The High Before the Crash: Germany's Crystal Meth Pandemic
In recent years, crystal meth use seems to have exploded in Germany, particularly along the Czech border. As researchers are discovering, the population of users is much more diverse than many people expect.
The police received the emergency call at six o'clock in the morning on a Sunday. Patrick (not his real name) was screaming into his phone: "I'm being shot at!" Police special forces moved in -- and, when they got there, discovered that a light bulb in Patrick's IKEA lamp had exploded.
He came home that same evening with a cast, once again took drugs and once again jumped out of the window. When he was admitted for psychiatric treatment, the trained glazier was starved, dirty, done with the world. "I looked like death," he says.
Patrick never wants to touch crystal meth again. He's now undergoing drug-recovery therapy in a renovated farm in Aiglsdorf, near Munich, that has been turned into an addiction clinic. Twenty-five percent of the therapy slots at Prop e.V. are occupied by meth addicts -- three years ago, almost all patients were heroin addicts.
Pia (again, not her real name) is an attractive 20-year-old with braces. She's only been in Aiglsdorf for three weeks, and although she's experienced situations as horrifying as Daniel's, she'd rather talk about the beginning, not the later stages, of her addiction. "Meth makes you lucid and smart and confident. You feel beautiful, and you're full of drive. And on top of that you lose weight. In two days, two kilograms (4.4 pounds). The sex is different. Better. There aren't any hang-ups any more. I could watch myself having sex and think: Wow!"
Meth Overtaking Other Drugs
For three years, Patrick from Landshut and Pia from Munich snorted crystal methamphetamine, or crystal meth as it's popularly known. You can smoke it or inject it. It's a stimulant, like speed or ecstasy, but more powerful -- and with even stronger side-effects.
It only takes months for many users to transform themselves from high-flyers to zombies. Meth releases massive amounts of neurotransmitters, like the happiness-inducing serotonin or dopamine or the stress-inducing noradrenalin, and, in the long term, damages the nerve cells in the brain. Users struggle with paranoia and days of sleeplessness. They are aggressive, feel neither hunger nor thirst nor pain. Addicts first lose weight, then their teeth and finally their sanity.
For decades, heroin and marijuana dominated the German drug market, but now, to an unknown degree and at an unknown speed, meth is driving out the sedatives.
According to the Federal Criminal Police Office, the number of people who tried meth for the first time went up by 51 percent in 2012. "This means meth has outstripped heroin in terms of new users," says Roland Härtel-Petri, a doctor specializing in addiction in the city of Bayreuth in Bavaria. "Crystal is flooding our country," he wrote in a book published earlier this year on the subject. He argues that critically acclaimed series like "Breaking Bad," in which a chemistry teacher becomes a drug boss, have made this "shitty, idiotic substance" hip for many people.
'We Need More Education'
In the Upper Franconia area of Bavaria, and in the eastern German state of Saxony, there are now more meth addicts looking for help than alcoholics. "We need more education," says the new federal drug commissioner, Marlene Mortler of the conservative Christian Social Union. Unlike her predecessor, she plans on speaking openly about methamphetamine use in Germany. Mechthild Dymans, a member of the liberal Free Democratic Party, hoped that by not talking about meth, people wouldn't be inspired to experiment with it. For Mortler, that's not an option. Her electoral district is located in Middle Franconia, an area that has been hard hit by meth.
"Signs point to the drug spreading from the German-Czech border area to the areas far from the border, especially the large German cities," says Mortler. Meth was found in 3,500 cases across Germany in 2012, eight times as many as in 2006. Meth is mostly cooked -- by the chemical reduction of ephedrine, which can be found in, among other substances, cough medicine -- in labs located in the Czech Republic. Experts estimate that six tons of meth are produced in the Czech Republic every year.
Investigators have found the substance in leg prostheses, kids' seats and in magnetic boxes that smugglers had attached to the cars of unsuspecting vacationers. A gram of the drug costs 25 ($35) in the Czech Republic, 60 in areas near the border, and 120 in more distant large cities. One former dealer says that in Nuremberg you can't buy any drug on the street except meth. He says he's sold the drug to accountants, assembly-line workers and even police officers, among others.
A Broadly Attractive Drug
In order to "be able to do targeted prevention work," Mortler is presenting a study this week by the Federal Ministry of Health about "groups who abusively consume amphetamine and methamphetamine." It is the first publicly sponsored study about meth in Germany. Researchers with the Hamburg Center for Interdisciplinary Addiction Research spoke to meth users in addiction treatment facilities, help centers and online forums. Their goal: To distinguish meth user groups from members of the regular drug scene.
Addiction-treatment experts and drug commissioners worry that meth speaks to a larger target group than sedatives like cannabis or heroin. Crystal meth is more than just a chemical party-starter for directionless young people in the country or a party drug for club-goers in the city. A wide range of people are being driven to meth addiction by a desire for efficiency.
