Monday, 12 November 2012

The Big Chill ... breaking worse in the Ice Age

Here's one from the vaults, a long and rather disturbing read on the insidious march of methamphetamine I penned for the South China Morning Post's weekend magazine as the millennium drew to its conclusion

EVA conjures a pale ghost of smoke from a fold of tinfoil, using her lighter's flame like a lover's caress. It curls and shimmers and tries to escape but Eva chases it all the way down the foil, sucking greedily on a water pipe made of straws and a shampoo bottle clutched between her knees. She holds the smoke down, savouring it, letting it work its icy tendrils into the farthest reaches of her lungs, then tilts her head back and blows a jet of smoke into the gloom with a sensual sigh. Pupils start to swell. A delicious shiver runs through her body. She gazes down dreamily at the foil, where a milky trail traces the length of its crease. "This is my vitamin," she giggles, batting fat black lashes over big sloe eyes. "I have to take it every day." She flicks her lighter and strokes the foil and chases the ghost. And then she chases it again. And again. And again.

Eva's "vitamin" is methamphetamine hydrochloride, more popularly known in Hong Kong as "ice". It is also Asia's looming epidemic; a cheap and potent drug which gets users higher and keeps them high longer than anything else on the market while offering huge profit margins to drug syndicates. In the vivid argot of the drug netherworld, ice is to speed what crack is to cocaine; a smokeable rock form of the drug which transports the buzz to the brain faster and more powerfully than its powdered, snorted
cousin. But the hit from crack lasts 15 minutes.

A comparable amount of ice will get you up for anything from eight to 24 hours. It is, like crack, intensely addictive; a mental magnifying glass that initially transforms users into deities, eliciting superhuman performances at work, in bed, at parties. Once addicted, however, users can look forward to a long slide towards a panoply of pain and torment. Long-term use ravages the mind and body and can lead to respiratory disorders, hypertension, stroke, manic depression, paranoia, hallucinations, violent outbursts and psychotic episodes. The prognosis for recovery is far more grim than for someone hooked on heroin.

In the Philippines, South Korea, Hawaii and Japan it is already a massive problem. In the United States, Attorney-General Janet Reno recently named it a national threat and President Bill Clinton said it was on the way to becoming "the crack of the 1990s". And in Hong Kong, it is by far the fastest-growing drug of abuse. Even notoriously behind-the-times government figures record a jump of more than 250 per cent in users last year, while police warn it could usurp heroin as the territory's top drug problem in coming years.

The police narcotics bureau's dour drug-buster Chief Inspector Bruce Hawkins has heard the first glacial roar of the coming ice age and is far from complacent. "Heroin is still by far our biggest problem," he says. "But with heroin, you've got the dangers of the needle culture, AIDS, and with ice people think, great, I don't have to use a needle, I can smoke it. Also, because its synthetic you don't have to rely on harvests or the weather. As long as you've got the right stuff you can produce it anytime.

"With opium, you're waiting for two harvests a year, you're waiting for the weather, you're hoping there are no big problems with the Burmese revolutionary army or whatever. Making stuff synthetically does away with those problems, and also the problem of needing large, large areas to grow the stuff."

EVA, 26, IS A FILIPINAwho lives in a dingy rented room in Tsim Sha Tsui. Eva is also, technically, a man. And a prostitute. Usually. Her flatmate, Jenny, 28, also smokes ice, or shabu, as it is more commonly known in the Philippines. Jenny is a woman, and not a prostitute. Usually. She's a dancer, although there are months when it's hard to make ends meet. Eva inhabits the shadowy, mid-gender world of the she-male - in her native Tagalog, a baccala. She has long thick brown hair, smooth brown skin, pert breasts (courtesy of regular female hormone doses) and curves in the appropriate places. She also has a penis.

Growing up, as you might imagine, was rather confusing for Eva, although she says she knew she was really a woman from the time she was seven or eight. She makes a living trawling several Wan Chai clubs a night, where men - some who prefer she-males, more who are too drunk or naive to realise - part with anything from $500 to $1,500 to sleep with her. Years of practice have honed her skills - diverting wandering hands, pleas that it is that time of the month, enthusiastic offers of oral sex - to the point that there are no shortage of punters blissfully wandering Wan Chai without the foggiest notion that they have slept with a man.

