Peter Gorman Archive
Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Ice Burn - A Cautionary Drug Tale
by Peter Gorman © all rights reserved
Whether either camp is actually in touch with the issue is in question. But it is an issue, and it might become a bigger one.
“About two or three years ago we began to see a change in attitude on the dance floor,” says Dr. Chris Mann, founder of MedEvent and a professor of sports medicine at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. “The Ecstasy crowd was a lovey, dovey, huggy sort of crowd. This crowd is angry, pissy, aggressive. That changes the attitude of the social environment.”
The crowd Dr. Mann is talking about uses “ice”, a highly refined methamphetamine that’s pure enough to smoke, and is often done in social settings, with people passing around the pipe. A lot of the work MedEvent—a volunteer organization whose members attend large public gatherings around the country and watch for people who are having bad drug reactions—is asked to do is at gay dance clubs, where there has traditionally been some drug use for heightened sexual pleasure. “The he change we saw with the introduction of ice into the scene was very apparent.”
Mann’s position as founder and a regular volunteer with MedEvent gives him a unique perspective on drug trends, whether in gay dance clubs or at large sporting events. In fact, he conceived of MedEvent while at a three-day motocross rally.
“I was speaking to one of the guys putting it on and I said: ‘You got three thousand people here for three days doing drugs and getting dehydrated and no medical facilities? Are you crazy?’ He said, ‘Okay. Why don’t you do something about it?’
“So I did. I founded MedEvent. We keep an eye out for people whizzing out. We don’t fool with them. We know the symptoms of a range of drug overdoses and we check their vitals and get them out of there.”
Mann, who describes himself as a “pre-op, post-op doc” says that in a social setting most people deal well with the drugs they’ve taken. They’re dancing, after all, or focused on the sports event. But, he says, ice is different. “People have short tempers when they’re on it, and they’re very sexually aggressive. They get these very strong erections and much better ejaculations and are just very sexually excited. And where with meth you might be high for 4-6 hours, with this you’re high 10-12 hours and it’s several times stronger than meth.
Even for people who are accustomed to using meth, he says, ice is often a problem. “It just seems to take people over like nothing I’ve ever seen. They can maintain their lives for years with meth, but with this they forget about their jobs, their families, everything. The only thing that matters is ice. I’ve talked with chemists and medical people and even people who make it, but no one has been able to explain why this is so much stronger. It just is.”
What’s particularly worrisome, he says, is that during the last six or eight months he’s been seeing it integrating into the straight clubs, “and those people have no idea what they’re in for when they do this. The straight crowd isn’t doing a lot of meth anyway, so it comes right out of left field for them. And that’s going to cause some problems for people.”
“Odds are the stuff will never come your way,” says John L., a former speed freak and ice cook who lives in Pennsylvania. “On the other hand, if it does you’re better off saying ‘no thanks,’ than messing with it. Because if you do, odds are you are going to find yourself in a battle you’re not going to win.”
John didn’t always live in Pennsylvania. He moved there from the midwest to get away from the crowd he hung with after he was released from prison in 2001. “What helped me get clean after 25 years was just getting fed up with the life. I figured I was hitting 50 and it was time to grow up, that’s all.”
“The life” that John was talking about began in the late 1970s. Like a lot of people he enjoyed getting high, and his high of choice was methamphetamine, an orange, yellow, reddish or white powder that’s generally retailed in quantities that run from $10 for a taste to $100-150 for an eightball, 3 1/2 grams, an eighth of an ounce. Generally snorted, sometimes eaten and mainlined—injected—by serious users, it sets off something akin to the adrenaline “flight or fight” rush. Users are quickly more alert, more focused. Senses are enhanced. Euphoria comes on. Life is crystal clear. The world makes sense and your place in it is well-defined. And best of all, sex is better for both men and women—longer, much more intense, tastier. Orgasms unlike most people will ever have and men can do it again and again. “There’s nothing like it,” John laughs. “You feel really good.”
