Crystal meth has become the most commonly used synthetic drug worldwide. The number of people addicted to this stimulant in Germany is growing. New approaches are needed to combat meth abuse, experts argue.
Crystal meth can be ingested orally, smoked, snorted, or injected. Users take the drug for the rush and the extreme alertness they feel; it even curbs the appetite. Methamphetamine, the medical name for the synthetic stimulant, was prescribed to German soldiers under the name "Pervitin" in World War II to boost their concentration and endurance during missions. American soldiers also used it in the Vietnam War.
In Europe, crystal meth is produced using relatively cheap ingredients in illegal home laboratories in the Czech Republic. About five years ago, the crystal meth trade was a local problem in Germany along the Czech and Polish borders, but now that the drug is being sold online, the problem goes beyond national borders.
Partygoers, managers and mothers
Clubgoers in big cities are no longer the drug's only consumers; it has also found users in small towns and villages in Germany. According to the German drugs commissioner Marlene Mortler, meth has become more attractive in general, as society places value on speed and achievement. She notes that, "Even young mothers often reach for methamphetamines to help them perform better in phases of constant fatigue, or to lose weight."
But the rude awakening does come - because crystal meth is highly addictive. The after-effects can last for days and even lead to a psychological crash. Following withdrawal, everyday life seems unimaginable without the drug and the longer a person takes the drug, the more physical damage it causes.
Doctors must adapt
But warning calls are not heeded. Norbert Wodarz, a professor for addiction medicine at the Regensburg university clinic in Germany speaks of studies in the USA in which meth consumers are confronted with before and after photos documenting crystal meth abuse over years. "If you ask users what they think of these photos, they say, 'That's all baloney; it's just supposed to scare me. Look at me - I don't look like that.'"
Once someone has had experiences with the substance, they cannot be treated with traditional addiction treatments or addiction prevention programs. Clinics are still poorly prepared and must urgently adapt to the situation, says Wodarz.
Aggressive and violent
A heroin overdose requires the quick resuscitation of a patient. But it is much harder to help someone who has taken too much crystal meth. "They are extremely agitated, restless and difficult to keep under control," says Wodarz. "When asked how he knew a crystal meth patient was arriving, a colleague of mine in another clinic once said, 'by the number of police officers accompanying him.'" In addition, a great number of physical illnesses and ailments are caused by the drug. "Three-quarters of strokes in patients under 40 years of age are attributed to the use of stimulants."
The use of the drug may be increasing, but police are seizing more and more meth. In 2008, only 4.2 kilograms of crystal meth were confiscated in Germany, but in 2014, it was 73 kilograms. In July of this year, Berlin alone saw the largest single drug seizure in Germany at 4.5 kilograms with a market value of 675,000 euros (730,000 USD). Now, Germany's federal criminal police office has set out to improve its collaboration with Czech and Polish police forces. Authorities in the three countries exchange information with each other, coordinate inspections at borders and check Asian convenience stores, where the drugs are often sold.
Peter Henzler, Vice-President of Germany's Federal Crime Agency, has called for more government controls of chemicals needed to produce crystal meth. Otherwise, he feels that effective police work may not be possible. For example, chloroephedrine can be bought and sold legally in Germany. "In order to become part of the drug trafficking scene, offenders must sell the substance with the knowledge and intent that it will be processed into methamphetamine," explains Henzler. But this is hard to prove in court.
Legislation is necessary
Even the substance pseudoephedrine was easy to find until recently. It is an ingredient in a cold remedy that must be prescribed by doctors in Germany and the Czech Republic, but sold over the counter in Poland. A law passed in July of this year in Poland now sets sales limits. Henzler also hopes that substances put on the EU monitoring list for illegally used chemicals will also help tackle the problem - chloroephedrine and pseudoephedrine have been on the list since early 2015.
The list increases awareness, claims Henzler. "Even though adding a substance to the list does not legally affect chemical companies, experience has nonetheless shown that the diversion of such substances decreases because voluntary reports are filed." In the future, chloroephedrine and pseudoephedrine needs to be included in EU chemical regulations, Henzler maintains. This way, possession, production and administration of the substances would require permission and go hand in hand with special reporting obligations.