Methamphetamine: Built for Speed?
Methamphetamine has reclaimed a place in the lexicon of “party” drugs. Hailed by
nocturnal adventurers, condemned by raver idealists, is speed a sleepless dream
or an addictive nightmare?
by Brian Otto
Here at the end of the millennium, the pace of modern life seems fleeting — a
whirl of minutes, hours and days. In dealing with the changes, humans have
equipped themselves with the tools to move faster, more efficiently. At the same
time a dependence for the marketing, high-speed transportation and pharmacology
of this modern age has evolved. In a race to outdo ourselves, we have moved
dangerously toward the fine line between extinction and evolution. Therefore,
the human capacity to handle the velocity becomes a fragile balance.
Our generation (see Gen X, 20-somethings) could be considered the sleepless
generation. An age of society’s children weaned on the ideals of high-speed
communication and accelerated culture has prided itself in mastering many of the
facets of human existence — doing more, sleeping less. The machines of this age
have in a way enabled us to create a 24-hour lifestyle. We have pushed the
limits of the modern world further — ATMs, high-speed modems, smart bombs and
bullet trains. However, the limitations of human existence, like sleep, may
still provide the stumbling block for infinite realization. That is, without
In many ways, capitalism fuels the idea. Our society is based upon the mass
consumption of these substances. Cultural ideals, while seemingly benevolent as
“Have a Coke and a smile” have sold the link to chemical substances like
caffeine and nicotine to “the good life.” Today, stimulants are the bedrock for
consumer culture. For our generation, this appeal was heightened by raising the
stakes in the ’80s on what it meant to have fun.
Late night clubs, high speed music and 24-hour lifestyles brought the specter of
drugs to the fold as a necessity for being able to attain more. Leaps away from
the psychedelics of the ’60s, in the ’80s these stimulant drugs became tools —
utilitarian devices to gain wealth, intelligence and prestige. Sleep became a
barrier for success. Dreams were the frivolous luxuries of childhood.
Raves, founded equally in the post-conservative underground late-’80s and the
chaotic early-’90s, are part of the pastiche that has consequently become more
dream-like, more unreal and still somehow manageable. The hyperreality of today
goes hand in hand with the drugs being administered.
It’s 6 a.m. Around the speaker bins are small packs of animated dancers grinding
their feet into the floor and shaking their hands in front of them. The lookie-
loos and weekend warriors have long since gone home. Absent from their faces are
the smiles of midnight, replaced by the blank, vacant stare of sleepless dreams.
They have a name in the rave community, they are “tweakers.” “Tweaking,” the
common name for sniffing lines of speed, the drug methamphetamine, (popular for
its availability and price) has somehow replaced MDMA and LSD as the perfect
rave drug, allowing users the clear head and stamina to keep dancing long after
their bodies have gone to sleep.
A prominent opinion during the aftermath of the Los Angeles Summer of Love was
that speed killed the rave scene. Where speed had been seen in every scene from
metal to the punk scene, for some reason it was shocking for some to see
methamphetamine take hold, even though MDMA (an amphetamine-like substance) had
been circulating for years. Some likened the rise to the quash of young
newcomers, some equated it with the greed of drug dealers. Judging from today’s
roster of events throughout the nation, raves are still alive and well. However,
many old-schoolers have been turned off by the newbie vibe that came with
speed’s rise in popularity. Some were casualties themselves of the drug’s
addictive nature. Others say that speed alone is what fuels the rave scene,
keeping it from dying.
Amphetamine was first synthesized in 1887. First popularized by pharmaceutical
company Smith Kline & French as the nasal inhaler, Benzedrine, in 1932.
(Amphetamine is widely known as a bronchio dialator, allowing asthmatics to
breathe more freely.) A probable direct reaction to the Depression and
Prohibition, the drug was used and abused by non-asthmatics looking for a buzz.
Jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker would remove the inhaler’s Benzedrine strip and
soak it in his coffee.
Methamphetamine, more potent and easy to make, was discovered in Japan in 1919.
The crystalline powder was soluble in water, making it a perfect candidate for
injection. Also smoking the drug creates a similar rush. It is still legally
produced in the U.S., most often prescribed for weight loss, sold under the
trade name Desoxyn. As the name “speed” suggests, amphetamines elevate mood,
heighten endurance and eliminate fatigue, explaining the drug’s popularity with
the military. Hitler was supposedly injected with methamphetamine.
Speed rose to popularity in California, home of many of the largest meth labs in
the country, riding on the back of biker gangs. Bikers have been historically
blamed for introducing the drug into the psychedelic ’60s, subsequently bringing
down a whole Summer of Love with violence and angst. Since then, speed has been
given a bad rap. It has been called a trailer park drug for decades, due to the
fact that it can be cooked up so cheaply and easily. It’s the drug of choice for
long-distance truckers and college students pulling all-nighters. Over the
counter ephedrine, or “white crosses,” has taken the place of pharmaceutical
amphetamine as an easy-to-get alternative.
What is often misunderstood is the relationship between speed and crystal meth.
The common reference to speed in the rave scene is the methamphetamine salt (HCl
powder), whereas “crystal” usually refers to the free-base form of
methamphetamine. Another form “Ice,” a higher-grade, purer form of crystal meth
is smoked, a single hit creates a high that lasts for hours and several hits can
wire a user for days. However, its high price prevents it from taking hold. A
gram of “ice” commands about $5,000 on the street.
Speed came to the rave scene in 1992. Theory: when the parties in ’92 started to
get really good, the police were cracking down more on the prime-time parties —
partiers needed to find late-night/early morning activities like after-hours.
Consequently, the price of taking 3-4 pills of ecstasy became too expensive an
option, speed took over as an easier to get and cheaper alternative. Now, the
standard street price in Los Angeles for a gram of speed is approximately $100,
where ecstasy sells for approx. $150 or more.
One major misconception is the link between methamphetamine and ecstasy [MDMA].
Ecstasy does not necessarily contain speed, yet both contain the methamphetamine
structure. However, each affects a far different region of the brain resulting
in different psychological effects. Ecstasy primarily effects serotonin in the
brain — the center for self-satisfaction and emotional systems. Speed affects
dopamine primarily, a neurotransmitter linked to pleasure and reward. (Oddly,
alcohol also affects a dopamine center.) Often, MDMA is “cut” with speed to
lower the street price of the drug, thus changing the overall effect. The two
are similar in chemical makeup but one cannot be made from the other. Slightly
changing the chemical makeup produces a wholly different effect in the human
brain. While both have addictive potential, speed, because of its dopamine ties,
is much more profoundly addicting. Qualitatively, speed and ecstasy supposedly
give off “glows” that are far different.
Ecstasy has a definite link to the rave scene. In some places it is synonymous.
Speed too has been linked to the rave scene — some say it was the death of the
ideal. What’s unusual, given the qualitative similarities between the two, are
the differing opinions about speed. While many admit openly to taking MDMA, they
will not condone or even accept speed as a “valid” recreational drug. The stigma
that goes with “tweaking” can be quite severe.
“Speed is evil,” says Dominic. “I have seen more people’s lives twisted up off
that drug than anything else in the world. I was first introduced to it about
five years ago by a girl I was dating. I basically watched her use of it turn
from an occasional party thing to basically the sustenance of her life. Her body
withered way, and everything she did revolved around speed.”
“Speed does not belong in the underground scene,” he continues. “Something that
is so damn negative could never co-exist with the positive ideals that we try to
promote. If you want to get amped, feel energy and stay up all night, try
alternatives — using speed just to stay up is a total cop out.” However, his
opinion is that ecstasy has opposite effects and could actually save the rave
scene. “[MDMA] induces a sense of spiritual enlightenment, happiness, and
sometimes social understanding, something that could never be achieved by
shoving a few rails of driveway cleaner up your nose.”
