October 8, 2000
Special Report by the
McClatchy Company's
California Newspapers

In Green Bay, Wis., there lives a 42-year-old man named Steve Preisler. He is the father of two young children and the holder of degrees in chemistry and biology from Marquette University. He works as an electroplating chemist. He also teaches people how to make methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine stimulates the central nervous system. It comes in powder or small "rocks" or "crystals," and can range in color from white to brown, depending on how it's cooked. It tastes bitter but easily dissolves in liquids. Depending on its method of production, it can be odorless or stink like the bottom of a football team's laundry hamper.

It has many names: "speed," "crank," "chalk," "shabu," "shi-shi," "spoosh," "zip," "boo," "chicken-feed," "geep," "scootie," "crystal," "ice," "glass" or "load of laundry."

It's snorted, swallowed, smoked or injected. Eaten, it can take 20 minutes to hit the brain. Inhaled through the nose, it can take three minutes. Smoked or injected, it can take eight seconds. Its effects last far longer than an equivalent amount of cocaine, maybe eight or 10 hours, compared to 30 minutes.

It makes you feel smarter, faster, stronger, sexier, happier and generally quite capable of kicking the world in the butt. The bad news is that it actually makes you dumber, slower, weaker and unable to have an orgasm.

It can cause memory loss, psychoses, heart damage, brain damage, high blood pressure, insomnia, tooth loss and intense paranoia. And then there are the side effects from the chemicals used to make meth, such as lead poisoning from batches made with lead acetate.

Like adrenaline, which it mimics, meth triggers the brain's fight-or-flight mechanism, making users belligerent and aggressive. They often complain about itchy skin or scalp, and they pick at themselves incessantly.

Meth also can be quickly and highly addictive.

All of this notwithstanding, Steve Preisler is not ashamed of teaching people to make it, even though he chooses to write under the nom de plume "Uncle Fester" (a nickname he says he got in college because of his penchant for making explosives and blowing things up, a la the character in the "Addams Family").

"Drugs are merely chemicals," he shrugs, "and knowledge of how they are produced can never be removed from the body of civilized knowledge." Preisler makes no secret of his own history of "recreational" drug use, although he's vague on his current habits. Nor is he shy about passing along little tips to meth users and cooks to avoid detection.

Preisler is the author of "Secrets of Methamphetamine Manufacture, Including Recipes for MDA, Ecstacy and Other Psychedelic Amphetamines." Now in its fifth edition, the 183-page, soft-cover book explains in some detail how to make what he calls "that food of the gods, meth." He says his book sells 5,000 copies a year, mostly through West Coast bookstores, where it retails for $30 a copy.

It is not illegal to write or publish such information, although Congress has considered passing a law that would make it so. (The "war on drugs," he says, "is futile . . . Endlessly adding more common chemicals to lists to be watched by America's secret police has done nothing to stem this nation's voracious appetite for illegal drugs.") In fact, Preisler's book is just one source of meth recipes that is readily available. The World Wide Web is brimming with them. But Preisler generally is acknowledged as the Pied Piper of meth making.

"I think it is fair to say," he says proudly, "that I'm the person responsible for making clandestine [meth] cooking what it is today -- a burgeoning pastime."

It is that. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, almost 7,000 meth labs were discovered in the United States last year by local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, and about one-third were in California.

More remarkably, in the largest category of labs -- the so-called super labs making multi-pound batches for widespread distribution and sale -- 97 percent were in California, mainly in the Central Valley and the Southern California deserts.

"Most of the meth in the United States comes from California," says Bob Dey, the DEA agent in charge of the Sacramento office," and most of the meth in California comes from the Central Valley."

How the Valley became a "source nation" for America's meth could be said (with some poetic license) to have its roots in ancient China. For more than 5,000 years, the Chinese have used an herb called ma huang. It is derived from the stems of the ephedra plant, a 2-foot-high shrub that smells like pine and grows primarily in Asia. The plant, which contains alkaloids called ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, is most commonly used for opening clogged bronchial and sinus passages.

When Western medicine discovered its benefits, the plants were used at such a rate that there was a fear the world would run out of them. Then in 1927, a Los Angeles-based researcher named Gordon Alles experimented on himself and others and discovered that amphetamines were an effective substitute for ephedrine and pseudoephedrine.

Amphetamine, a drug that stimulates the central nervous system, had been synthesized from chemicals in Germany in the mid-1880s. Methamphetamine, a more potent form of amphetamine, was created in 1919 by a Japanese pharmacologist. But before Alles' experiments, there hadn't been much use for it. About the same time, scientists discovered that ephedrine and pseudoephedrine could be made synthetically, without ephedra.

Now there was plenty of both substances, and pharmaceutical companies began putting them to work. By 1946, amphetamines, including methamphetamine, had found more than three dozen pharmaceutical uses, from nose drops to treatment of obesity, narcolepsy and, in the words of one doctor, "amelioration of mood." Because the drug induces feelings of high energy and loss of appetite, nations involved in World War II routinely supplied it to soldiers to fight hunger and fatigue. (Nor was it confined to the battlefield: Adolf Hitler was said to have received up to eight meth injections a day.)

In the 1950s, many U.S. doctors prescribed the drugs with abandon, particularly for weight loss. In Japan, the postwar government actually encouraged workers to use amphetamines, including meth, to increase production. The result was an epidemic of addiction, followed by a giant program to discourage its use.

By the 1960s, "bennies," "pep pills," "dexies" and "white crosses" had become popular in the United States, and some pharmacies began selling injectable amphetamines. Even President John F. Kennedy shot meth to give him energy and help him cope with chronic back pain.

But as the '60s ended, many drug companies, under government pressure, got out of the "speed" business. Their place in the market was quickly taken over by a cottage industry that in turn, by the 1980s, would give way to a mega-business, prompted in part by the burgeoning cocaine business.

Cocaine use in California cities grew during the 1980s, but the drug often was expensive and hard to get in many rural areas. So drug users turned to a substance made by outlaw motorcycle gangs in makeshift, clandestine labs. It was called "crystal meth" because it was in the form of a little rock, or "crank," and often was carried in the crankcases of motorcycles.

The bikers made their meth using a chemical called phenyl-2-propanone, or P2P. Until 1980, P2P was freely available from chemical suppliers, but that same year it was classified by the federal government as a controlled substance. Underground chemists reacted by producing their own P2P, using more than a dozen different methods.

Sometime in the 1980s, just as authorities began cracking down on some of the chemicals used to produce P2P, meth makers discovered a different formula using ephedrine, hydriodic acid and red phosphorus.

In addition to skirting the ban on P2P, the method had other advantages. It produced a higher yield -- and a purer and more potent form of methamphetamine.