Unfortunately, like with most substances that can instantly change your perceptions and mood, it’s sort of like borrowing from tomorrow to enjoy it today, and there will be a bill to pay. In the case of meth the price includes ratcheting up your paranoia and frequently the feeling that life simply doesn’t seem worth living without it: too slow, too unfocused. Then there are the physical problems: meth users often don’t eat and so take on a pallid, emaciated look; they often develop really nasty body sores and wreck their livers. Those who inject add the typical needle-user problems: collapsed veins, hepatitis, the possibility of HIV and a host of other diseases that all microbe-collectors expose themselves to.
John is asked about Ice.
“Well,” he answers, “I used to cook it to make money but I didn’t do it a whole lot.”
“Cause whatever meth is, ice is 10 times that.”
Lisa Walker, a pretty red-headed 39-year old who’s living at Cenikor, a long-term rehab facility run by former addicts in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, agrees. “I just hit the bottom,” she explained. “Twenty-three years of meth and the last five with ice and I just had no place to turn anymore. The last straw was a 9-day ice binge.”
Unlike many of the Cenikor’s residents who were mandated to treatment by the courts as an alternative to prison, Lisa came to the therapeutic facility on her own. And unlike many long-term meth users she never developed that gaunt, almost skeletonish appearance that’s associated with the drug.
She talks about the 23-years plainly. “I started partying with meth when I was 17, you know, like a lot of people. It made life so clear, so focused. I liked it. But then, sort of on a dare, I began to shoot it up. That was much more of a rush than eating it or snorting it. And it wasn’t long before I was using every day.”
She married twice, divorced twice and has one son. “With meth I was still functioning. I raised my son till he was eight, and we maintained a good relationship for years. But then along came ice, and that was the end of that. He didn’t want anything to do with me anymore. We’re working on that now that I’m clean.”
She explains that she preferred to shoot ice the way she’d shot meth. “Ice was something else. Where with meth, after 18 years or so I had to keep bumping—shooting up—when I started using ice I just shot once and I was good all day. That’s how strong it was. And once I found a cook for Ice I was gone.”
The cook was her boyfriend who made it at a house in the D/FW area that’s since been shut down. “Not having to pay for it I could do all I wanted. After a while of shooting Ice I could do a couple of grams a day if you gave it to me. I was an animal.”
The house she lived in had dozens of visitors daily, coming to cop their ice and split. But ice was expensive, so most of the people who came by the house, she says, were involved in one type of criminal activity or another, selling ice to others, fencing stolen goods, that sort of thing. And all of them, maybe a couple of hundred altogether, were in an out of jail. “We’d see them for three months every day, then they’d be busted and we wouldn’t see them for a year. Then they’d be back out for three more months and we’d be the first place they came.”
The house also became a sort of voluntary prison for Lisa, as she found going out more and more difficult. “I just stayed home and did house cleaning or yard work or stayed on the computer all night. Whatever I did I was very, very focused. Until I became sort of dysfunctional, you know, the point where you need it to make life worth living. I’d be in a room talking with people that were plain as day but who weren’t really there at all.
“The sex is unbelieveable though, until the habit takes over and the drug becomes more important than the sex. And you get very, very edgy when you’re coming down on this. Tempers flair. But even the paranoia of ice is magnificent. You can get consumed by the idea that someone’s following you, that someone’s a snitch, that you have to hide in your house to not be seen.
“I guess the real problem with ice is that if people try it they’ll want it. But it just burns you up.”
Amphetamine, a stimulant that works on the pleasure centers in the brain, was first synthesized in Germany in 1887. Methamphetamine wasn’t synthesized until 1919 in Japan. By the late 1920s, amphetamine was beginning to be utilized in “stay-awake” and diet medicines, and recreational users found it a legal alternative to cocaine, which had been made illegal in 1914. In WW2, both Germany and Japan were supplying amphetamine and methamphetamines to their troops to keep them focused and give them a euphoric, driving edge, a practice later adopted by the US military, particularly for fighter pilots and members of long range reconnaissance patrols.