“I’m all for consciousness expansion, even if by chemical means,” says another
critic, Michael. “Preferably organic chemistry. The problem is major parts of
the scene moved away from enlightenment, transcendence and betterment of the
self through involvement in community”
A regular user of the drug is DJ Velour, 19, also finds some criticism for it.
“I believe that speed/crystal is one of the most psychologically addictive drugs
around,” he says “Whenever I get tired or wish I had more energy, I always think
how nice it would be to have some speed. In that respect, I am addicted, because
it is definitely a part of my thought pattern now. And I haven’t done speed for
over 3 weeks now.” Even though his experiences have not all been good, he is
still connected to the drug.
“Amphetamines, in my mind are not evil,” says Velour, hoping to defend the drug
against his critical peers. “They are simple chemicals, if there is anything
evil it is the society we live in which dictates that they are illegal and thus
makes them harder to get.”
“I will admit one thing, it is very addictive,” he goes on. “Once you take it a
few times, you will continue to think about it after you stop. I haven’t done
speed for a month now and still some days will go by where I have only had 3 or
4 hours sleep, and I think to myself, ‘You know, speed would really help out
right now.’ However, that is what makes me a more responsible user. I not only
realize my desire for speed and other amphetamines and I curb the habit.” He
feels that his ability to control his habit is more powerful than his lust for
it. “Many of my friends are long time users of speed. However, by no means have
they ruined their lives.”
DJ Velour believes that the rave community can co-exist with a drug like
methamphetamine. He also, among others, mentions speed’s many different
appearances that make for different psychological outcomes. “Speed and other
stimulants can be a positive part of a raving community. However, just like any
other drug it depends upon the person taking it and the purity/mixture of the
drug. As strange as this may sound, different speeds can evoke different
emotions. They not only stimulate latent emotions, increasing their strength,
but they can also enforce emotions much in the way ecstasy can. I have had some
very “happy” speed that made me feel as happy as when I was on X. On the flip
side I have had some lower grade speed that made me feel depressed.”
Speedlore and Methology
“Of all the separate realities, legal landscapes, and metabolic metropolis that
thrive beneath the surface of the Cleaver’s USA, no subculture seems as
pervasive or uniform as the nationwide-eyed, high dosage methamphetamine club.
This group is a tribute to the idea that some things stay the same across time
or space… the members come and go, some leave quietly, some go snitch, croak,
or disappear, some hang in there after their lights have gone out, and quite a
few are dragged off at 6:00 a.m. Friday morning by blue windbreakers with yellow
Getting in too deep is what we do, it’s who we are.
But despite all this, there are a few of us who have managed to hang around the
periphery for decades, avoiding the felonies, gunshots, big ripoffs, and
crippling motorcycle accidents. Other than luck, the key to staying alive is
knowing when to take a step back, on your own, and avoid the biggest bear-trap
in the speed circus: taking yourself too seriously…
Truly not giving a fuck is the only way to maintain perspective. In other words,
there are worse things that can happen, than having to lay down and go to sleep
for a week… no drug or state of mind is worth dying for, killing for, or doing
hard time for…” (Speed Phreak)
“My experience with speed-like substances really begins with coffee,” says Mark,
an addict that relates his experiences back to an early age. “I’ve been drinking
the stuff since Jr. High School as my get me up and go thing. But the
relationship with amphetamines starts six or seven years ago with poppers
(ephedrine, mini-thins). I started taking them to stay awake in college to
finish papers and the like.”
