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A Nation Of Speedfreaks

Do you shudder at the sight of low-life trailer-trash crankheads driving around in their beat-up Camaros? Do you nod solemnly when one of the big tv news actors presents a piece on how methamphetamine is now the Number One Drug Scourge of the United States? Are you shocked at video footage of police and firefighting personnel in radiation suits removing chemistry lab equipment from innocuous rural dwellings? It's everywhere, isn't it? Central nervous system stimulation - it feels good. Did you enjoy your coffee this morning? Was it a cup of plain old Joe, or a double latte, or triple mocha? At home? At Starbucks? Did it make you feel motivated, as if you had urgent and important things to do? That your agenda for the day carried great meaning?

Well, that's what crank does. No matter how common or sophisticated or snobbish your coffee preference, it's still caffeine, a central nervous system stimulant. A low-grade, chickenshit stimulant compared to methamphetamine - a distant relative, but definitely in the larger family of speed, crank, meth, crystal, ice ...whatever you choose to call it. It might be a good idea to look a bit less condescendingly at those crankers out there, because they're doing the same thing you are, only more so.

More than 30 years ago, in 1967, the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene had already moved from peace, love, brown rice and marijuana to LSD and on to speed. Around the same time, I sat up all night in a New England motel talking with a friend of mine, a drummer in a traveling band from New York. He and all the other band members used diet pills, obtained both legally and illegally, to get through the traveling and the long nights of playing for indifferent drunks in crummy places like Lowell, Massachusetts. They were on speed.

(And of course, so were perhaps millions of housewives who had no clue they were using addictive drugs; it was MEDICINE prescribed by a DOCTOR. This was the exact argument used by another friend's Latvian immigrant mother, when she expressed some concern over her son's marijuana use and he pointed out her little jar of dexedrine tablets.)

Joey, the drummer from New York, had no pretensions about what he was doing. He was using drugs and he liked them. He was Irish, another son of immigrants, and had the Blarney, or gift of gab. The amphetamines merely amplified it. After going on and on about one subject after another, he made a statement that I have remembered clearly all this time: "Before long, this will be a nation of speed freaks." Well. Damn if he wasn't right.

Of all the seemingly unlikely places, Hawaii has one of the worst crank problems in the United States. Unlikely, because one might think extreme stimulation is inappropriate in the constant hot weather, but no. The drug, and people on it, adapt. When freebase (what crack cocaine used to be called) was the stimulant of choice for upper-class Marin County lawyers and such, someone somewhere got the bright idea of converting methamphetamine into a smokable form. This "new" drug, called "ice," took off in Hawaii. It's very easy and convenient for anyone who's either afraid of the needle or considers themselves socially "above" intravenous injection, to smoke the stuff. Back in the 60s the Hell's Angels supplied a lot of speed in Northern California. In Hawaii, it's Asian gangs but it was west coast hippie-type speed-freaks who brought it here in the first place. I have the misfortune of former association with one of them, who is now either in prison or on the lam after having made a batch of bad crank that killed someone.

In those early days of the speed explosion, the other center (besides the Bay Area) of speed activity was central and south Texas: Dallas-Austin-Houston. Fifty-pound bags of the stuff could be bought cheap from chicken farmers who used it to force more and crappier eggs from the hens. This is how much of it came to San Francisco at first. Heavy crankheads become paranoid sooner or later and if they don't go to the office and gun down their fellow employees, or get drunk and start fights, they're likely to be keeping a low profile, hiding out at home, dismantling small electronic devices or digging through buckets of nuts and bolts, or fumbling around in the middle of the night with a flashlight, because there's something they "gotta" find.

Now, it's the espresso crowd that's becoming dangerous. Like marijuana, the coffee has gotten stronger over the years and you can get espresso anywhere, just like beer. Even redneck truck stops in Oregon have espresso now, but it's not the truckers you need to worry about. They're old hands at sleep deprivation. It's the soccer moms and day traders in the SUVs with cell phones who are posing the real threat on the roads. These people are cranked up on serious doses of caffeine, and are self-absorbed, and not paying attention. Central nervous stimulation added to an already grossly inflated sense of self-importance, driving a three-ton hunk of metal, is a bad formula. Oddly, veteran meth freaks often tend to drive slowly and carefully due to a well-justified fear of the police. It's when they drink that they get in trouble...

Crank is indeed a powerful and very dangerous drug, but the biggest danger is not what the user might do to you, it's what he's doing to himself and his family, if they're still around. Aside from the inevitable physiological damage like tooth loss, heart damage (at least two friends of mine died from heart attack due to over-stimulation) or double pneumonia from staying up three or four nights in a row with little or no food out in the cold damp Northern California weather, in all these years of writing and publishing, I still haven't been able to come up with adequate words to get across the feelings of horror and despair that always comes with heavy methamphetamine use.

When this piece was first written, the rural meth lab was a rare thing. Then someone found out that methamphetamine could be made from cold pills, instead of photograph development - or related - chemicals. I suspect digital photography has made this stuff harder to find. Marijuana and opioids get most of the press now, but crank hasn't gone away, not by a long shot.

How about a nice cup of tea?

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