Methamphetamine, or meth, is a highly addictive, man-made stimulant that causes heightened activity and talkativeness and a decreased appetite. Meth produces a heightened sense of wellbeing, despite the fact that this is one of the most destructive of all drugs of abuse.
Meth is classified as a Schedule II drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which means that it has some medicinal value but carries a high potential for abuse. Medically, it’s used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and, in rare cases, obesity. When abused, meth will likely lead to a very low quality of life and early mortality, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Different Types of Methamphetamine and How They’re Abused
Meth is available in powder, crystal, rock or tablet form, and its street names include speed, crank, chalk, crypto, crink and tweak. Street names for crystalline meth include ice, glass, crystal, cristy, quartz and blade. The color of meth varies depending on the manufacturing process and the chemicals used to make it, but it may appear either colorless or white, red, orange, purple, green or brown.
Powder meth is soluble in water or alcohol, and it’s typically snorted or injected. Crystalline meth is an extremely pure form of methamphetamine that is usually smoked.
Smoking and injecting meth produces an immediate, intense rush, followed by a relatively short period of feeling high. Because the effects wear off before blood concentrations diminish, people who smoke or inject meth often engage in cycles of bingeing and crashing, sometimes continuing a binge for several days without sleeping.
Snorting meth produces a high in a matter of about five minutes, while ingesting it produces results in about 20 minutes. Snorting and ingesting meth don’t elicit the rush that smoking and injecting it produce, and the effects are more graduated and can last as long as 12 hours.
A Brief History of Meth
Methamphetamine was developed from its parent drug, amphetamine, in 1919 by a pharmacologist in Japan. In the 1930s, physicians began prescribing it to treat narcolepsy and asthma, and during World War II it was given to Allied bomber pilots to keep them awake on long flights.
The first meth epidemic started in Japan after World War II, and it quickly spread to Guam, the U.S. Marshall Islands and finally to the west coast of the U.S. In the 1950s, it was used to treat obesity, sinus inflammation and narcolepsy, but it was also commonly abused by homemakers, truckers, college students and athletes. In the 1960s, doctors prescribed meth injections to treat heroin addiction, and meth abuse became widespread.
In the 1970s, methamphetamine was assigned to Schedule II by the Controlled Substances Act, and a public awareness campaign was mounted in an attempt to curb abuse. But in the 1980s, Mexican drug manufacturers began distributing meth in smokable form in the U.S., increasing its popularity, and in the 1990s, U.S. manufacturers created new versions of meth that were up to six times stronger than previous incarnations of the drug.
In response to the growing meth epidemic and the multitude of meth labs cropping up across the rural Midwest, Congress passed the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act in 1996 to regulate the sale of chemicals commonly used in the manufacture of meth.
In 2000, meth surpassed cocaine, crack and heroin as the most popular recreational drug, and five years later, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 was passed, which required retailers of pharmaceutical products containing pseudoephedrine, ephedrine and phenylpropanolamine—all commonly used in the manufacture of meth—to keep these products locked in a cabinet or displayed behind the counter. Consumers are still required to show an ID and sign a logbook in order to purchase these medications.
These measures, combined with a proliferation of public awareness campaigns throughout the country, have served to reduce the prevalence of meth production in the U.S. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, meth lab incidents decreased from 15,220 in 2010 to 9,338 in 2014, and meth abuse has seen a general downward trend over the last decade.
How Meth Is Produced
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, most meth sold in the U.S. is manufactured in “superlabs,” most of which are located in Mexico. Makeshift domestic meth labs continue to produce the drug in smaller quantities, using illegally obtained pseudoephedrine.
Other chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine account for some of the devastating health effects of the drug. These include substances that are corrosive, flammable, explosive and highly toxic. Acetone, anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, ether and lithium are just a few of the easily accessible chemicals used in meth labs.
Meth labs themselves pose a high risk of environmental pollution. For every pound of meth produced, up to six pounds of chemical waste are left at the lab site. The cleanup and remediation of these sites require guidance by the Environmental Protection Agency.
How Meth Addiction and Dependence Develop
Methamphetamine dramatically increases the production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is involved in motor function, motivation, reward and pleasure, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As soon as meth enters the body, dopamine floods the reward regions of the brain and produces the characteristic rush.
When a drug is abused, the brain makes a connection between it and the pleasure it produces and immediately craves the experience again. Each time the drug is abused, the connection in the brain becomes stronger, and an addiction can develop.
