A Brief History of Meth Use in America
Americans have always loved meth.
When the first colonists came to the land which would eventually become known as The United States, Native Americans harvested naturally occurring Sudafed for eons, refining it crudely and smoked during tribal ceremonies.
These “Juggalos,” as they were known to early settlers, had a reputation for being an industrious bunch, despite their somewhat odd appearance. Anthropologists sent over by King of Belgium in the early 17th century estimated there were more than 1000 pre-historic meth cooking locations spread across the midwest and north east. In their report in 1612, they note “massive gatherings held in empty muddy fields… large fires… black and white face paint… unusually large pantaloons… strange piercings through the ears, face, and genitals.”
Despite these strange customs, the early immigrants from Europe found immediate kinship with the Juggalos, quickly exchanging the items they’d brought from afar for more of the prized drug. Considered a “City on a Hill” to many of the early Puritans, the citizens of the bleak northeast came to favor both its energizing effects as well as its utility. In pre-revolutionary America meth oil was used to paint houses and provide lubrication for farm equipment while meth fibers were used in everything from clothes to rope to sails. Some Pilgrim descendants like the Quakers and the Shakers even integrated aspects of Juggalo culture into their own Christian Sunday morning services, smoking copious amounts of meth an in effort to “get closer to the Lord.”
The fires of amphetamines soon spread far beyond America’s shores, reaching first into the Caribbean where infamous narco traffickers like “The Woman With The Golden Arm” would smuggle raw Sudafed from secret ports hidden near Key West to safe harbors on private islands ruled by local strong men near Panama and Bermuda. Taking advantage of the region’s naturally occurring anhydrous ammonia, the product would be refined at large factories often referred to as “sugar plantations” after the powdery substance that resulted from the alchemy of drug science.
From there, the meth would travel to Europe and beyond, bolstered by testimony about its curative powers from thousands of new found converts. Among France’s fashionable salons, a special blend of meth and coriander called “Skeech” was often favored. Historians have sometimes speculated that Napoleon’s passion for smoking meth exceeded that of his love for Marie Antoinette. In a letter to the upper echelons of his military hierarchy he wrote: “Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and smoke meth.”
When America began to spread west at the beginning of the 19th century, the meth laboratory wasn’t far behind. In short, it was already there. Juggalos, native to the middle part of the country, would trade meth for sugar and fruit so they could make their beloved sacred drink “Faygo.” It was a trade tired travelers would be happy to make, since an eight ball of meth could mean an extra 200 miles for a haggard group of kids and a few worn out horses.
By the late 1890s, it was quite common to find meth in all manner of consumer goods — asthma cures, anti-depression suppositories, energy drinks. Touted by doctors and users alike, the drug enjoyed wide popularity across wide swaths of American society. “Giving up smoking meth is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times,” said Mark Twain in a mood reflective of the day. In our era it is unusual to see a picture of Twain without his beloved meth pipe. In his posthumously published autobiography, the author would estimate that he smoked over 35 pounds of meth during the course of his lifetime.
Famous Americans have Always Smoked Meth
Mark Twain was hardly the only Great American to extol the virtues of methamphetamines. Many public figures have spoken positively of their experiences with meth.
In 1750, Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity while trying to use lightning increase the potency of a kilogram of meth. While that experiment would ultimately fail — the meth was incinerated instantly — the following 48 hours were the most productive of our founding father’s life. His contemporary and occasional meth smoking buddy, George Washington, smoked meth while crossing the Hudson to fight the Red Coats in 1775. The habit would eventually cost him his teeth, but he credited meth for helping the young Colonial Army survive the bitter winters in Valley Forge.
Famously, Teddy Roosevelt would go on late night meth-fueled rampages, trapping and unleashing scores of iguanas around the White House. Ronald Reagan smoked meth at a party in the 1970s, saying, “I now have absolute proof that smoking even one bubble of ice is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast. It’s fucking awesome.”
If all these prominent Americans consumed meth on a regular basis, why then is meth illegal?
Because people of European descent had little or no historical experience with meth, addiction rates began to reach epidemic proportions in the early part of the 20th century. What began with small gatherings of women seeking to reform their men became a popular movement, united under matriarchs like Carry Nation. “I want all hellions to quit puffing that hell fume in God’s clean air,” she said before embarking on one of her alcohol-fueled acts of vandalism on a neighborhood meth laboratory in Kiowa, Kansas. While, obviously this was controversial — especially among the proprietors of meth laboratories who insisted they were well within their legal right to refine and sell meth to the community — popular sentiment supported Nation and soon copycats were performing similar “hatcherations” on meth laboratories all around the United States.
Across America suspicions began to turn on the Juggalos, widely viewed as the source of the problem. Purges of the Native Americans began in the large cities, sending caravans of Jaggalos fleeing for small towns located far from the major cities of the east and west coasts. It’s worth noting that the most popular current outlet of Juggalo culture in the 21rst century, The Insane Clown Posse, defiantly got its name from one such group that operated in the Detroit area. In a recent interview in The New Yorker detailing the beginnings of the project, lead vocalist Violent J said that “by taking on the name of our oppressors, we are subverting the dominant paradigm. That is the primary objective of ICP. Even the ICP logo itself is a parody of Carry Nation and her trademark dreadlocks. You’ll notice that the tool she used to express her prohibition era superiority, the hatchet, is prominent in our imagery. This is not a coincidence.”