“Things got really serious when I started doing CAT, a local low-grade speed
that was in vogue about six years ago.” CAT, or methacathinone, is a popular
substance made from common household chemicals like drain-cleaner, Epsom salts
and battery acid. “I realized how bad my problem was when right around the time
the land war in Iraq began. I had stayed up for days on end, watching the planes
bomb the Iraqis. It’s the only drug I’ve done at work. To this day what was a
six month period still seems to me to be several weeks. It’s also the only drug
I’ve done where my peers at work noticed mood swings, irritability, and
sleeplessness. The CAT I knew dearly also tweaked me on methamphetamine when the
CAT seemed to loose its luster.” CAT is notorious for its hardcore addictive
potential, apparently strong enough to hook users after just one sample.
“Even after I kicked the CAT habit, I would usually indulge my speed addiction
by crushing up mini-thins and snorting them. This continued for about another
year. Most recently (for about a year) I moved to MDMA as the speed kick. At
first I did it about once a month, but that has fallen off to a much less
frequent, but still regular usage.”
“What caught me about speed, and what catches me now, is the feeling of
invulnerability. I think I get from speed what most cocaine users get from coke.
The feeling of being on top of the world. As a raver, speed is also a convenient
way to keep dancing long after your body has gone to sleep.”
Asked if the drug has improved his life, he answers, “What a joke. Improve?
Beyond the nominal gain of being able to dance until the wee hours of the
morning, it doesn’t. And productivity? Any gains are ephemeral and short-
“I do in fact know some people who skate through life without problems with
drugs. But I think more people than not overestimate their ability to handle
drugs. Drugs can be fun, but they also tend to get in the way of being a
functional human being with multi-dimensional interests, as opposed to being a
full-time club kid, which gets you nowhere fast.”
For “Pat,” the drug poses a serious paradox. He was prescribed methamphetamine
for a learning disability and consequently produced a problem through abuse.
“I’m able to work with concentration on something far longer than a few hours,”
he says of meth. “I have Attention Deficit Disorder [and] speed seems to improve
my attention span.”
“It can be a transcendental drug if you do enough. I’ve had really intense
thought about observations of myself, or new ideas about what I’d like to do
with my music, or other creative thoughts. This occurs with other psychedelic
drugs that I’ve done.” Still, he describes the typical problem with drugs like
speed. “Speed is funny. You think you’ve got it under control when you first do
it because it’s usually so nasty on the sinuses and your body that you don’t
ever think you could get used to the feeling… [However], you do.”
Other users bring up the fact that MDMA also has an addiction factor, that many
only attribute to meth. “I like speed just fine,” says Benboy. “But I have seen
many speed freaks go out like that. And I’ve seen a few ‘E’ freaks buy the farm
too, even though I do think E is much safer). But a drug, whether it’s
strychnine, THC, caffeine or Prozac, is nothing more than an inert substance; as
dangerous as a head of lettuce in itself. It’s what you do with it that makes a
difference. But the difference between jonesing for a sugar fix and a speed fix
is only partially chemical and physiological. Most of it is social.” The drug
itself is not the problem, it’s the setting involved. The availability and the
motive to remain awake for long hours may compound the addiction of speed.
Still others attribute a great deal of positive qualities to methamphetamine.
“My brain was so clear when I used this, that I came up with answers to problems
that had been bugging me for months,” says an anonymous post to one of the world
wide web’s drug archives. “This stuff makes your brain work at 100% efficiency
and doubles processor speed. It makes you feel (and probably actually does) like
your IQ jumped quite a bit.” According to some medical journals, methamphetamine
does produce slight improvements in mental acuity, though performance of only
“simple mental tasks” is improved, although the amount of errors is not
Still many would attribute “wonder drug” status to meth, enabling them to get
more done without sleep. Students, hackers and late-night workers rely on the
drug to keep them awake. “Sleep will never even occur to you,” the post
continues. “Do two hits in the morning before work, and you will never miss the
sleep from the night before. As a matter of fact, you will feel better than if
you had skipped the drug and slept all night!”
