New Meth Creating A Wave Of Severe Mental Illness

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2 photos: man in red shorts does a high kick with foot above head inside tent containing chair, dresser, bike; another man in gray shirt/shorts sits and rests his head on a dog
Left: A man inside his encampment on a Skid Row sidewalk, after taking a puff of meth. Right: Another resident of the same encampment, who attributes his homelessness to a cycle of meth use he cannot break. (Rachel Bujalski for The Atlantic)


In the fall of 2006, law enforcement on the southwest border of the United States seized some crystal methamphetamine. In due course, a five-gram sample of that seizure landed on the desk of a 31-year-old chemist named Joe Bozenko, at the Drug Enforcement Administration lab outside Washington, D.C.

Organic chemistry can be endlessly manipulated, with compounds that, like Lego bricks, can be used to build almost anything. The field seems to breed folks whose every waking minute is spent puzzling over chemical reactions. Bozenko, a garrulous man with a wide smile, worked in the DEA lab during the day and taught chemistry at a local university in the evenings. “Chemist by day, chemist by night,” his Twitter bio once read.

Bozenko had joined the DEA seven years earlier, just as the global underworld was veering toward synthetic drugs and away from their plant-based cousins. Bozenko’s job was to understand the thinking of black-market chemists, samples of whose work were regularly plopped on his desk. He analyzed what they produced and worked out how they did it. In time, Bozenko began traveling abroad to clandestine labs after they’d been seized. His first foreign assignment was at a lab that had made the stimulant MDMA in Jakarta, Indonesia. He saw the world through the protective goggles of a hazmat suit, sifting through the remains of illegal labs in three dozen countries.

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2 photos: meth paraphernalia including glass pipe, hypodermic needles and caps, knife; city street with tents crowded along both sides
Meth and paraphernalia (above) inside a tent on Skid Row, in Los Angeles. The area encompasses about 50 square blocks of the city; tents (below) line many of its streets. (Rachel Bujalski for The Atlantic)

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