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Built for Speed?

by Todd C. Roberts

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?

[Erowid Note: This article is archived for historical purposes and should be understood as one person's view/rant and not a well-researched factual account. It contains errors and unsubstantiated claims that the reader should consider carefully before citing as source material.]

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 chemical aid.

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. [Erowid Note: This is incorrect. Freebase methamphetamine is an oil at room temperature and all available powder and crystal forms of methamphetamine are salts.]

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. [Erowid Note: This is incorrect. Methamphetamine is a pure chemical, although retail forms may contain various adulterants, binders, or fillers. The ice/glass forms of methamphetamine are often less adulterated forms of methamphetamine, but its dosages are the same as any pure methamphetamine dosages and its effects are identical when taken at the same dose, through the same route of ingestion, as other forms of methamphetamine.]

However, its high price prevents it from taking hold. A gram of "ice" commands about $5,000 on the street. [Erowid Note: This is incorrect. Although anyone can pay any price in a free market, as of 2003, methamphetamine's street price has never been that high. Prices for methamphetamine between 1992 and 2003 generally ranged from $50-200 per gram. The price the author cites would put the cost of a single dose at $250-500 USD, a full order of magnitude higher than prices paid for single doses in high-priced New York City clubs.]

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: Part I

"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 writing.

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.

[Editorial Note: Methcathinone is related to ephedrine similarly to how speed is related to ephedrine. If you take ephedrine and reduce it you get methamphetamine, if you take ephedrine and oxidize it then you've got methcathinone. The reference to "drain-cleaner and battery acid" is to common sources of the chemicals sodium hydroxide and H2SO4 which are used in chemical synthesis. Methcathinone is not "made from" those substances but can be "made using" those substances. -- Lamont Granquist ]

"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-lasted."

"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 necessarily decreased.

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: Part II

"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...
into glassware
15 minutes after shooting a 1/4g
at stoplights
in mid-sentence
in mid-shot
in mid-fuck"
(Speed Phreak)

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 cigarettes."

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.

Control drugs. Don't let them control you.

Article originally appeared in URB Magazine, October 1995