Methamphetamine Epidemic Set to Overtake Europe too

by Medindia Content Team on Nov 24 2007 11:18 AM

Czechoslovakia is emerging a major European centre of methamphetamine production. Home meth labs are coming up all over the country to produce this cheap, potent drug using the pseudoephedrine found in common cold medications.

In 2000, the Czech police raided 19 cooking facilities. By last year that number had grown to 416 — in a country of just 10.2 million people.

And the consumption of this strongly addictive, often injected stimulant appears to be spreading from the Czech Republic to the rest of Europe.

The number of countries in Europe reporting seizures of methamphetamine more than doubled between 2000 and 2005, to 25 from 11, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Use of methamphetamine remains for now far behind heroin and the continent’s swiftly growing cocaine habit. Though the quantity seized rose fourfold over the same period to 300 pounds, that is a small amount compared with the 11,300 pounds seized in the United States.

But the concern is that the European growth lays the groundwork — in demand, production and distribution — that could lead to an explosion in use.

The sudden growth of the drug in the United States and its expansion from a regional issue to a national one serves as a warning, said an expert at the United Nations drug office. “It must be feared that something similar could happen in Europe,” said the expert, Thomas Pietschmann, a main author of the annual United Nations World Drug Report.

Czech legislators and law enforcement officials are trying to crack down on the local, small-time producers who, according to police officials, are preparing enough methamphetamine for the entire Czech market.

But the experience in the United States has shown that once the demand is clear, it can be filled by the tidal flows of the global drug market. Though the United States has made significant headway in the fight against small meth producers with tighter restrictions on the sales of the medications used in its production, enormous labs in Mexico and Asia continue to supply American users.

The challenge is “to stop the methamphetamine market while it’s in its infancy,” Pietschmann said. “Once it’s established it’s really far more difficult.”

Pietschmann said that in addition to the Czech Republic’s exporting the drug to neighboring countries, the Baltic states were producing it for northern countries, including Sweden and Finland; he has even heard about two labs discovered in Vienna, where his office is based. “It’s dangerous because it’s so easy to produce,” Pietschmann said.

“If one of them is seized, three mushroom up somewhere else,” said Bretislav Brejcha, a senior police official of the Czech meth industry. In the decades when what was then Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule, addicts largely had to produce their own highs by concentrating medications. These drugs were produced by small, tight-knit rings of users, known as squads, for their own consumption rather than for distribution and sale. Meth came on the scene here in the early 1970s, and it and other drugs boomed with the end of Communism and opening of the country in 1989.

Of the roughly 30,000 “problem drug users” identified by the Czech government, 20,000 use Pervitin — Pervitin was the trade name of the drug when the Nazi military gave it to its soldiers and pilots to counter fatigue. Among problem users, 90 percent are injecting the drug with needles — known in the United States as slamming — rather than snorting or smoking it. More than a third of intravenous drug users in the Czech Republic have hepatitis C, although their H.I.V. infection rate remains contained, below 1 percent.

According to the United Nations drug office, the Czech Republic has high levels of cannabis use, the highest for ecstasy, and “by far” the worst methamphetamine abuse in Europe.

That may have been encouraged by the accessibility of the main ingredient. The town of Roztoky, just outside of Prague, had one of the world’s largest ephedrine factories until 2002. According to the Czech police, that was the year the factory began to shut down its production of the chemical. Not coincidentally, they say, it was the first year the number of seized labs really jumped, nearly quadrupling from 28 the previous year to 104.

The police said that up to that point, larger, more organized rings were getting ephedrine from the factory and producing the drug in quantity for street sales. Now, the production system has reverted to the squads of the Communist days and is reaching smaller, out-of-the-way places.

The Parliament is working on legislation to give pharmacists discretion over the quantity of cold medication containing pseudoephedrine (used to produce the drug when pure ephedrine is not available) that any individual customer can buy. Others say a national registry listing all sales of precursor drugs should be mandatory. “A solution where a pharmacy will be deciding without a national registry is not going to solve the problem,” Brejcha said.

Lenka, a 23-year-old user who refused to give her last name, said that on a recent morning she knocked on the doors of five neighbors — all of whom use meth — and could not find anyone who could give her a clean needle. “Many people don’t start snorting like they used to,” she said. “Many people start with needles.”

Though she has been using for six years, Lenka said she refused to cook the drug herself. “If you start it can get really dangerous,” she said, “because you never stop.”

The local meth cook agreed. “When people ask me to show them how to do it, I tell everyone, ‘I will not show you,’” said the man, as he added more iodine into his batch. “Don’t do it. When you learn to cook then you will die.”

“I think I will die because of this,” he said, keeping watch on the thermometer buried in the thick red mixture.