Meth’s Evolution


Methamphetamine was first developed in Japan. In 1885, Nagai Nagayoshi discovered that ephedra, a plant used to treat breathing conditions such as asthma, also contained ephedrine, a chemical stimulant. Eight years later, he synthesized methamphetamine. In 1919, Akira Ogata discovered a way to break ephedrine down into a crystal-like form. This became the first known formula for crystal meth.

The first amphetamine known to be used in the United States was developed as a nasal decongestant in 1929. The Benzedrine inhaler was sold over the counter throughout the 1930s and ’40s. During World War II, pilots used meth to increase their endurance on long missions. The Japanese, German, British, and U.S. military supplied soldiers with meth tablets to help them stay alert and be willing to take risks. Starting in the 1950s, methamphetamine was legally manufactured in the United States. People used it for weight control and to boost energy. Truck drivers would use it to stay awake for long shifts, and athletes would use it to increase their stamina.

In the 1980s, the U.S. government tightened the regulation of ephedrine, one of the ingredients necessary to make meth. Consequently, people illegally manufacturing meth began to use the stimulant pseudoephedrine to make the drug. Pseudoephedrine is one of the ingredients in over-the-counter cold medications.

With the growth of the internet in the 1990s, the recipes for making meth spread, and small labs began to dot the U.S. landscape. Meth labs were often found in rural communities, where their presence went unnoticed. Meth was “cooked” from products and medications that were commonly found in farm supply, grocery, drug, and hardware stores.

Meth labs and the meth they produced were ravaging rural communities. In 2004, an estimated 12 million people—4.9 percent of people in the United States over the age of twelve—had tried meth at least once. Experts speculated that number would keep rising without intervention. Policy makers realized that regulating the sale of cold medicines with pseudoephedrine could slow the manufacturing of meth.

The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 restricted the availability of pseudoephedrine. The act required pharmacies and retail stores to move products containing pseudoephedrine behind the counter and limited the quantity that customers could purchase in a single visit. Several medications that could once be purchased over the counter now required a prescription. Meth production began to drop in the United States. Recently, however, meth smuggled from Mexico has led to a resurgence of addiction nationwide.