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How Is Methamphetamine (Meth) Made?

Methamphetamine (meth) is typically produced in criminal labs in Mexico and then smuggled into the United States. The chemistry required to make the drug isn’t especially complex. It can be manufactured with cheap, over-the-counter chemicals, although these chemicals are increasingly more regulated. 

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Where Does Meth Typically Originate?

Most methamphetamine found on the U.S. black market is produced by transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). TCOs, as implied by their name, operate across national boundaries. The TCOs that produce meth for the U.S. typically manufacture it in Mexico and then smuggle it into the U.S.[1] 

The economics of illegal drug manufacture and trade can be complicated, but one major reason it is typically done this way is the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, which was passed in 2005.[1] This law requires businesses to keep logs on how much of certain products that are often used in meth manufacture are sold. It reduces the amount of these products an individual can purchase each day. 

As regulations on the chemicals needed to produce meth tightened in the U.S., it became more economical to produce the drug elsewhere and smuggle it in.[2] 

The Basic Chemistry of Meth

For a variety of reasons both legal and ethical, this article isn’t going to dive too deeply into the chemistry of how meth is made. However, we will cover the basic chemistry behind the drug. 

Methamphetamine is relatively easy to manufacture by a trained chemist using over-the-counter ingredients. One of the most common ingredients used to produce meth is pseudoephedrine, which is present in many cold medications.[1]

It takes a variety of chemicals to produce meth, which can be broadly broken into three categories: solvents, metals and salts, and strong acids or bases.[3] The nature of chemistry also means there isn’t just one way to produce the drug. It takes chemicals from all these groups to produce meth, but many different combinations can produce the drug.[3] 

Regulators usually focus on the easiest and most profitable ways to make meth when it comes to regulating chemicals. As a result, regulations help to reduce the risk of criminals easily producing the drug. 

Warnings About Meth Labs

The process by which meth is made creates many toxins, which can be dangerous to humans. Solvents and corrosives can be in the form of gasses or liquids, which present a serious health risk if inhaled. Solid substances used or produced during the production process can also come in the form of powders, which can also be dangerous if inhaled. 

The manufacturing process produces dangerous chemical waste that can’t be disposed of easily. It is usually illegally dumped, which can be a major environmental hazard to the area an operation uses as its dumping site. 

Meth labs are notoriously dangerous. In addition to the toxic and corrosive chemicals a person might be exposed to, various parts of the manufacturing process involve handling highly flammable and/or volatile compounds.[2] Laboratories can and do explode. 

Even once shut down, the site of what was once a meth lab is often contaminated by the process of making meth. It requires significant cleanup and decontamination before the site can be safely used for another purpose. 

Cutting Agents Cause a Huge Threat

The sale of illegal drugs is extremely profit-motivated. While criminals aren’t incentivized to kill their customers, they are incentivized to get them addicted to their product and to make that product as cheaply as possible. Harming their customers isn’t a major concern as long as enough survive and continue coming back to purchase more drugs.

Many drugs sold on the street are cut with other substances to make them more profitable.[4] Criminals may lace drugs with the powerful opioid fentanyl to make the drugs more potent and addictive.[5] They might also use other cheap and potentially dangerous agents to reduce the purity of what is being sold, allowing them to sell less of a drug for the same amount of profit.[6] 

As a general rule, you should never assume drugs purchased on the black market are what is being claimed. Illegal markets aren’t regulated. Criminals can say and do more or less whatever they want if they think it might help them make more money. You can’t identify the purity of meth visually.

Updated February 24, 2024
Resources
  1. How is methamphetamine manufactured? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Published October 2019. Accessed February 17, 2024.
  2. An evolving problem: Methamphetamine production and trafficking in the United States. Shukla RK, Crump JL, Chrisco ES. International Journal of Drug Policy. 2012;23(6):426-435.
  3. Chemicals in meth manufacture. Oregon Health Authority. Accessed February 17, 2024.
  4. High concentrations of illicit stimulants and cutting agents cause false positives on fentanyl test strips. Lockwood TLE, Vervoordt A, Lieberman M. Harm Reduction Journal. 2021;18(1).
  5. Attitudes and experiences with fentanyl contamination of methamphetamine: exploring self-reports and urine toxicology among persons who use methamphetamine and other drugs. Raminta Daniulaityte, Ruhter L, Juhascik M, Silverstein S. Harm Reduction Journal. 2023;20(1).
  6. Information bulletin: Crystal methamphetamine. National Drug Intelligence Center, U.S. Department of Justice. Accessed February 17, 2024.
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