In our ethnographic study on methamphetamine use in the suburbs we used qualitative methods that are particularly applicable for studies among hidden populations (Carlson et al., 2004; Lambert, Ashery, & Needle, 1995; Shaw, 2005; Small, Kerr, Charrette, Schechter, & Spittal, 2006). The data collection included: (a) participant observations (b) drug history and life history matrices, and (c) audio-recorded in-depth interviews. We spent at least 20 hours a week over the course of a year in the field to become familiar with the environment of the study population and to develop community contacts (Agar, 1973; Bourgois, 1995; Sterk-Elifson, 1993). A combination of targeted, snowball, and theoretical sampling methods were used to recruit respondents for the study (Strauss & Corbin, 1998; Watters & Biernacki, 1989). The typical method of establishing contact with methamphetamine users involved talking with people at public places, such as coffee houses, bars, clubs, grocery stores, tattoo shops, or other shopping areas. We gave our contact card to people who expressed interest and posted fliers in public areas and private establishments, with permission. Often, rapport was established with a potential respondent on the field and arrangements were made to meet for an interview. Otherwise, a user who heard or read about the study called our cell phone and arranged a meeting. At that time, we discussed the time commitment, interview process, confidentiality concerns, and $25 reimbursement they would receive for their participation. Oral consent was obtained before collecting information. A screening process was used to ensure that participants pass the eligibility criteria to participate in the study. Criteria included being age 18 or older and having used methamphetamine in the suburbs. No identifying material was collected. The research team consisted of the principal investigator and two trained research assistants. All were involved in the recruitment, interviewing and analysis for this paper.
Interviews were conducted in a safe location agreed upon by the interviewer and respondent. Typical interview sites included the respondent’s home, library rooms, hotel rooms, the interviewer’s car, and private university rooms. The respondent’s drug history and life history events were recorded with paper and pencil, followed by an audio-recorded, in-depth interview. Ethnographic field work and interviews were conducted between July 2007 and August 2008.
This research was supported by funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (1R15DA021164-01A10).
Kennesaw State University
Typically, the younger users (18–29) in our study who reported primarily using string dope produced in fish tanks, buckets or jars. One 24-year-old current female user maintained: “String dope—you don’t cook anything. That’s the main way they do it now.” Most of these younger users claimed that string dope was methamphetamine, but even if it was not, it made them high. A 21-year-old current user proposed: “Okay, well it may not produce methamphetamine but whatever it produces will fuck you up.”
Urban legends and myths are prevalent in drug-use environments. However, the distinction between myth and fact is not always clear. We found contradictory claims regarding the emergence of cold cook methods for producing methamphetamine when contrasting user-generated reports with official reports repudiating such methods as myths. Our aim is to open the topic for more academic discussion.
According to our respondents, the purity of string dope ranged from being “fake” or “crap” to being the “best dope” available. For example, a 33-year-old female who had been using methamphetamine for many years proposed: “It’s not as potent. You don’t get as high…. Probably because you can’t make it in the labs, it’s not a good form of the drug. I do think it’s still addictive, and I do think it’s still meth.”
The similarities between USDOJ verified cold cook methods and those reported by our respondents were revealing. “Burying the containers in hot sand,” mentioned in the excerpt above, almost parallels burying a fish tank (container) in the ground. The cold cook method was mentioned again in a NDIC (2003) report from Arizona. We realized that the addition of gun bluing to the cold cook method was a primary factor for this method being labelled a myth by the DEA. Gun bluing and charcoal, items often mentioned by our respondents, are the two ingredients listed in the DEA website on methamphetamine myths. According to the DEA: “None of these items contain precursors necessary for methamphetamine production” (DEA, 2005).