In 1950 an amphetamine drug called Ritalin was patented and used to treat people suffering from narcolepsy, a condition in which sufferers fall asleep involuntarily. The drug was later tried on children suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and since the early 1990s its use has ballooned—though many in the medical field feel that rather than treating the disorder Ritalin and the other amphetamine medications simply make the ADD child focus obsessively on something, thereby keeping them quiet and still.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, amphetamine and methamphetamine use skyrocketed. On the one hand a subculture of meth users developed among bikers and long range truckers, particularly in rural areas, but a whole generation of women were having amphetamine-based pills prescribed to them as well for weight-loss. Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs were noted users of the drug. College kids also used amphetamines because it could get them through otherwise tedious papers in no time.
Despite the best attempts by law enforcement to corral amphetamine and methamphetamine use since that period, each of those subcultures has continued to find a way to get their medication of choice, either through prescription or via the clandestine meth labs that produce the drug in various states of purity from ephedrine and pseudoephedrine—products routinely found in diet aids, cold remedies, energy pills and asthma medication.
Ice is a relatively new kid on the methamphetamine drug block. Where meth is generally a powder or in tiny crystal form, ice is meth refined to a very pure hydrochloride—salt—form, on which large crystals can grow. Made right it looks like glass shards or rough-cut diamonds. Made any way other than nearly pure, the crystals won’t grow as well, so while street meth may have a potency of 10%-30% meth with 70%-90% harmless adulterant, ice is generally considered to have something like an 80%-90% purity. Moreover, the ability to smoke it apparently maximizes its potency.
It first appeared in east Asia, perhaps Korea or Taiwan, and about 15 years ago someone figured out that it could be smoked, which maximizes its potency. From there, the drug made its way to Japan, and from there it went to Hawaii around 1990. A couple of years later it reached California’s meth circles, and in about 1999 or 2000 it hit the midwest and south, from Eastern Oklahoma through Missouri and Kansas, down through Texas, Lousiana, Arkansas and Georgia. But because ice is so expensive, it didn’t hit hard — not like crack, that hit as an epidemic, with little $2 vials all over the streets.
But it hit hard enough to be noticed by law enforcement. Last spring a North Texas drug task force busted a gang of Aryan Brotherhood members with 23 pounds of the stuff. In July, another Texas bust netted 22 pounds that came into town from Mexico, which traditionally produces meth rather than the more refined ice. In southern Missouri alone, nearly 3,000 meth labs were shut down by police last year; an unknown number of those producing were actually producing ice. It’s still not on the street per se, however, and according to law enforcement officials, it won’t be, so long as the price stays where it is.
“We’re finding it in groups that were already in the meth scene,” says Lt. J.T. Morgan of the Fort Worth Police Department’s narcotics division. “It’s at least twice the price of meth, so we have not seen it in poor sections of town like we did when crack hit. To be honest, you are not going to find a $10 bag of ice out there. You may find it, but it won’t be ice.”
“You’ve pretty much got to get it from a real dealer, someone who knows a cook or a distributor,” says John L., “because ice heads don’t want to give it up. It’s too precious.”
Not everyone agrees with Lt. Morgan’s assessment of the situation. While Dr. Mann says he’s seen it at straight clubs around the country with MedEvent during the last 6-8 months, Christina B, a midwest writer and former junkie, she says she’s seen it at strip clubs for twice that long. “The men like to give it to the girls instead of money,” she says. “If the girls smoke they’re libel to be much more turned on.” Christina adds that though heroin was always her drug of choice, when the opportunity to smoke Ice came up a year or so ago at a straight dance club she joined the gang. “Very overwhelming. Utterly euphoric. But I was still high 18 hours later and that was no good at all. I wouldn’t think most non-drug users could handle it. It was just too much, even for me, and I was a pretty hardcore heroin addict.”
