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A Brief History of Meth

How an experimental asthma remedy became one of the world's most feared drugs.

Illustrations by Michael Dockery

This post originally appeared on VICE Australia

The Australian Federal Police intercepted $10 million [$7 million USD] worth of methamphetamine—or ice, as we in Australia like to call it—on Sunday, stashed inside three rather tacky fish statues from China. Investigators intercepted the statues, replaced their contents with filler, and delivered the packages to their intended address in Canberra. A Nigerian national was later arrested after the contents were removed.

This all happened because ice is evil, right? Well, yes and no. Like every other illicit drug on the planet, ice was born out of the legal pharmaceutical industry and only developed its all-pervading stigma in recent years. So for the sake of some record-straightening let's look at how this happened.

Americans more accurately refer to the drug as meth. Speed is also meth, just in a powder format. It should also be noted that crack is an adulterated form of cocaine and has nothing to do with methamphetamine. For the sake of consistency we'll call ice meth for the remainder of this article.

It all began at the Humboldt University of Berlin. In 1871 the Japanese Government sent their country's first pharmaceutical doctor, 25-year-old Nagai Nagayoshi, to study in Berlin. This was a time when the pursuit of chemistry was still shaking off the last whiffs of alchemy, and researchers were making quiet discoveries that would become plastics, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, explosives, and a billion other household products. Nagayoshi was sent to study under a teacher named August Wilhelm von Hofmann, who was gaining some international status for lecturing his students in a working lab, as well as for his unusual enthusiasm for plant compounds. Under Hofmann's tuition, Humboldt University gave us modern dyes, petrochemical distillation, and methamphetamines.

Nagai Nagayoshi was interested in identifying the constituents of traditional Asian herbs, which is how he came to isolate the stimulant ephedrine from the Chinese plant, Ephedra sinica. It's been theorized Nagayoshi was trying to create a drug similar to cocaine, which had been championed by Sigmund Freud in his book Uber Cocaine in 1884. But when ephedrine was isolated in 1885 it was seen as a novel discovery, albeit one without a practical use. Despite Nagayoshi's hope that ephedrine would assist asthma sufferers, the German pharmaceutical company E. Merck knocked the drug back, saying it offered no improvement over adrenaline. This may have motivated Nagayoshi to bolster its effects, which ended in him using ephedrine to synthesize methamphetamine in 1893. But again, Nagayoshi couldn't find a practical application and meth was forgotten.

In 1919, another Japanese chemist studying in Berlin, a guy named Akira Ogata, discovered a simpler, faster process for synthesizing crystal meth. He adapted Nagayoshi's recipe for ephedrine but added red phosphorus and iodine, producing the same result in a convenient crystalline form. He released the recipe to the British-based Burroughs Wellcome & Co, who first introduced the drug to Europe as a psychiatric treatment.

Methamphetamine graduated from an esoteric novelty to a drugs scourge via World War II. In 1934 the German pharmaceutical company Temmler began exploring the drug's potential for the consumer market. After filing a patent titled Process for the Preparation of Amines, a tablet form of meth called Pervitin was introduced in 1939. Pervitin was sold in a cylinder containing 30 digestible pills, and like a sort of extreme Red Bull, it was sold to the general public as a way to increase concentration and wakefulness. It soon found a market with German soldiers, and among Luftwaffe pilots, it came to be known colloquially as the Herman-Göring Pill.

A very similar thing happened in Japan. But whereas the Germans informally adopted meth, the Japanese embraced the drug with empire-building fervor. They called it Philopon, which translates roughly to "love of work," and funneled it into all arms of the military, as well as into government factories. Particularly high doses were also given to Kamikaze pilots before missions, for reasons that are probably obvious. Incidences of stimulant-fueled psychosis exploded but as in Germany, these cases were downplayed at the behest of the pharmaceutical companies.

Over in the US, the 1950s were a golden age for meth-based diet pills. Several companies patented consumer methamphetamines under a range of names including Obetrol. According to the 1972 Physicians' Desk Reference, each 10 milligram tablet of Obertol contained 2.5 milligrams of methamphetamine saccharate. If you've seen Requiem for a Dream , you'll know what that does. Products like these were slowly phased out through the 1960s, and were completely outlawed by the Controlled Substances Act in 1970.

Japan, however, banned meth much faster. In the late 40s surplus military stimulants were rebranded Hiropon and sold to the hungry, miserable post-war population. What was already rampant use among Japan's ex-military turned into an all-out epidemic and the Stimulant Control Law was introduced in 1951, banning all use of meth and its production. By 1954 it's estimated the country still had about 550,000 chronic users, with another 2 million former users—around 3.8 percent of the population.

As Japan and the US cracked down on meth, Australia followed. We've long entertained a pragmatic attitude towards drugs, and never permitted in the same range of shonky pharmaceuticals as the US. Most Australian drug arrests prior to the 1960s targeted international victors, and it wasn't until the Vietnam War that the notion of "recreational drug use" was introduced by returning servicemen. But in the 1970s, as the US began to drive a war-on-drugs agenda through the UN, Australia shifted from a harm minimization approach favored by the British, to a more American-style policy of criminal justice.

Prior to the 1970s, Australian drugs were regulated by state Poisons Acts. Then, one by one, these laws were adapted to account for people actively trafficking. Sentences were also upped for possession and the media turned against the scourge of drugs. It was also about the time that media coverage began forcing drugs into two sides of a moralistic dichotomy. This said that drugs such as aspirin were good, whereas drugs like meth were intrinsically evil, despite the fact that each are just chemicals, incapable of leaning one way or the other. That's to say that it's culture that dictates a drug's vibe. Aspirin isn't any more natural than meth, despite the way users might look.

This takes us to the present day, where the issue of drugs is impossible to bring up without the mention of meth. With reports of ballooning addiction in rural communities, and celebrities such as Ben Cousins forcing meth into the spotlight, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced a task force to tackle the problem. The word "epidemic" also gets thrown around a lot, which is an issue because usage has actually fallen. In 1998 3.9 percent of people aged 14 and older admitted to using the drug, whereas by 2013 that number had fallen to 2.1 percent. The main difference is that most people are now smoking the crystal form instead of snorting the powder.

As Monday's seizure made clear, people are afraid of meth and want it off the streets. That's reasonable, but fear mongering leaves a lot out of the picture. Meth is a chemical just like any other. Its effect on society says just as much about society as it does the drug.

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