A PROLIFIC AMATEUR
October 8, 2000
Special Report by the
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
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,"
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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.