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Crystal Meth

By Geoff Thompson, MA, CCC, November, 2005.


“Life or Meth.” That’s the warning broadcast in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada. Posters stamp an exclamation point on the dangers of crystal meth (methamphetamine) with a skull-and-crossbones. The local media and website catalogue its horrors: “30 have died” in Maple Ridge due to crystal meth, “90 percent of homeless are addicted to crystal meth,” crystal meth users are responsible for “80 percent of car thefts,” crystal meth is the “worst street drug,” “crystal meth is poison,” crystal meth is “ravaging” our community, crystal meth is “killing our young people.”

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A Community “Takes Action” Against Crystal Meth

The response in Maple Ridge to the growing crystal meth use has been impressive, and when I was a resident of Maple Ridge, I sat on the local ‘task force’ of concerned citizens. Our solutions were to educate youth on the dangers of crystal meth, place surveillance cameras in drug stores and hardware outlets to catch those who were buying precursor ingredients in bulk, have police officers devote more time to enforcing drug legislation, encourage homeless people to return to their families, add more beds to the homeless shelter, and educate first-responders on how to deal with crystal meth users.

Our work has been praised in the Parliament of Canada, TV news segments, and newspapers. We have inspired at least five other municipalities to create their own task forces.

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Will the Community Succeed?

But will all this effort accomplish the goal of unburdening our communities? To be honest, I doubt it. There will likely be some immediate success. My community used Air Miles points to help most of the homeless fly back to their families, but eight months later, once again, I see many lost souls wandering the streets. And it’s always a good idea to raise public awareness—among other things, it puts pressure on politicians to cough up more money.

Despite the best of intentions, though, experience and research tell us that communities will soon discover that the solution to the crystal meth problem is a lot more complicated.

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Crystal Meth Keeps Spreading

From its beginnings in San Diego County in the early 1990s, this fourth wave of crystal meth keeps spreading. In certain areas it is abating, but as a rule it is taking over from other drugs. Researchers in the health region (FHA, 2005) where I work have concluded that crystal meth has become the number one drug of abuse in the world. In Canada it has risen to third or fourth, depending on the region. It is especially prevalent in rural areas, and it is creeping into urban neighborhoods.

Much of the reason for this, by the way, is that crystal meth has become the main ingredient added to other drugs to increase their volume (allowing dealers to make more money). Drugs confiscated in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia have been examined scientifically, and the results are startling. For instance, after chemical analysis, only 11 percent of what drug users believe is MDMA (ecstasy) is, in fact, MDMA; the rest is methamphetamine. Many stimulant addicts are thus addicted to crystal meth without even realizing it.

Crystal meth has reached this level of popularity in the face of more enforcement, tougher legal penalties, and growing public awareness campaigns.

Our efforts to curb crystal meth may be misguided. They seem to rest on the assumption that crystal meth is so insidious, with almost magical properties, that we need to stamp it out right now and provide special treatments for those who are hooked.

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Crystal Meth is One More Drug

Much of what we hear in the media about crystal meth is likely exaggerated. Crystal meth may prove to be simply another trend that will fade as the next popular drug appears.

The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission (AADAC, 2003) argues that the same fears and even the same language used to describe crystal meth were used in the 1980s to describe cocaine. If we go back another decade we see that the same things were said about heroin (remember Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park). And if we push our search back to the turn of the century, we discover the same fears were vented on alcohol.

AADAC concluded that if crystal meth were really the ‘worst’ drug, then it would likely have gone the way of PCP (phencyclidine, also known as Angel Dust), whose reputation on the street is so bad that even seasoned addicts avoid it.

My opinion is that those who would have become or were cocaine addicts are now crystal meth addicts. Crystal meth is cheaper, lasts longer, is easier to make, and produces a high very similar to cocaine. Perhaps more importantly, it seems to increase the libido more potently than cocaine does.

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Crystal Meth is not Magical

A decade ago, the father in Spike Lee’s movie, Clockers, warns his son to stay away from cocaine; if the youngster uses it ‘just once’, he’ll be hooked for life. Today, community task forces believe that crystal meth has some equally insidious chemical property that can turn anyone into an addict after a few uses.

Meth Menace

Research beginning in the 1990s, the ‘decade of the brain’, suggests that a drug, in itself, has no magical properties. Neuroscientist James Kalat (2004) puts it this way: “Addiction isn’t in the drug, it’s in the person.”

We should not be too eager to define an addict as a person who uses enough of a substance that he or she becomes physically dependent. This idea puts the addiction in the drug, not the person. Even though in Canada we have about 1.5 million alcoholics, we don’t think that there’s any magical ingredient in booze that can turn anyone into an alcoholic, even with all those tipsy partiers during New Year’s, the NHL playoffs, or Friday nights on university campuses.