From time to time she is found out, and occasionally she is beaten up. Sometimes, when it all gets too much, she forsakes the seedy charms of Wan Chai to work in a friend's beauty salon. But she always returns. Eva's is hardly the most enviable or easiest of lives, and when she discovered the blissful embrace of ice, she didn't look back.

After five or six hits from the water pipe, Eva leans back on the moth-eaten sofa that doubles as her bed, letting the rush wash over her. "I first took ice two years ago. I never tried it in the Philippines. But my life is hard here and when I have my vitamin, everything is better. It can be dangerous, but only if you take too much. I know one girl who smoked too much. Now she's in a coma."

Eva knows long-term use of the drug is harming her health and says she will give up "one day" but for the moment she needs the rush. She usually smokes before going out to Wan Chai and sometimes again when she returns, depending on how badly she wants to forget the night's proceedings. She has been smoking ice long enough that she can usually sleep by about 9am, although the amount she now consumes in a night would probably kill a novice. Ice kills the appetite and her weight has been declining, although Eva doesn't have the gaunt look of some smokers. Yet.

If she's lucky enough to meet a man she finds attractive and who is into her unusual physiognomy, the drug dramatically enhances the sex. "It makes you maliboog, you know, horny. And when I get home, if I'm too drunk and have a headache, I smoke and I feel good straight away." Eva says she's not an addict, but when she accidently spills some of the tiny white crystals from their plastic bag, a look of naked panic washes over her face and a mad scrabble ensues until every single granule is back in the bag.

Jenny is tiny and wiry. She dances at a girlie bar in Tsim Sha Tsui and says ice helps her to get through night after night of appearing interested in leering beery lechers. She buys ice for HK$300 a gram from a Filipino friend, who buys it in bigger quantities from a local triad.

"I've been taking it for two or three years," she says. "I can get through the night easier. Normally I don't go with a man, but sometimes ..." Her voice tails off and she takes another hit from the pipe, water bubbling madly as she fills her lungs with fumes. "I don't think ice is as bad as cocaine or ecstasy. But you shouldn't take this one if you're upset, it can really affect your mind." Jenny says she smokes every day for several weeks, then gives up for a week or so, just to prove to herself she can. "I can definitely control it. I'm not an addict. The feeling is very nice, it's very cool and smooth." She takes another long hit. "If you take a lot your hands and feet get really cold." She proffers a foot, and it is, indeed, icy.

AMPHETAMINE WAS BORN in a German chemistry lab in 1887. It is an artificial analogue of adrenalin, the hormone that creates the "fight or flight" state in times of danger. Methamphetamine, the same molecular structure with two extra hydrogen atoms and an extra carbon atom, was synthesised 30 years later by Japanese chemists, who discovered it provided an even bigger buzz. Japanese military leaders put the drug to use in munitions plants so tired workers could go on churning out weapons long after they would normally have dropped from exhaustion.

They also fed it to kamikaze pilots. It was Hitler's drug of choice and as his Reich crumbled, his doctors were reportedly injecting him up to eight times a day. Japanese authorities outlawed the drug in 1952, by which time a widespread abuse problem existed. The drug made its way west and speed, the powdered form, became popular with bikers, truckers and students.

As the prowess of drug syndicates' chemists improved, it was discovered ice, or crystal meth as it's known in the US, could be synthesised from ephedrine or pseudoephedrine, compounds found in many legal drugs including diet pills and decongestants. Ephedrine has the same chemical composition as methamphetamine, with the addition of one lonely oxygen atom, which is removed by combining ephedrine with red phosphorus and hydriotic acid - a relatively simple but highly explosive process.

China is one of the world's biggest producers of ephedrine, thanks to a profusion of the ephedra plant throughout its southern provinces. Over the past decade or so, ice labs have sprung up throughout Fujian, Xiamen and Guangdong, lending China the dubious honour of being the world's leading ice producer.

