Methamphetamine, aka crystal meth or a host of other names, gives dizzying highs but is acutely addictive and wrecks the body. So why do people do it, asks Louis Theroux.
The question came from Chris, a self-confessed meth addict of twenty-something years, as he and I watched his friend Andrew exhale a large plume of smoke.
FIND OUT MORE
Louis Theroux: The City Addicted to Crystal Meth is on BBC Two on Sunday, 9 August, at 2100 BST
For several weeks, I'd been on the trail of the world's most widely used hard drug. Methamphetamine goes by many names. Meth, Ice, Crystal, Tina, Tweak, Go-fast. In South Africa they call it Tik. In Thailand, Yaa Baa. In New Zealand, P.
But everywhere its effects are the same - soaring highs that last upwards of eight hours, a sensation of alertness, confidence, and a background note of sexualisation. Meth users are known for drug binges that can last days, sometimes going a week or more without sleep, during which they'll talk enthusiastically, play videogames for hours on end, and indulge in reckless sexual behaviour.
But there's no up without a down, as the old saying goes. The crash, when it comes, is hard.
The ravaging effects of the drug make for shocking posters
The drug is also - surprise, surprise - quite addictive. Degenerate meth addicts are known to develop mental problems - paranoia, sometimes even psychotic episodes.
Oh, and there are physical side effects, too. Massive dental wreckage (so-called "meth mouth"), sores (occasionally accompanied by the delusion that they are produced by bugs under the skin - "meth mites"), precipitous weight loss. And so on.
I've been fascinated by the meth phenomenon since reading about it in the nineties. At that time I was living in America and the drug was generally called crank (for some reason, thankfully, meth has never got its hooks deeply into the British drug scene).
Part of my interest was a morbid fascination with the extremes of behaviour that the drug could incite. A New York Times article described a man, high on meth and experiencing psychotic delusions while being chased by the police, who chopped off his own son's head and tossed it from the window of his vehicle.
The UK is yet to suffer a chronic problem with the drug
In 2004 I travelled across the US, staying in flea-bag motels. Meth use was a constant theme in the stories of my fellow guests. All of them had friends and loved-ones grappling with addiction.
Occasionally I'd run into someone who was himself high. One man stuck in my memory - bug-eyed, manic, he was riding an under-sized bicycle and holding a balloon on a string which he'd brought back for his kid to play with - having presumably taken it from a car dealership or a children's party.
There was something both slightly comic and deeply depressing about his frenetic energy and his apparent sense that he was busily engaged in responsible parenting
Then, in 2007, I made a documentary about San Quentin prison. Meth featured overwhelmingly in the stories of the cons. From my conversations with prisoners I had the impression a drug epidemic was spreading through the lower strata of American society, which was both fuelling and being fuelled by a range of dysfunctional behaviours - crime, sexual abuse, broken families - all of it lubricated by prodigious amounts of meth.
There is an international trade in the drug
Late last year I decided to pursue the idea of making a meth documentary. After some research the production settled on Fresno as our location for the story. A town of half a million in California's central valley, Fresno has been on the slide for years. Joblessness, urban sprawl, social breakdown, it's got them all, along with - not coincidentally - one of the worst meth problems anywhere in America.
The idea was to try to both trace the contours of the meth problem and attempt to understand the reasons for the prevalence of the drug. Being illegal, meth use is hard to document and the world of the addicts is not easy to get into. But one way is via the police.
I spent many nights with Fresno PD in a nightmarish merry-go-round of busts of desperate and addicted people. Many of the most hopeless meth users were well-known to the authorities, and their lives, disordered by the drug and by their backgrounds, were a sad litany of despair and hopelessness - domestic violence, loved-ones in jail, kids raised by their grandparents.
Just when I'd thought I'd seen it all, on our last night on patrol, we happened upon a man, high on meth and armed with a knife, having a blazing row with his sister. His wife was also present and revealed that the two had been having an incestuous affair.
The drug gives strong feelings of euphoria
We also made contact with Fresno's largest rehab facility and tracked addicts as they attempted to get clean. I concentrated on women - for some reason their stories were more compelling. Many of these women were attempting to reconnect with children.