Efforts to strengthen laws against meth began to appear in state legislatures almost immediately after public perception of the Juggalos began to shift. Passed by the US Congress in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug act required that all sales of methamphetamines be properly labeled, followed by stronger legislation that targeted “habit forming drugs.”
The 1936 Geneva Trafficking Convention, to which the United States and Canada were both signatories, prohibited the cultivation, production, manufacturing and trade of all meth-related products. According to wikipedia, “Article 2 of the Convention called upon signatory countries to use their national criminal law systems to ‘severely’ punish, ‘particularly by imprisonment or other penalties of deprivation of liberty’ acts directly related to drug trafficking.” International cooperation immediately began to curtail international exports of meth, severely crippling the nation’s meth supply.
By the 1940s, the party was over. Movies like “Meth Madness,” which portrayed young people turning into savage murderers after a single hit of meth, shocked and scandalized the public. Doctors seldom, if ever, made recommendations to their patients to try meth to lose weight or cure malaise. No longer was it socially acceptable to wake up in the morning and enjoy a few tokes of the drug before beginning one’s day. Usage rates for meth began to fall precipitously and politicians were often required to testify of their distate for meth before seeking office.
Today, the once familiar flavor of meth survives only in “mentholated” products like cigarettes and cough drops. With the active stimulant removed from any item remaining on American store shelves, scientists estimate that smoking a Hall’s Mentholyptus lozenge packs only about 1/10,000th of the energy of a Hall’s cough drop smoked in 1935.
The Meth Renaissance
In the late 60s, young people began to take a fresh look at smoking meth, a drug demonized by their parents’ generation. Bands and other popular figures began to borrow heavily from Juggalo culture, with the Rolling Stones and the Beatles flagrantly flaunting the UKs drug laws by putting meth-related imagery in both their songs and album art work. Most infamously, Ringo Starr insisted that the “everybody smoke meth” chant remain at the end of “I am the Walrus,” as a tribute to the band’s collective love of smoking meth.
At the time, Starr told reporters that, “I assume that if I smoke enough meth, I too, will become a walrus.” Obviously, that comment would prove prescient.
By the early 70s, the smart set was once again fixated on meth. Artists and other left-wing luminaries wrote extensively about its mind-expanding powers, rhapsodizing about the benefits derived from frequent meth binges in throwing off the chains of the patriarchy / matriarchy / oligarchy / hegemony.
A new round of more socially conscious meth scientists began production of meth in a new way, more harmonious with the ebb and flow of local resources available to them. They began to see themselves as environmentalists, returning Sudafed to its natural, crystalline state to be used in both religious ceremonies and for healing.
Although it is not yet legal to prescribe meth in any state, anecdotal evidence suggests that doctors and caregivers are beginning to look much more seriously at alternative treatments for a wide range of ailments. In a 2010 study conducted in California by the Henry J Kaiser Foundation, 67% of physicians responded that they’ve prescribed some kind of Complementary of Alternative Medicine (CAM) modality in the last year, including, “meditation, massage, herbal remedies, smoking meth, and self help / support groups.”
Despite its underground popularity, public discussion of the legalization of meth remains strictly off limits. The stigma to smoking meth is largely due to US Government propaganda against the drug. Millions of tax payer dollars have been spent making meth users look bad, transferring vast fortunes to the media via the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the White House. Meth, as we’re all familiar from commercials aired during Saturday morning cartoons, is a “dirty, rotten, stinking habit.”
Meth is safe. Meth is effective.
With millions of satisfied users in the United States, there are far fewer deaths due to meth than alcohol. The price of law enforcement against meth is beginning to skyrocket, both in terms of social as well as economic cost to our society.
“How much do we want to pay to lock up young meth offenders? How much do we want to pay to ruin lives?” asks the National Organization for the Reform of Meth Laws on their website. “Criminal meth prohibition is a failure. Over 20 million Americans have been arrested for meth offenses since 1965. NORML believes that the time has come to amend criminal prohibition and replace it with a system of legalization, taxation, regulation, and education.”
Even among conservatives, public opinion is starting to turn against the draconian meth laws. Responding to recent spending estimates announced by the Government Accountability Office, Reaganites like economist Milton Friedman signed a petition with 500 other prominent social scientists calling for the legalization of meth. “I’ve long been in favor of legalizing all drugs,” he said in an interview with Forbes Magazine. “Look at the factual consequences: The harm done and the corruption created by these laws…the costs are one of the lesser evils.”
No doubt, Friedman is familiar with the long history of meth use in the United States and the essential role meth plays in our collective heritage. He joins a wide ranging group of Americans who are all calling for one thing…
… it’s the right thing to do for America.