The initial surge in ice production in China was due in no small part to the unstinting efforts of an unassuming-looking mother of two named Lee Chau-ping. Lee, who rose to notoriety as the "Ice Queen", presided over an empire of seven ice factories across southern China. She managed to escape, and is still on the run, after a joint Hong Kong-Chinese operation smashed her syndicate. One of her factories in Fujian province contained 310kg of ice and more than 1.5 tonnes of ephedrine, enough to make another tonne of the drug.

By the time Hong Kong police raided her Kowloon home and main company, she was long gone, leaving behind books on chemistry, several pages of rice paper with detailed instructions on how to manufacture the drug, and a list of contacts including Swiss and German chemical suppliers, top yakuza figures from Japan, and Thai and US contacts. By the time she was traced to Canada, she had fled there as well, leaving behind her two children. The last firm lead was when she was traced to Thailand in 1993. Canadian authorities have seized $7.88 million of her assets and in Hong Kong, moves are underway to seize another $26 million of her ill-gotten gains. The rest of her gang are now in jail, dead or on the run. But other ice entrepreneurs were quick to step into the breach and production of the white crystals scarcely faltered.

IT IS LITTLE WONDER the Ice Queen was able to stay ahead of the game for so long - the creaking wheels of bureaucracy grind far slower than the nimble cogs of a well-organised criminal empire. It was not until the beginning of 1996 that the Hong Kong Government got serious about the control of ephedrine and other "pre-cursor" chemicals used in the drug trade. The Control of Chemicals Ordinance brought the manufacture, possession, import and export of ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and a host of other chemicals used in the manufacturing of ice, ecstasy and other psychotropic drugs under the remit of the Customs and Excise department.

The ordinance provides for penalties of up to 15 years prison and a fine of $1 million for anyone not holding the appropriate licence. The scope for diverting ephedrine for illicit purposes becomes apparent when you consider 30.7 tonnes of ephedrine were imported into Hong Kong last year, and 27.3 tonnes re-exported.

It is difficult, however, to apply more than a slap on the wrist unless an offender is caught red-handed with the chemical. In July last year, Mexican police seized 2.75 tonnes of ephedrine (Mexican gangs control the lion's share of the manufacture of crystal meth in the US), leading to an investigation here and charges being brought against a company, Indiamond Hong Kong, and an individual, Cheung Chai-tong. Customs sources say because of a lack of physical evidence here, the case relied mainly on
documents. Convictions against both were secured, but the company was fined just $66,000 and Cheung, $57,000 - hardly a big disincentive for potential suppliers.

Hawkins, the narcotics bureau's amphetamine expert, hardly goes into raptures about the level of co-operation with the Customs department. "They do their thing, we do ours," he says gruffly. "But of course, if we get any information on pre-cursor chemicals, we pass it across to them."

Hawkins says most ice users in Hong Kong are Chinese. But the drug is gaining a foothold in the expatriate community and has long been a problem among Filipinos. "From what I know, it first surfaced in the Filipino entertainment community in the mid-1980s. You'd have these bands doing 12 hours in one place, then 12 hours somewhere else, and they'd be using ice quite a lot. It keeps people going for a long time, and it gives good value for money. One gram of ice gives you more hits (than other drugs) and each hit gives you a longer high."

While the 14K triad society is widely reputed to be the major player in the ice trade, Hawkins scoffs at this notion. "Your ability to traffick in drugs doesn't depend on whether you're a triad or not," he says. "It's a matter of who you know. So you can have somebody from one gang get together with somebody from another gang, for the sole purpose of doing one shipment. It's not like the Sun Yee On do this and the 14K do that, they're responsible for heroin trafficking and they're responsible for ice.

"That's a myth. There are triads involved in drug trafficking, but it's individuals, not groups. It's who you know, not who you are. There is not just one big criminal syndicate in Hong Kong dealing in ice. There are loads of little guys, some with triad backgrounds, some without, some with criminal records, some without." He says arrests for trafficking in ice shot up from 192 in 1995 to 542 last year, while the amount seized rose from 15.4kg to 46.8kg over the same period.