One of the fruits of that reckless sexual activity I mentioned are very large numbers of offspring - several meth addicts I met had five or more children, all of them in care. This destruction of families and blighting of children's lives is probably the saddest aspect of the meth phenomenon.
For us as a production the most difficult aspect of the story was attempting to infiltrate the world of the active users. Casual users would have been easy to film - but we were interested in the hardcore.
The first serious meth heads we filmed with were Carl and Dianne, a married couple whose five children were no longer with them, but who had managed against the odds to stay together as a couple for more than 20 years.
Carl and Dianne were a likeable pair, intelligent, responsible - well, as responsible as you can be while being a meth addict - and both of them grappling with backgrounds so brutal and disturbing that their use was in some ways understandable.
And there were the aforementioned Andrew and his friend Chris, who'd asked me if I felt "tempted". They too were friendly enough guys. Intelligent, funny - it just happened that they'd grown up in a community in which meth use was common at every age, at every level.
That moment of observing the use of the drug up-close was, for me, quite strange. I'd thought about it for months, seen the consequences of addiction, observed the ruined lives, and now here it was in front of me.
I felt a little awkward, torn between wanting to challenge Andrew and mindful that he was making his own choices (and that he at least did not have any children).
There's a big why. Why meth? Why is that particular drug so prevalent? But it's not hard to solve - lack of opportunity, lack of guidance, the cheapness and availability of that narcotic, and the powerful illusions of escape and control which it provides.
Meth is "ghetto Prozac" - a primitive and dangerous pain-reliever, which goes on to aggravate the very pain and chaos which people take it to avoid.
And so, to answer the question: Was I tempted? Not so much.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I've found in my family's struggle with meth that for many people it isn't as much about getting high or escaping your problems, but more as a tool for getting through work or what have you. Then once you're hooked, you're hooked. I once saw a documentary describe speed as the "all-American drug". Very, very true.
Kyle, Mattoon AKA Methtoon, IL
Meth is a huge problem, especially in the smaller communities here in the States. The lack of employment makes meth tempting, both to take and to sell. Hardly a month goes by without a news story of someone trying to cook meth and burning down their house/trailer/hotel room. It's very sad, and it doesn't seem like it will be going away any time soon.
Sarah Baker, Tremont, IL USA
One of the reasons meth is so common and popular here in the US is that's it's 'home made' ie does not require importing of either the finished product or the raw materials to manufacture it. The American 'War on Drugs' tends to go after foreign production and supply lines e.g. Columbia and Afganistan. The precursors needed to make meth are available from a pharmacy and a chemistry supplier although in recent years states have made their own laws restricting the sales of these in quantity.
Simon Crisp, New River, AZ, USA
As a former meth user/addict I look forward to watching this documentary. Like most "good" televison though I fear that it will focus on the "freaks". I nearly killed myself several times whilst on the drug and I am paying with my mental health 10 years after getting clean. No one (even my close family and friends) had any idea how bad my situation was at the time. For some it is easy to hide, and this is the aspect of the addiction that frightens me the most.
Witheld, London, UK
I grew up in a meth affected American family. Yes meth has a stranglehold on the impoverished underbelly of the country. However, it isn't just cheap and easily available. You noted that many of the users you were interacting with were of average or above intelligence which means: they were quite capable of making meth all on their lonesome. It is an unsettling thought and an even more unsettling experience.
Nevebaci, Dundee, UK
After reading this I realise that we look to the destruction of society coming from a meteor or other celestial event, but really, it's more likely it'll come from the creeping breakdown of society brought about by our disconnected way of life. Depressing tale!
Stuart Duffy, Bishopton, UK
Seven years ago, I went to visit a cousin in California, and discovered first hand this shocking drug everybody called crank. It really is rife is certain communities, and I spent a month hanging out with a meth addict. The zombified features were shocking, but his immense and erratic energy was the most disturbing thing to deal with. He was also fresh out of prison, but headed back shortly after. Thankfully, he is now clean and a completely rejuvinated character. I hope meth never takes a foothold here, for it really is a ghost-maker.
T Wilton, Swansea