Urban legends and myths are prevalent in drug-use environments, and dispelling myths is an important function of some drug research (Hammersley & Reid, 2002; Hughes, 2007). However, the distinction between myth and fact is not as clear as some myth busters suggest. Using a field trial design (Agar et al., 2001) we investigated the myths of methamphetamine production found on the Internet and reported by government sources. Our investigation into cold cook methods of producing methamphetamine emerged from an ethnographic study on suburban methamphetamine use. Sterk (2003) proposes that “ethnography is a process as well as a product.” (p. 127). We are still in the process of investigating the dynamics surrounding the myth of cold cook methods. Our inductive investigation is influenced by growing concern regarding the unintended consequences of increased methamphetamine precursor regulation (McKetin, 2008; Sexton, Carlson, Leukefeld, & Booth, 2006).
Cold Cook Methods: An Ethnographic Exploration on the Myths of Methamphetamine Production and Policy Implications Miriam W. Boeri Kennesaw State University David Gibson Kennesaw State
Alongside opium poppy and heroin, the huge profit of the drug trade has now inflated the value of a previously ignored and nearly worthless mountain shrub known to locals as oman—creating a domestic industry in methamphetamine production in Afghanistan, a country with scarcely any history of meth use. This has helped feed a rising problem of meth use among Kabul’s 150,000 heroin users, said local drug workers, affecting a country already reeling from poverty, war, and addiction.
It all started with a mysterious white plastic barrel filled with green goo. In 2018 in the southwestern Bakwa province of Afghanistan, a team of Afghan fieldworkers were investigating the impact of U.S. aerial bombing campaigns against opium labs earlier that year. Alongside disused farmhouses destroyed by B-52s and F-35s, the team, led by David Mansfield, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics International Drug Policy Unit, found a lab containing barrels filled with oozing shredded plant matter steeping in water.
In Afghanistan, oman had historically been sold in small quantities to traders as a traditional medicine and cough remedy. But the LSE team soon learned that teams of hundreds, perhaps thousands of subsistence farmers in the foothills of this austere highland area were bringing down hundreds of pounds of the plant each week. “One 15-ton lorry of dried oman can make 265kg [584 lbs] of meth,” Mansfield said. “Some guys told us they were making ten trips a year.”
Meth first appeared in Kabul in 2014, Majeed said. Heroin users were told by dealers it would help them beat their opiate addiction, and after a honeymoon period of cranked-up stimulation, many have ended up addicted to both drugs and some are now suffering chronic amphetamine psychosis.
That meth could be made from an herb has long been known by chemists, but using ephedra as a means of mass-producing the drug has never been feasible due to the quantity of raw material needed. But combine economic motivation, a rising demand for meth among drug users in Kabul, and poor farmers willing to work for $30 a day harvesting the wild crop, and you have all the ingredients for a novel, innovative industry.
One kilogram of meth sells for $316, and around $2,500 for all 8kg, said Mansfield, adding that there is no evidence yet of herbal meth being exported out of the country. Broken down into street deals in the capital, Kabul, each kilo can be sold on for as much as $10,000-$12,000 according to Murtaza Majeed, a street worker with Harm Reduction Afghanistan. He said meth has taken a firm grip on the city’s heroin users in recent years.
In April 2019, U.S. forces and Afghan allies bombed what they claimed were 68 meth labs in the Bakwa region. The impact of these raids was exaggerated by Afghan officials. But the fact that USFOR-A operatives were able to locate and destroy this many labs in a single day does indicates the scale of the trade—a trade that would never exist without the profit-inflating nature of drug prohibition.
One hawar (450g) of ephedra sells for $284 in Bakwa. This can make 12 kilos of ephedrine, meth cooks in Bakwa told the LSE researchers. That can be converted into 8kg of crystal meth using freely available chemicals including toluene and iodine.
Local media reported that 150 “Taliban terrorists” were killed in the attacks, though both the number and nature of that claim is disputed. Residents and drug users say that since the raids, perhaps due to a glut of meth and oman, prices have actually plummeted, both for oman and for meth, and that supply remains uninterrupted.
Investigators have uncovered a burgeoning local trade in the production of methamphetamine using a mountain shrub.