Researchers found that half of meth users are drawn to meth not only because of its "pleasant effects," but by their work. One third of the people questioned named "school and studying" as a reason for meth use. The drug is often recommended by acquaintances. "The most frequent entry points into amphetamine or methamphetamine were friends, acquaintances or partners," wrote the researchers.
'A Vivid High'
When Patrick first tried meth, he was in the middle of occupational retraining as a system informatics technician in the datacenter of an Internet provider. Controlling, accounting, computer science, then a nine-month long apprenticeship and then three months of exam preparation. A friend told Patrick, "You can make it if you do meth."
Patrick had meth sent to him, for 60 per gram, via mail from dealers in Chemnitz. "It's a vivid high, that you can steer easily at the beginning," he says. "I would wake up, snort some, drink a coffee, go to work, and work without taking a break. My boss thought it was good."
But crystal not only works as a stimulant, it also drags people down. After the high, there's a deep low. Already after half a year, Patrick's ability to concentrate eroded. He couldn't get out of bed in the mornings, the paranoia started, he abandoned the job.
His situation worsened when he switched from meth to so-called "legal highs." He ordered a psychoactive drug on the Internet called Methylendioxypyrovaleron. In Germany it wasn't considered a drug -- just a chemical used for research purposes. It was half as expensive as meth and he could afford it on his unemployment pay.
A Drug for our Hectic Times
"Methamphetamine serves the zeitgeist," warns addiction therapist Annegret Sievert, who treats addicts in the Hochstadt Rehab Clinic near Bayreuth. "We all need to do more work in less time." The Hochstadt Clinic offers training for employers in industrial sectors who want to learn how to recognize meth addicts among their workforce. Siever's advice: "If someone functions too well, you should be skeptical."
Sievert says that in Bayreuth meth is shared among colleagues -- handymen, factory workers and truck drivers. Sooner or later, many of them end up in her office. She often sits across from strong men who aren't necessarily used to speaking about their feelings. Sievert's oldest patient is almost at retirement age, a former Bavarian javelin champion, who started taking meth in order to keep up with younger people in sports and at work. He took it for 30 years.
But it's not only people afraid of being left behind at work who snort crystal. The Health Ministry study names another risk group: "parents who consume it."
If you speak with an addiction therapist like Claudia Adamczyk, from the city of Erfurt, in the central German state of Thuringia, you'll learn that meth use is often set off by a young pregnancy. The drug is used to fight exhaustion, and to lose weight. "Instead of acknowledging that you can't do everything -- raise children, look good, clean your apartment, have great sex, be successful at work -- meth gives women the feeling that they can function"
Adamczyk estimates that 40 percent of the users she counsels are female. She says it's especially noteworthy that many of the people looking for her help had never consumed any other hard drugs. "It's increasingly expected that girls work hard, believe in themselves, assert themselves," says Adamczyk. This pressure makes many shy people afraid of failure. A female student who hoped meth would help her write better school papers, said, "I want the feeling that I have everything under control." A shockingly banal reason to take hard drugs. But it's one of the biggest reasons women have so many problems stopping.
An Attempt to Do It All
Emma (not her real name) is a 22-year-old mother from Passau. In the corner of her attic apartment there's a Barbie castle, plastic ponies and a giant stuffed horse, and on the glass table in front of the TV there's a baggie of small, murky crystals. "It looks like meth," says Emma, but she says it's only road salt, a cheap cutting agent.
After her pregnancy, she wanted to maintain her grip on things. That period, she says, was "crazy exhausting." In the early mornings, she would have to make it through her training in a bakery, and in the late evenings, sing her whimpering child to sleep.
The pastry chef began cooking the meth herself. There's a video online called "If you can bake cookies, you can make meth," in which American addicts show viewers how to make meth using a Bunsen burner and cold medicine. Pretty soon she was cooking it for more than just herself, and could afford a 240-square-meter (2,600-square-foot) apartment above the rooftops of Passau.
She's been clean for half a year, she says, but claims she relapsed two weeks ago. She can now get meth from neighbors two doors down. "Passau is being flooded with the cheap stuff." Making it herself wasn't worth it anymore.
Workers at the youth welfare office often have a difficult time even recognizing an addicted household in which meth is consumed. Meth addicts are wired and often seem totally focused. The Institute 3L, in the city of Jena in Thuringia, has offered special conferences for youth welfare workers and social workers about meth. The first time it took place, the participants "practically beat their way to the door," says the director, Jana Juhran. She says there is a huge demand for information workshops like "pregnancy and meth." A demand as large as the sense of helplessness among many youth support workers.
Juhran talks about a meth-addicted married couple who sent their 11-year-old son to deal drugs. It took a long time for the social worker to realize what was happening: "The conditions are often so horrific. You don't even want to see them."
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