According to Hawkins, the drug is not being made in Hong Kong. "Remember, in places like China and California and Queensland you have huge bush and desert areas where labs can be set up. But in Hong Kong there's not much room so it's a bit more difficult to set up a clandestine lab. It's a volatile process and some of the gases made during the process are very dangerous. In the US one in three of the amphetamine labs they were finding was because they were exploding. A lot of volatile substances are produced when making it, and a lot of officers in the US have been injured from inhaling the fumes. We do have contingency measures to deal with that if it becomes an issue here."

The US Drug Enforcement Agency's narcotics attache in Hong Kong, Bob Jones, says much of the ephedrine used in the crystal meth trade in America is legitimately imported from China, then diverted for illicit use in the US or Mexico. "Mexican gangs have seized on crystal meth because they can control the manufacturing themselves, whereas with cocaine they have to rely on Colombian cartels." Jones says so far, Chinese-made ice appears to be for consumption in Asia and is not directed at the US.

"But our intelligence is that a lot of the groups that have [ice] labs in China are the same people who have been involved in heroin trafficking." He says if demand for crystal meth continues to escalate in America, there might come a time when it becomes economical for Chinese gangs to use the traditional heroin trafficking pipelines to start shifting ice to the US. "There's no evidence of that yet," he says, "but it's definitely something we're keeping a close eye on."

The Hong Kong judiciary has been quick to realise the potential perils of ice and has pegged sentencing for trafficking in the drug even higher than for heroin. Says Hawkins: "For 10 to 50 grams of heroin or cocaine, you're looking at five to eight years. For 10 to 70 grams of ice, you're talking about seven to 10 years. This is because it's such an addictive drug. It's more addictive than heroin. And it's a lot harder to get over ice addiction. Ice is also a lot purer than heroin. The heroin you get on the street is, say, 22 per cent pure, whereas ice is more like 90 per cent pure. I have read reports of people becoming instantly addicted to ice, and some reports I've read class it as being even more addictive than crack cocaine. And it's cheap. I mean, if you can buy a gram of ice for $300 and get high for days, why spend $1,200 on some coke to stick up your nose?"

JOHN HAS STUCK PLENTY OF COCAINE up his nose. He has also stuck cocaine, heroin, ice, ecstasy, speed and just about any other drug you would care to name into his veins. A veteran polydrug abuser who must have the constitution of an ox to have survived the sheer volume and variety of chemicals he has shoved into his body during his 30 years, he now leads a relaxed life on Lantau, touching nothing harder than several pints and the odd joint.

Born in Chicago, he says he felt drawn to drugs from a young age. "Even when I was 12 or 13, I didn't want to be a doctor or an accountant," he says. "I wanted to be a junky." He got his wish. He had his first smack habit by the time he was 17. He first encountered ice in the US and says he and some friends "banged it up" (injected the drug). "Banging up is nothing like smoking it. It's instantaneous. Everything gets blurry and it feels like the top of your head is about to blow off. I banged up a lot of
speed and coke over the years, but I didn't touch ice again until I came to Hong Kong 15 months ago.

"To be honest, even last year I was still a drug fiend. I was working in a bar and smoking a s***-load of ice. I'd go on three or four day binges, not sleep at all, and then do some smack to help take my mind off the ice comedown." John says after a week or so without smoking ice, the first hit would be bliss. "I'd have a few drinks, then start smoking. The first six or eight hours are great. But then it starts to wear off, so you smoke a bit more. It keeps you awake, but the buzz isn't the same. And then you're just playing catch up. When you start taking ice you see how good it is, but after a few days you realise how s*** it is. I would end up getting so on edge and wired."

His moods began to swing wildly as the benders got longer. The first day would pass in a heart-thumping rush, the second day would combine periods of euphoria interspersed with bleak depressions and surges of anger. By day three or four, John would be like the living dead, an ice-fuelled zombie smoking simply to stave off the inevitable comedown. At times he would crash into a coma-like sleep for 24 hours or more.