Speedlore and Methology:
“The American Speedfreak is not a lost soul. We know how to have fun between the
first ether gasp and locking ourselves in the closet. A twisted wisdom creeps
into those of us who manage to survive, a sort of collective unconsciousness, an
unspoken Crankster ideology:
It’s time to get some sleep when:
You’re out of crank
Your face is bouncing off the table
Your veins have completely disappeared beneath pasty goose flesh
Your shoes don’t fit anymore
24 simultaneous projects have stalled for lack of floor space suddenly
everyone is a cop
You’ve just set yourself on fire, again
You’re nodding out…
15 minutes after shooting a 1/4g
Speed was created for a future world where everything moves at a faster clip, an
unsettling velocity. Seemingly synthesized as an accessory to a fast car, high
speed lifestyle, it has made mutations over the years to evolve for a new race.
The punk, cyber, industrial and rave scenes has exemplified their fetish for
speed. The desire for future frontiers — high gloss veneers and space travel–
is not inhuman, but the problem comes with the human limitation to handle the
extremes of rocket travel or the side-effects of re-entry. Like a space capsule
falling to earth, the destruction that comes from the come-down can be severe.
The come-down is what many users refer to as “the crash.” Usually symptoms like
chills, nervous twitching, sweats and exhaustion are prevalent. The “high”
produced is a result of extra activation chemicals in the brain. “The so-called
stereotypic behavior in animals (compulsive gnawing, sniffing) is associated
with dopamine release from reservoirs in neurons in the brain,” says Matt
Plunkett, an Organic Chemistry graduate student at U.C. Berkeley. “The increase
in motor activity involves the noradrenaline system. [The drug] mimics the
molecule noradrenaline (norepinephrine) at the receptors for this
neurotransmitter. Hence your body acts as if there were more of it around.”
Simply put, stimulants cause their effects by blocking re-uptake of
neurotransmitters at a pre-synaptic membrane. The cell secretes activation
chemicals, but cannot re-absorb them in the presence of cocaine or speed. The
user feels “wired,” full of energy, because their cells are receiving massive
stimulation. The more concentrated the drug is, the more intense the rush is,
and the more damaging the effects. In worst case scenarios, heart attacks occur
from over stimulation and energy depletion.
The come down is a result of the chemical being released all at once, making you
high, but then is subsequently degraded in the synapse. So once you come down,
there’s not as much as there normally should be, creating the “come-down blues.”
Prevalent discussion between users on either side of the methamphetamine
argument involves addiction. According to several studies, criteria for
addiction includes: unsuccessful attempts to quit, persistent desire and craving,
continued use despite knowledge of harm to oneself or others, taking the drug to
avoid or relieve withdrawal. While the social definition for addiction is
debatable, the chemical and physical activity in the body is founded in one of
several compounds in the brain. “Many drugs that are addictive, have primary or
major effects on the dopamine system (nicotine, amphetamine, cocaine, alcohol,
heroine),” says Plunkett. “Drugs that don’t have a major effect on dopamine
generally aren’t ‘addictive’ in the same way — Marijuana, MDMA, LSD, psilocybin,
etc. Although abuse potential is there, it doesn’t generate the same kind of
craving. Dopamine is normally involved with pleasure and reward, among many
other biochemical roles.”
With long-term abuse, the effects of methamphetamine become much more severe.
Tolerance is an issue, like in most drugs, where more of the drug is needed to
get “high.” Psychosis, specific to methamphetamines usually sets in after a time
which is said to include “suspicion, anxiety and auditory hallucination.” Though
reportedly, much more acute are the changes in lifestyle and eventually in
personality that manifest. Users exhibit an affective disorder and subtle change
in psychological temperament. Apparently, these symptoms can last up to five
years. Many who have witnessed the changes in habitual users report the shift to
aggressive or non-affectionate behavior which may also be attributed to
methamphetamine. Also apparent is some nerve damage in habitual users (primarily
crystal smokers) — jaw clenching and facial ticks.However, how much can be
attributed tot the drug and how much to sleep deprivation is unclear.
