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Germany

Crystal Meth, Drug Of Choice Of The 'Selfie Generation'

Use of this incredibly addictive drug is growing in Germany, especially among Millennials who say it makes them feel invincible.

Germany's states of Bavaria and Saxony are being flooded with the drug.
Germany's states of Bavaria and Saxony are being flooded with the drug.
Florian Flade, Per Hinrichs and Vanessa Schlesier

BERLIN — For Sebastian Caspar, crystal meth made him feel like he was seeing two suns. He was filled with incredible desire and thought he could have never-ending sex. And Caspar's fellow addict Dennis, who doesn't want to use his full name for publication, felt invincible, as strong as Superman. He was a kickboxer who wanted to smash in somebody's face.

Marco's "innermost anxieties and inhibitions" suddenly disappeared when he took crystal meth. And he was overcome by a rush that made him feel as if all his usual perceptions had been washed away and that he was in another world. He felt as if "a steamroller was going through my head."

But now Dennis is sitting in a room with a linoleum floor and a view of the federal highway in the Ore Mountains outback. The doors here are all locked, and anybody wishing to leave the Alte Flugschule therapy clinic has to be accompanied. "I've been taking crystal since I was 11," says the 19-year-old, who has such an innocent way of laughing it's hard to believe he's ever touched the stuff. Now he's learning what it's like to be sober for days, weeks, months on end.

The new starter drug

An 11-year-old hooked on crystal meth. For a long time something like that didn't seem possible, even in the high old republic of Germany where marijuana use is pretty much socially accepted and nearly double the amount of alcohol is consumed, compared to the rest of Europe.

Crystal meth is a growing problem here. The states of Bavaria and Saxony in particular are being flooded with the drug, which is coming from the Czech Republic. The number of offenses committed in Saxony due to crystal meth has tripled to some 5,000 since 2009.

The drug is produced in hundreds of meth labs in the Czech Republic. The anti-drug squad in Prague operates on the assumption that annual production amounts to 10 tons, of which three end up in Germany.

Which means there are ever more addicts who need help. One clinic head says kids who try it for the first time are usually 13 or 14 but that 11-year-olds are not unheard of. Last year in Saxony, some 2,400 people between 18 and 35 were treated in detox centers for addiction to crystal meth. "Crystal is increasingly dominating the drug scene," says a paper published by the state's Ministry of the Interior. To combat the problem, the state has a 10-point plan that includes improved prevention and stronger collaboration with Czech police.

Experts are not surprised by its rise, which could soon make it Germany's most-consumed drug after cannabis. "Crystal is extremely addictive," says Uwe Wicha, who heads the Alte Flugschule clinic.

Former addict Sebastian Caspar still remembers the "immense dent" that crystal leaves on the addictive memory. A few months ago, the 37-year-old published the first German novel about crystal meth (Zone C, published by Klak). He regularly reads excerpts from his book in schools and answers questions students have about the drug. "The desire to take it again is indescribably strong," Caspar says. "I will never forget it. It changed me, it etched itself into my subconscious." Only one on five people escape the drug's clutches entirely.

Crystal makes users feel like it's possible to flee. To flee from the self, from nagging thoughts, from the past. And it promises strength and focus, no demands, no effort. Still, says Wicha, "The claim that you can use crystal meth to cope with your day is absurd. That is a useless attempt to rationalize the addiction." With crystal it's all about hedonism, feeling invincible, delusions of grandeur. "It's the Selfie Generation drug," he says.

So it was for Marco. He's sitting in the head doctor's treatment room in the detox station of the Saxon Hospital for Psychiatry and Neurology. His eyes are green, and he squints when he talks. Marco comes from a small town in southwest Saxony, 15 minutes from the clinic. More than 100 of his friends take crystal "and that's only the ones who are my age," he says.

In this region, Marco says, crystal has long overtaken cannabis as the "starter" drug. In his hometown, a gram costs 75 euros. In the Czech Republic, it would cost 25 euros. He could stay awake for three or four days in a row, sometimes a whole week, without eating or drinking when he was using the drug. While Marco talks, he rocks back and forth, back and forth, and he kneads a stress ball relentlessly.

But Dr. Frank Härtel says symptoms like this are relatively minor. The retired head of a detox clinic has 40 years of experience with drug addiction therapy. To him, crystal meth is infernal stuff. "It overloads the structure of the nerve tissue," he says. "It has a cytotoxic effect. The brain becomes worm-eaten. Many patients take other drugs parallel to crystal meth like Valium, opiates, cannabis or Ecstasy, to get higher or to come down."

When reality hits

Dennis, for example, began his mornings with some cannabis into which he threw a little crystal. A little later he took a couple of Ecstasy pills and enjoyed some "red Mexican mushrooms" that contained hallucinogens. One morning, when he weighed just 50 kilos, he started throwing up and did so for hours before collapsing. "That was when I knew this couldn't go on any more," he says.

Before that fateful day, he had been taking four grams of crystal a day, earning the money to buy it by dealing. He lived on the streets, fighting other dealers for territory. So he knows about life on the streets. How he should live now is something Uwe Wicha is trying to teach him. The Alte Flugschule detox clinic offers school and vocational training degrees so that after six months the patients have some other environment on the outside — rather than falling back into their old ways.

Both Wicha and Härtel oppose legalizing drugs, calling the idea "nonsense." Wicha finds the pretense of seeing drug consumers as people with free will to be cynical. "There is no sense of responsibility among young people who consume crystal meth," he says. "These people are addicts, and they need help."

Dennis has goals. He wants to become a cutting machine operator, get an apartment, car and girlfriend and then "have a family." It all sounds modest enough, but to Dennis it seems almost unattainable and idyllic. Wicha thinks he can do it and notes that the clinic doesn't have many dropouts.

Dennis has only been in treatment for two months. He is unstable, inconsistent, still a crystal addict in his head. When he talks about the drug, his hands become moist, his pupils dance, his glance wanders. If there were some crystal meth on the table right now, what would he do? "I'd take it, no doubt," he says without hesitation. "Right away."

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