"I pulled back from the brink just in time. If I'd become a total icehead, that would be another five years of my life gone. I'm 30, and I've been a junky since I was 17, so I'm starting to look at my life differently now."

MANY ARE NOT AS FORTUNATE as John. Dr S.P. Leung, the Chief of Service at Castle Peak Hospital, says it is extremely difficult to escape from the clammy clutches of ice. Dr Leung is in charge of the hospital's substance abuse clinic, and while treating heroin addicts is still his priority, he says the number of people seeking help for ice addiction is growing daily.

"Treating ice addiction is completely different from heroin," says Dr Leung. "Heroin is an opiate, a central nervous system depressant, whereas ice is a psycho-motor stimulant." In other words, one makes you feel like you are back in the womb while the other makes you want to go out and take on the world. "With heroin, methadone treatment is available to manage the withdrawal period. And once the drug is out of the system, the body can recover quickly. With ice, however, long-term use can lead to a kind of psychosis and we're not sure how long that lasts after you stop taking the drug. Ice can cause changes to the central nervous system and the long-term effects seem more pronounced than with other drugs.

"We just don't know exactly what is going on inside the brain of long-term users. Our brain has a reward centre which is operated through a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Ice stimulates the release and activity of dopamine. But there are other neurotransmitters like noradrenalin and seratonin, and they interact in a complex way that we don't understand fully. After taking ice a lot of dopamine is produced and used up. Users become depressed and lethargic when they stop. So far, the only thing that seems to help users get through this is the new generation of anti-depressants, things like Prozac, which boost the level of serotonin, in combination with counselling and psychotherapy."

He says the highly addictive nature of ice is illustrated by a classic rat experiment. The rat is put in a cage with two levers, one which delivers a dose of amphetamine, the other, food. In almost every case, the rat quickly eschews food for repeated doses of amphetamine. Within a day or two, the rat begins to display features that indicate psychosis - increased activity, gnawing, twitching, chasing its tail in circles. "Even when they are dehydrated and hungry, the rats prefer to get more amphetamine,"Dr Leung says. "They keep doing this until they die from exhaustion." It is an accurate, if condensed, portrait of severe abuse in humans.

Dr Leung says the growing hunger for ice among Hong Kong youth reflects a change in local drug culture. Bored teenagers on housing estates and thrusting young triad thugs are finding the hyper-amped buzz of ice preferable to heroin's warm and fuzzy cocoon, and profit-hungry pushers are quick to dangle a different lever.

"In the short term, ice makes you alert, euphoric, it increases your confidence and motivation," Dr Leung says. "After prolonged use, however, the strain on the cardiovascular system can lead to abnormal heartbeat, hypertension and stroke. The effects on the psyche include irritability, restlessness, paranoia. You do not have to take a large quantity to develop psychotic episodes. It depends on the individual. Some people hear voices, feel things crawling under their skin, they have panic attacks."

Ice is havoc's playmate and Dr Leung says that as its use becomes more widespread, there is every chance of a surge in violent crime. "With heroin, people may commit minor offences like stealing to support their habit. With ice, users can become psychotic, irrational and violent. I'm afraid even to think about the implications if this drug becomes widespread among triad gangs. This is not science fiction. It is something that is happening and the authorities have to face up to it." He says police should consider testing violent offenders to see if they are ice-users.

Dr Leung's fears are not ill-founded. In the US, crystal meth-related violence is surging. One California meth-head doused a deliveryman on his doorstep with gasoline and set him alight. A New Mexico addict decapitated his 14-year-old son and threw his head out the window while driving on the highway. In California, there are now more rehab admissions for meth than for cocaine.

And in Minneapolis, a random test of 100 women booked into a city jail found that 75 were meth users. Dr Alex Stalcup, a Californian meth expert and addiction specialist, says the world is sitting on "ground zero of a methamphetamine epidemic". His clinic in Concord treats several hundred addicts a year and that figure is swelling rapidly. "Our problems are going to get worse and the reason is simple: meth works. This stuff comes close to giving you the maximum pleasure your brain can give."