Meth is one of the most addictive drugs of today’s commonly used drugs.
According to one study that appeared in In Health magazine (Dec. 1990), the
addictive potential inherent in the drug, methamphetamine, taken nasally ranks
over cocaine, caffeine and PCP (angel dust) in addictive qualities. MDMA,
marijuana, psilocybin and LSD ranked at least 50 points lower than meth on a 100
point scale, nicotine being the highest above both crack and crystal meth. Talk
of “addictive personalities” have recently been founded valid, involving
individual physiology, psychology, social and economic pressures to suggest a
person’s vulnerability to drug dependency. Therefore, it does rely greatly on
the person when talking about their potential for abuse. Still, many theorists
contend that stimulants — lumping in caffeine, nicotine and amphetamines — by
their nature are addictive and must be reconsidered by society.
Ethnobotanist, drug theorist and author Terence McKenna calls the “dominator”
drugs — synthetic drugs that have been refined and concentrated, therefore
losing their natural link to the planet and to human-kind. He equates them with
the religious fundamentalism and beige fascism of the post-industrial, Western
world — the center for ego-dominator culture. McKenna considers the natural
psychedelics, psilocybin and even LSD, to be more intuitive and based upon the
natural human spirit.
“Dominator” drugs have been established and validated by “dominator culture,” a
culture interested in the mass consumerism of these legitimate substances —
sugar, nicotine, caffeine. He relates the emergence of drugs like
methamphetamine back to the institutionalized abuse of these substances. “The
history of commercial drug synergies — the way in which one drug has been
cynically encouraged and used to support the introduction of others — over the
past five hundred years is not easy to contemplate,” he writes in his book Food
of the Gods.
“The hypocrisy of dominator culture as it picks and chooses the truths and
realities that it finds comfortable,” he continues. Some drugs like alcohol and
nicotine have long been legal and subsidized by dominator culture, however their
qualitative separation from drugs like cocaine or speed is still unclear.
“[These drugs] are still at the depths of drug depravity especially considering
the violent or illegal acts that the craving may induce [because of their
illegal status], however tobacco addicts (smokers) might kill for their fix too
if they had to, but instead they simply walk out to a 7-Eleven and buy
While I am no proponent of speed or drug abuse, I have become glaringly aware of
the hypocrisy prevalent in mainstream and underground culture regarding the
legitimation of certain drugs. When finger-pointing, it is important to remember
the glass houses we all live in. Addiction is a problem, but the bigger problem
is sweeping it into a closet, pretending it isn’t real, pretending that our own
addictions are more manageable.
Speed is a potentially dangerous substance. It can be used as a tool, like late-
night coffee drinkers. It can also be used as a recreational drug. However, it
can also be abused and exploited to the point where the need for it besides
soothing a craving is the only point. And then, there is no point. Some may
argue that there is an aesthetic, a qualitative high, however, by
methamphetamine’s nature — as a refined, concentrated addictive substance — it
only perpetuates the cycle for needing more.
There is very little factual information about amphetamines and their dangers
available to the lay person. Research on the subject, aside from medical
journals, is virtually nill. There is however a great deal of dangerous
propaganda — hear-say, lies, rumors. Misinformation sometimes is more dangerous
than no information and real answers are only found through communication.
Many other drugs have been part of the rave community over the years — nitrous
oxide, Special K (ketamine) and especially ecstasy (MDMA) but none have
exhibited the burn-out or addiction rate associated with methamphetamine. While
meth (or any drug) is an inert substance that we cannot attribute blame to, by
its nature it has raised the question “Are we really built for speed?” It seems
that the human body, while naturally resilient to much self-inflicted abuse, may
not be a reliable container for the soul at high speeds. Methamphetamine may
have the ability to chemically fuel the ride, physically it may just prove the
limitations for human society.