A Brief History Behind The Explosive Popularity Of Crystal Meth Around The World

Since its creation in the late 1800s, methamphetamine has been labeled with a variety of street names, most notably crystal, ice, and crank. Despite its current status as a Schedule II substance, this contentious drug was actually created as a remedy for asthma. During WWII, both the Allies and the Axis relied on this substance to keep their soldiers going, and the drug was rebranded as a weight loss tool in the 1950s. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most addictive drugs in the world, which perhaps explains its pervasive use, regardless of legality.

In the US, the drug actually increased in popularity after it was outlawed in 1970. In 2012, 1.2 million US residents aged 12 or older used the substance in that year. The timeline of crystal history gets more frightening with each passing year, as the drug's potency and popularity have increased with the advancement of synthesis techniques. The events depicted on Breaking Bad are just the tip of the iceberg. 

  • A Japanese Scientist Invented The Drug In Germany In 1893
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Japanese Scientist Invented The Drug In Germany In 1893

    In 1871, Japanese doctor Nagai Nagayoshi traveled to Berlin to study chemistry. The doctor was interested in Asian herbs, and in 1885 he managed to extract a stimulant called ephedrine from the Ephedra plant, which had been used as an herbal remedy for centuries.

    When Nagayoshi first announced his discovery, some believed he was attempting to create a drug similar to crack, as Sigmund Freud's 1884 Über Coca writings had painted coke as a new miracle drug. While Nagayoshi claimed ephedrine was meant to help people suffering from asthma, the drug failed to capture the public's attention, and was generally overlooked by pharmaceutical manufacturers. 

    In 1893, Nagayoshi created methamphetamine, which also failed to gain popularity, in part because the compound was difficult to synthesize. The tide began to turn in 1919 when Akira Ogata, another Japanese doctor studying in Berlin, discovered a way to more effectively synthesize the substance, thus creating what is now known as crystal. While the parent drug is a powder, crystal is solid and, depending on its purity, can resemble shards of glass. 

  • The Plant Is Derived From A Centuries-Old Asthma Cure
    Photo: Carsten Niehaus / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 1.0

    The Plant Is Derived From A Centuries-Old Asthma Cure

    The ephedra plant has historically been used in China, India, Pakistan, and America to make herbal teas to treat asthma, as well as general cough and congestion.

    When the amphetamine ephedrine was isolated from the ephedra, scientists began exploring ways to more effectively synthesize potent drugs from the plant. After Nagayoshi's discovery was introduced in a crystallized form in 1919, it was an instant hit.

  • The Drug Was Used During WWII To Keep Soldiers Awake
    Photo: Jan Wellen / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    The Drug Was Used During WWII To Keep Soldiers Awake

    During WWII, German pharmaceutical company Temmler began selling over-the-counter ephedra tablets under the name Pervitin. Since the drug's effects mirrored a rush of adrenaline, it was quickly implemented on the battlefield, as it increased soldiers' alertness, courage, and risk-taking readiness during combat. 

    In addition to Germany, the US, Britain, and Japan all reportedly distributed Pervitin to their armies. Japanese kamikaze pilots were given high doses of Pervitin before embarking on suicide missions, and Adolf Hitler was, more likely than not, constantly high on a cocktail of Pervitin and other drugs. 

  • In The 1950s, Amphetamine Products Were Sold As Diet Pills

    After the war, Pervitin and its derivatives became popular drugs for treating ailments such as asthma, depression, and narcolepsy. The substance found its most lucrative success, however, as a diet pill. Beginning in the '40s, and continuing into the '50s, the market was flooded with over-the-counter amphetamine pills meant to curb hunger.

    Obetrol, one of the more popular brands, contained 2.5 milligrams of ephedra derivative per tablet – as little as five milligrams can induce an effect.

    These drugs were marketed to housewives, as advertisements claimed amphetamines could keep them slim and increase productivity. One advertisement from 1940 read, "This magic powder does more than disperse unwanted fat, it purifies and enriches the blood, tones up the entire system and makes you feel better in health in every way."

  • Eventually, People Suffered From Habitual Use

    After pills containing ephedra by-products flooded store shelves, people began noticing the drug's numerous side effects. Reports multiplied of amphetamine users experiencing paranoia, delusions, dependency, and heart failure.

    While amphetamines did aid weight loss, they were more similar to a band-aid than a cure for obesity. Since amphetamines release dopamine in the user's brain, the body feels satisfied, and stops signaling hunger. This can cause people to fast for long periods of time, even when their bodies could use the energy, and does not support healthy eating habits.

    While crystal is not usually a recreational psychedelic, it can cause visual and auditory hallucinations, in part due to users' lack of sleep. Unlike the hallucinations brought on by drugs like LSD or DMT, amphetamine delusions are almost always negative; for example, hearing voices or feeling like you're being followed. On top of all that, the drug can cause the user's teeth to rot after as little as one year of regular consumption. 

  • By The Late '40s, Ephedra Products Were An International Epidemic
    Photo: tsbxbby / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

    By The Late '40s, Ephedra Products Were An International Epidemic

    As ephedra products became more potent and popular with the public at large, addiction epidemics sprang up in countries around the world. After Japan was defeated in WWII, the government began selling off their army's excess pills, rebranded as Hiropon, to the starving public.

    By the late '40s, consumption was rampant in Japan, prompting the implementation of the Stimulant Control Law in 1951, which banned the production and distribution of the drug. Even after this law went into effect, a 1954 report concluded that some 550,000 Japanese people were chronic users, with another 2 million (roughly 3.8% of Japan's population at the time) ex-users. 

    The US wasn't as quick to ban products containing amphetamines, but beginning in the '60s, the diet pills were slowly phased out, and in 1970, the US outlawed the drug with the Controlled Substance Act. President Nixon's infamous 1971 declaration of the war on drugs helped further the push against amphetamine substances.