In Mann’s estimation, the use of ice at upscale gay clubs is already on the wane. “I think it peaked about six months ago, after just a couple of years, in part because of how fast it took people down, and in part because the gay community, because of AIDS, has a strong infrastructure. People saw what was happening to their friends with ice.
“I mean, with meth people use it for years, on an off, and function. But ice becomes so overwhelming so quickly that you spend your money, forget your job, become aggressive and impatient, you don’t get along with people, you get paranoid. It costs you in so many ways. I’ve just never seen people behave like Ice makes them behave. I don’t mean violently, not that, but they will lie to their families, they’ll cheat, they’ll steal to get it. That’s generally a myth with most drugs put out by prohibitionists, but it really is a truth with this.”
James Roberson, from Atlanta, agrees with Mann’s assessment of things. “Cocaine was my drug of choice till I ran into ice. I used it to dance with all the energy it gave me. With coke I was always running to the bathroom to have another couple of lines but with ice, smoke a little and I was good to go.”
Roberson, now 29 and in a long-term rehab facility, was a military brat. His dad is an Airforce Colonel, and his mom an educator, and he was raised with a work ethic “that said if I was not working, I was doing something wrong.”
A restaurant manager, Roberson says that at first ice was a great drug. “It was the best. If drugs are broken down into male and female, this one is definitely male. It’s like it says: ‘Here’s the deal. You know what you’re getting with me. Take it or leave it.’ I decided to take it.”
Why? He was asked. “Smoking it was so smooth and the rush was so intense I just wanted to jump out of my skin. Everything was so clear, so alive. And then there was the sexual nature of the drug. I was definitely into seek and destroy, sexually. And a conquest didn’t satisfy that. I wanted another conquest. And another.”
It didn’t cost him his restaurant manager job, though it did change the way he did it. “I was all over the floor, talking with everyone. And in the restaurant, you know, it wasn’t hard. It was coming and going through the place and I was going to find it there.”
Roberson says that while he didn’t binge like so many other Ice users—‘who went down a lot faster and went to a lot worse places than I did’— because of his work ethic, he still managed to do about $150 worth nightly. “I was making good money and I was real good at math so I knew how to cook the books easily enough. You know, tell the boss you comped a table when you didn’t, send the waiters home early and do their job as well as my own to get their tips, trade free meals with my dealer. There were all sorts of ways to get what I needed, and at the time it seemed alright. I thought I could keep it up, like I had with coke or regular meth. But this was different. I noticed I was doing it at home, staying on the computer all night and finally I was doing it at work and that’s when I knew I had a problem. And then I had a minor incident with the law and decided that was it. So I checked into rehab.”
Roberson, who has been clean for 15 months, says he doesn’t regret what he’s done but is glad it’s over. “I am going to look at it as a period of my life that I went through. It was something I did when I was young and dumb and is part of my story. But I don’t want to repeat it.”
Steve Black, not his real name, works with drug users in a large midwest city to get their urine clean enough to pass drug tests and has his own take on the scene. “This is a new ballgame. It’s not your cat-urine-smelling type meth, this is a high-grade ride.” Black says that in the last two years people have been coming to see him to get cleaned up from Ice in droves. Particularly from the well-heeled end of the gay community, but he’s seen straight business people and athletes at his door as well. “This has an emormous rush and a lot of people who get on this stuff simply cannot shake it.”
Asked if the people he’d seen had reiterated the sex enhancement that others had mentioned, Black laughed. “That’s the main thing. This makes you cum drunk. If you’re already a sexaholic and you do this you’re libel to nail yourself to the floor.”
Black paused and grew serious. “People burn themselves out all sorts of ways. From working too much, to drinking too much to too much nothing. But from what I am seeing, ice turns you into such a raging, focused maniac that you will burn out faster, and probably harder, than anything you can imagine.”
Fortunately, says Black, there has not been a great deal of violence connected with ice use, for a variety of reasons. “The violence is mostly domestic. Husband comes home and thinks his old lady is cheating on him. He’s tweaked up and beats the hell out of her. Or she comes home and sees he’s used the last of the stash and the battle starts. But it’s all escalated with this to a very hyper level.”