It can also be a powerful aphrodisiac for some users, fuelling mind-blowing, marathon sex; all wide eyes and gasping endless orgasms. One of Stalcup's patients told him how she and her husband would have sex on meth for nine hours straight "then be unable to walk the next day". Another user rented a stack of porn videos, stoked up on ice and settled down for a masturbation session. An hour passed, then two, three, four. After an explosive climax, he looked down to see blood everywhere, and ended up needing skin grafts.

Its sexual qualities have also been embraced by the gay community in the US and it is becoming an alarming new factor in the AIDS equation. Gantt Galloway, the head of pharmacological research at San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury Free Clinics, says "there's a lot of unsafe, almost mindless sex with methamphetamine. We're seeing people who ought to know better engage in unprotected sex. Add to that the longer duration and roughness of this sort of sex, and you have a real danger."

When I mention this risk to Commissioner for Narcotics Clary Lo, the Hong Kong Government's chief drugs policy advisor, she looks momentarily flustered, then consults a brochure listing the supposed effects of ice abuse. Hmm. Insomnia. Depression. Toxic psychosis. Loss of appetite. Heart and kidney failure. Nope. Nothing about it making you horny as hell or the increased risk of HIV transmission from forgetting about safe sex while under its influence. Not a problem, then.

Dr Leung begs to differ. "This [effect on the sex drive] could well be a big problem," he says, "and the Government should be warning young people about it." Lo, however, is confident the problem is well in hand. After all, she is presiding over a recently expanded programme of visits to schools instructing pupils how to just say no.

ROBERT, 26, IS A CHINESE-FILIPINO hotel worker who didn't say no. He moved from Hong Kong to Manila in 1990 to work at a big hotel and before long discovered ice. "I remember back then they were calling it the poor man's cocaine," he says. "I started off just doing it with some friends on the weekends. I'd get a quarter of a gram, and if I smoked it that night, I'd be up until 4pm the next day. For a while it was great. I suddenly felt I could come up with the best one-liners, I was wittier than everyone else, more outgoing. I remember my girlfriend was going to leave me and I was able to talk her into staying because the ice made me such a smooth talker. I could say just the right thing."

Robert's weekend flirtations with ice quickly escalated into a habit. "Within three months, I was doing it every day. I had a big network of friends so there was always someone to do it with, always someone who had some ice," he says. He could feel his health deteriorating but the thought of giving up his passport to total confidence was too scary to contemplate. "After a while, my body felt weak and numb. Sometimes I felt like there were spikes in my hands and feet. My jaw would ache, you can't eat or
sleep. Your mind is spinning round so fast. But when I was doing it, I felt like a totally different person, a better person. Some of my friends said it was great for sex. For me, my mind said sex, but my body couldn't respond. But it made me so confident, I came up with the best ideas at work, I could handle anything anyone threw at me."

After three years of heavy smoking, Robert knew he was starting to lose it. "I could be talking to someone and just go into a trance, just go blank for a minute or so," he says. "I've got friends who are still smoking and if you say hello, it takes them five minutes to recognise you. I haven't smoked since 1993, and even now I know my attention span is very short." He decided it was time to give up after one of his best friends held a knife at his neck and threatened to kill him. He moved back to Hong Kong soon after.

Says Robert: "The thing about ice is that if you are a bit supressed as a person, it really clicks. It is the switch which turns everything on. I grew up in a dysfunctional family, and when I started on ice, all the things I wished I was were right there in front of me. It took me to another level, I felt like a god, capable of anything. Suddenly I could speak my mind and let everything out."

Robert says that since he moved back to Hong Kong, he doesn't mix with anyone doing ice. But he is worried its growing popularity here might bring him back into its seductive orbit. "It took a lot of effort to realise I could be okay without it," he says. Has he conquered it for good? He looks at once wistful and terrified. "You never do. If you stuck it under my nose right now, I don't know if I could say no."

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