It’s not the alcohol, but something in the person that makes the person vulnerable to alcoholism. Evidence suggests that this is also the case with crystal meth. Lots of data confirm that many crystal meth users use the drug recreationally, not addictively. This is also true for users of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and other drugs, by the way. Research has even confirmed that people vulnerable to addiction don’t even need a substance; think of those addicted to gambling, emotions, or extreme sports.

In 2003, 10.6 percent of Canadians admitted they have used cocaine, and 6.4 percent, amphetamines (CCSA, 2004). If Spike Lee were right, then Canada is home to 3 million coke addicts and 2 million speed addicts. 

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Crystal Meth Treatment is no Different than Other Treatments

Most of us agree that crystal meth use is also a health issue. At an upcoming forum I’ve been invited to talk about treatment for crystal meth addicts. I’ll be very boring. Basically, I’m going to tell everyone that, other than a few superficial changes, we don’t treat crystal meth addicts any differently than we treat those addicted to heroin, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, benzodiazepines, or any combination.

A nationally televised newscast in Canada recently showed a publicly funded treatment program for crystal meth addicts in the interior of British Columbia. There is nothing unique about the program. And I haven’t read any research that convinces me that crystal meth addicts are particularly special, other than that their post-acute withdrawal symptoms tend to hang on longer than those of other drugs. I also know from personal experience that crystal meth addicts can be a little more difficult to work with because of this.

No doubt some will remind me that crystal meth makes holes in the brain, produces psychosis, increases risky sexual behavior, and has a special appeal for women. All this is true. But I remain unconvinced. My instant response is that the same evidence is also true for certain other stimulants. Why single out crystal meth?

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Prohibition Doesn’t Seem to Work

Community task forces on crystal meth give a prominent role to police. We all appreciate that the American and Canadian experiment in legal prohibition a century ago was a failure.  Similarly, in towns where authorities have crushed the small ‘mom and pop’ crystal meth operations—the focus of community task forces—organized crime has often filled the vacuum. And organized crime doesn’t rely on local retailers for ingredients; they import them, or crystal meth itself, in bulk from ‘superlabs’. My clients who used to sell crystal meth in Maple Ridge tell me that their stocks almost always came from large criminal enterprises.

In recent years even Conservatives such as William F. Buckley, Jr., George Shultz, and Milton Friedman, and in Canada socially conscious citizens such as Nobel-Prize laureate John Polyani, have publicly condemned prohibition (O’toole, 1998). They have argued that not only has the war on drugs failed, but also that it no longer has a moral basis.

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What Does Work For Crystal Meth Addiction?

Crystal meth addiction is a community problem, and we need the efforts of concerned residents. I am proud that Maple Ridge has been unwilling to remain silent while sons and daughters, husbands and wives, relatives, friends, and neighbors are destroyed by a drug. The issue is what we can do that will work. Our approach right now continues to condemn the crystal meth menace as a moral and health issue.

We’re missing something. Focusing on the physical dangers of crystal meth and coercing users to quit doesn’t work very well. Ultimately, we may only be preaching to the converted.

For some time now, our members and others have been probing addiction at a deep, psychological level, well beyond issues of morality and health. We’re discovering that those who succumb to crystal meth and other drugs cannot find satisfactory answers to the questions ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How do I fit in the world?’ (Singer, 1997). Pointing out the dangers of crystal meth is too weak to convince those who are desperate to find a sense of belonging, to feel that they are part the world, to feel that their lives are worthwhile.

Geoff Thompson, MA, CCC is an addiction counsellor at Sunshine Coast Health Center, a private residential treatment facility for men located in Powell River, British Columbia, Canada. Prior to his relocation to Powell River, Geoff was a resident of Maple Ridge and was an addiction counsellor at the Maple Ridge Treatment Centre, a government-funded treatment centre for men.

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Works Cited

AADAC. (2003). Crystal Meth. Developments 23(2). Albert Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission.

CCSA. (2004). Canadian Addiction Survey (CAS). Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. See

FHA. (2005). A community guide: Strategies and interventions for dealing with crystal methamphetamine and other emerging drug trends. Fraser Health Authority. In press.

Kalat, James (2004). Biological psychology. Wadsworth Press. See,+James+%282004%29.+Biological+psychology.&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Lensen, D. (1999). On drugs. University of Minnesota Press.

O’toole, Kathleen. (June 3, 1998). Scholars urge UN to review drug war. Sanford Report. See

Singer, J.A. (1997). Message in a bottle: Stories of men and addiction. The Free Press.

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