According to several police sources throughout the midwest, the reason the turf wars havn’t developed is the way that ice, like meth, is generally made. The labs, he says, are in motel rooms and mobile vehicles, or way out in the country in Arkansas and Missouri, and so there really isn’t any turf to fight over. “How can you have a turf war when someone is renting a motel room for one night to make a batch he’s going to sell in another city the next day? This is not like crack. There are no street corners owned by one group or another.”
That’s not to say that the ice trade is risk-free. Any time people deal with black market cash and use a drug that increases paranoia, things can get out of hand. As with the regular meth trade, arguments develop over money and delivery, or a lab blows up. John L. related the story of an ice deal that went bad a few years ago. He’d cooked and a woman friend was to deliver it to a store front where the buyers were waiting. But something went wrong and the delivery wasn’t completed. The woman disappeared. “When her body finally turned up some months later,” he says, “she’d been tortured, carved up. They did real bad things to her.”
But that’s the exception, rather than the rule. As are serious overdoses. Few meth or ice overdoses ever result in death, though it could be argued that people who share needles and wind up with HIV or dead of hepatitis are nonetheless casualties. Actually, the most frequent acute bad event associated with meth and ice use is what’s called Amphetamine Psychosis. It can be brought on either by consistent heavy use or a single large dose, and its symptoms are almost identical to those of schitzophrenia: vivid auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions, or, like Lisa Walker notes, “talking to people who were very real but not actually there.”
Fortunately, the condition passes in a matter of hours or days, and there are no lasting effects. And for novices who might find themselves freaking out, there are people like Dr. Mann and his volunteers at many large events to calm things down and get people the help they need to get through the crisis.
This isn’t meant as a drug war scare story. It’s meant as a caution. An ice epidemic that was predicted to arrive in the US on the heels of the crack epidemic in the early ‘90s never developed. It probably won’t now, either, though if Dr. Mann is right, there are libel to be a number of straight club goers who find themselves in over their heads in the coming season. His advice to them would be to simply not do it, regardless of its euphoric promise, because most people cannot control this one. And his advice to those who find people they know in over their heads with Ice is to simply let them burn out on their own.
“They have to fall and they usually will fall fast. It's terrible to watch and you hold your breath, but most people get through it. They don't kill themselves. They may end up in a psych ward for a couple of nights, they may end up with skin infections, but they do get away. The problem is to keep them away. In fact, if there is anything good about Ice it’s the speed with which it will ruin you. You can start, get involved, lose everything and be back on the road to recovery in a year,” he says, only half joking.
One of the things that everyone connected with this story—with the exception of the police officers, who were not asked—agreed on is that jail is not the solution. “I watched a fellow I know get sent up for 23 years for cooking ice recently,” says Black. “He no more needed jail than the man in the moon. He had a drug problem, not a criminal problem. It was like watching them send someone to jail for having cancer.”
“Hell, I was in and out of jail for 15 years and it never made me quit,” says John L. “I quit when I got fed up. Not because of going to jail.”
Dr. Mann goes one step further: “I believe that a lot of meth users are undiagnosed Adult ADD patients who are self-medicating. I think people should be educated to this possibility, and if they notice that they’re improved with meth, they might want to go get checked for Adult ADD to see if that’s their problem. Unfortunately, society’s solution is to try to catch them and put them in jail. That’s crazy now and always has been. This is a medical problem. What we need to do is expand rehabilitation and stop incarceration.”
Unfortunately, most people seeking a free rehab bed will wait months for one, and during that wait a large percentage will be criminalized and find there is no waiting line for a bed in jail.
A few of the lucky ones, like Lisa Walker, find the bed when they need one. “I’m content,” she says. “I’m even happy, and I didn’t think that was possible.”
For those doing it, try to catch yourself before you burn.
For those who are not yet doing it, this is probably one to avoid.
For you people out at the clubs, just remember that this ain’t your momma’s diet pill.