Just what exactly is meth?

What is methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine is a synthetic drug and a powerful central nervous system stimulant. In Merced County and across California, it's the most widely abused drug, surpassing both alcohol and heroin. Other names for meth include speed, crystal, ice, chalk, crank and glass.

What does meth look like?

There are two types of meth: powdered and crystal. Powdered meth is a fine white powder. Crystal meth, which is far more common, is clear to white in color and resembles small crystallized, crushed rocks.

How is meth taken?

The most common method for taking meth is smoking it. It can also be snorted, inhaled, injected or eaten.

How much does meth cost?

The cost of meth has increased dramatically in recent years. It now sells for roughly $22,000 per pound. A half-gram, the amount a typical addict might use to stay high for a day, runs about $50.

How is meth made?

There is more than one way to cook methamphetamine. The method law enforcement officials say they encounter most in Merced is known as the red phosphorus method. An average red phosphorus cook might take 12 hours and produce 60 pounds of meth.

Producers typically start with a decongestant cold medicine that contains pseudoephedrine, meth's main ingredient. To extract the pseudoephedrine, they break up the pills using a hammer or blender, then mix them with a solvent to separate out the pseudoephedrine. A white powder is left.

That powder is placed in a large container, typically a 22-liter flask, and mixed with distilled water, iodine crystals and red phosphorus. That's placed over heat and cooked for several hours. That produces a thick liquid resembling tomato paste.

That's poured through some type of filter, usually a bedsheet. A thinner liquid is left. A chemical is added to turn that liquid from an acid to a base. That's placed over ice. Another solvent is then used to separate out what's called "meth solution." That solution is set aside.

Producers then mix sulfuric acid, salt and water. That combination reacts to create a gas. That gas is captured and added to the meth solution, turning it to powdered meth.

Several additional steps are required to make crystal meth.

SOURCE: The Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force, Sun-Star reporting

The demographics of meth

Roughly 90 percent of meth users in California are between the ages of 18 and 45, and most of them are white. About equal numbers of men and women use meth; for most illegal drugs, more men use than women.

About a fourth of meth addicts have jobs. About 60 percent hold high school diplomas or higher.

Almost three-fourths have been arrested at least once, and a fifth say they suffer from mental illness. Roughly 75 percent of meth users report trauma in their past, most commonly some type of abuse.

SOURCE: The California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, Sun-Star reporting