australia, Japan, New Zealand, China, Taiwan, India and Iran.

What is methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine is a chemical variation of amphetamine, one that has a much stronger effect on the central nervous system than the original drug.

Cracking down on home labs

In 2006, corner and variety stores were ordered to stop selling cold remedies containing pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the manufacture of crystal meth. The move applied to 17 cold and allergy products, including Sudafed and Advil for Cold and Sinus.

While the products are still available in pharmacies, they've been moved behind the counter and can only be bought in limited quantities after consultation with a pharmacist.

Amphetamine (scientific name a-methylphenthylamine) is a synthetic drug that stimulates the heart and respiration, constricts blood vessels and induces sleeplessness. It was originally marketed as Benzedrine in North America in the 1920s and in the U.K. in the mid-'30s for suppressing appetite or preventing narcolepsy.

Amphetamines were available over the counter and quickly became a favorite street drug known as "pep pills" or "bennies."

Methamphetamine, in low doses, can be used to treat attention deficit disorder, narcolepsy and, for short periods of time, obesity.

In higher doses, it is more addictive than the original drug and has a greater "rush" for the recreational or addicted user, followed by increased agitation and possibly violence in some individuals.

Methamphetamine can be easy to produce in small, clandestine labs, sometimes in a kitchen or bathroom, by mixing a cocktail of about 15 substances, mostly pseudoephedrine (a cold remedy), red phosphorous and iodine, but also including ammonia, paint thinner, ether, Drano and the lithium from batteries.

Police say an investment of about $150 can yield up to $10,000 worth of the drug. But the resulting drug is often impure and the manufacturing process can be dangerous and cause fires.

How does methamphetamine work?

According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, methamphetamine releases much higher levels of dopamine than the original drug.

Signs a house may be hiding a meth lab

  • Unusual odours (ether, ammonia, acetone, or other chemicals).
  • Excessive amounts of trash, particularly chemical containers, coffee filters or pieces of cloth that are stained red, and duct tape rolls.
  • Curtains always drawn or windows covered with aluminum foil or blackened on residences, garages, sheds, or other structures.
  • Evidence of chemical waste or dumping.
  • Frequent visitors, particularly at unusual times.
  • Extensive security measures or attempts to ensure privacy (no trespassing or beware of dog signs, fences, large trees or shrubs).
  • Secretive or unfriendly occupants.

It became a common street drug known as "speed" in the 1960s, usually taken in pill form, but lost popularity after a number of incidents that spread the warning that "speed kills."

Taken in oral form, methamphetamine stimulates brain cells, which in turn initially enhances mood. The user experiences increased wakefulness and physical activity, and decreased appetite. For some patients, even low doses can be addictive.

With street-level and higher doses of methamphetamine, especially if it is smoked or injected, the user immediately experiences an intense "rush" (also called a "flash") that causes intense pleasure but only lasts a few minutes. Users can become addicted and dependent quickly, needing more and higher doses as the addiction progresses.

In street and high doses, methamphetamine causes irritability, insomnia, confusion, hallucinations, anxiety, paranoia and increased aggression. In even higher doses, hypothermia and convulsions can cause death.

When the body is stimulated by methamphetamine, the drug can cause irreversible damage. The increased heart rate and blood pressure damage blood vessels in the brain, which can cause strokes, or irregular heartbeat, which can cause cardiovascular collapse and death. By vastly increasing the release of dopamine, methamphetamine appears to damage brain cells, eventually reducing the amount of dopamine available to the brain, causing symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease and severe depression, or both.

Total 'other' drug offences

 Year Possession    Trafficking

Production, importation

and  exportation

 20007,76225.3 3,88412.72,8159.2 1,0633.5 
 2001 8,378 27.0  4,235 13.7 2,683 8.6 1,460 4.7 
 2002 9,57130.5 4,645 14.8 2,791 8.9 2,135 6.8 
 2003 10,81634.1 5,208 16.4 3,060 9.7 2,548 8.0 
 2004 11,95637.4 6,530 20.43,347 10.5 2,079 6.5 
 2005 13,06640.4 7,69623.8 3,972 12.3 1,398 4.3 
 2006 13,29440.7 7,575 23.2 4,389 13.4 1,330 4.1 
 2007 14,54744.1 8,857 26.9 4,308 13.1 1,382 4.2 

Note: "Other" includes drugs such as crystal meth, ecstasy, "date rape" drugs, LSD, barbiturates, chemical precursors, etc.). Rates are per 100,000 population.

Source: Statistics Canada: Trends in police-reported drug offences in Canada

What is crank?

"Crank" is a smelly, yellow form of "meth" that is usually snorted. Crank is usually the cheapest form of the drug.

What is lith?

"Lith" is short for the lithium taken from batteries in the manufacturing process. Lith comes in a paste form that is usually smoked. It is more expensive than crank but cheaper than the crystal form.

Who uses crystal meth?

According to mental health workers, police and research scientists, the people who use crystal meth include:

  • Large numbers of rural and small town poor across North America.
  • Some young people in the rave and dance scene.
  • Some young people who want to lose weight.
  • Gay males involved in the dance scene or who frequent bathhouses.

Addiction experts say crystal meth first became popular in poor areas of rural North America for a number of reasons. It was a cheap high and, in initial stages of use, it provides energy that allows the user to keep working.

What is a tweaker?

A "tweaker" is a term for a crystal meth user that came out of the U.S. rural Midwest and has become increasingly common as the media and the entertainment industry picked up the term.

Can an addict recover?

Experts say that crystal meth is one of the most addictive street drugs and one of the hardest to treat. Addiction counsellors say the relapse rate of 92 per cent is worse than cocaine.

The withdrawal symptoms, especially the depression and physical agony, are reported by addiction counsellors to be worse than heroin or cocaine, and often addicts will drop out of recovery programs.

This situation is worse in the United States than in Canada because patients in the U.S. usually have inadequate health insurance or none at all. Those American patients in managed-care programs are often cut off before treatment is complete. In Canada, however, provincial health insurance and government recovery programs can help the addict recover.

With increasing use of the drug, there are strong indications that users suffer brain damage, including memory impairment and an increasing inability to grasp abstract thoughts. Those who do manage to recover from addiction and retain memory and the ability to function in society are usually subject to some memory gaps and extreme mood swings.