The likelihood that using a drug will lead to addiction is linked to how quickly it produces a release of dopamine, the intensity of the release, and how reliable the drug is in producing that release. Since meth produces a powerful dopamine surge, it can quickly lead to addiction, which is characterized by continuing to compulsively absuse a drug despite the negative consequences of the abuse.
Meth produces tolerance within a matter of minutes. This means that the brain compensates for the presence of the drug by changing the way it releases chemicals, resulting in the need to take another dose very quickly to maintain the high.
Over time, the changes in brain function reach a point at which the brain operates more normally when the drug is present than when it’s not, and when the drug is withheld, withdrawal symptoms set in. The onset of withdrawal symptoms indicates physical dependence.
Your Brain on Meth
Chronic meth abuse causes structural and functional changes in areas of the brain that control memory and emotion. Those who chronically abuse meth can have serious emotional problems long after the abuse ends, and some cognitive abilities may never be recovered.
Additionally, meth abuse reduces the ability of the neurotransmitter dopamine to bind to dopamine transporters in the area of the brain associated with memory and movement, and it destroys dopamine receptors, which makes it difficult to feel pleasure long after the abuse stops. This may contribute to the high relapse rates for meth, as near-normal dopamine function resumes only after prolonged abstinence.
In addition to meth’s effects on the dopamine system of the brain, former meth abusers have been shown to have more than double the microglial cells of non-abusers. These cells defend the brain against infections and remove damaged neurons, but in excess, they damage healthy neurons. It can take as long as two years to regain normal levels of microglia.
Psychological Effects of Meth
The changes in brain chemistry caused by meth typically lead to dire psychological effects, according to the National Institutes of Health. These include generalized anxiety, confusion, major mood disturbances and severe insomnia.
Additionally, up to 80 percent of meth-dependent individuals report symptoms of psychosis, including aggression, paranoia, hallucinations and delusions. An article published in the journal Addiction cites hostility and ongoing psychological distress as major adverse influences on interactions with treatment providers, which can have a detrimental effect on the success of treatment.
Physical Health Effects of Meth
Because meth both reduces your appetite and leads to cravings for sugary foods, extreme weight loss and malnutrition are common among chronic Methamphetamine abusers. The risk of contracting infectious diseases like hepatitis B and C and HIV/AIDS is greatly increased due to sharing needles and engaging in risky sexual behaviors, and meth may also speed up the progression of HIV/AIDS and worsen its health consequences.
Chronic Methamphetamine abuse causes damage to the liver, kidneys, and lungs; repeated infections that take longer than normal to heal due to a compromised immune system; brain damage resulting from stroke or an extreme rise in body temperature; heart attack due to irregular heartbeat and an increased heart rate; destruction of the tissues in the nose if meth is snorted; and severe dental problems.
How Meth Affects Appearance
The effects of meth on a chronic user’s appearance are catastrophic. Because meth destroys tissues and blood vessels, the flow of blood to all parts of the body is stemmed, and the skin is unable to repair itself optimally. Acne is common among those who abuse meth, and the delusion of insects crawling under the skin—a condition known as formication—leads many users to compulsively pick at their skin, causing small sores all over the body.
These skin conditions take a long time to heal due to reduced immunity, and they’re susceptible to infection. The skin loses its overall radiance and elasticity, and it’s not uncommon for someone who abuses meth to look 20 years older than their actual age.
Because Methamphetamine reduces the appetite and causes heightened physical activity, weight loss is a common side effect of meth, but coupled with malnutrition, the weight loss leads to a gaunt and frail appearance.
The dental problems that accompany chronic meth abuse are collectively known as “meth mouth.” Meth dries out the salivary glands, and acids in the mouth eat away at the gums and teeth, causing cavities that are worsened by bingeing on sugary foods, while obsessive grinding of the teeth and a general lack of oral hygiene are common effects of a meth high.
All of these conditions combine to cause severe tooth decay in a relatively short period of time, and the result is broken, rotting, and blackened teeth.
Because a Methamphetamine binge often involves repeatedly taking the drug over the course of several days, and due to the fast buildup of tolerance that leads to more and increasingly higher doses, meth overdose is a common side effect of abuse. In 2011, 103,000 emergency department visits involved meth.
A high dose of meth causes the body to overheat, which can damage internal organs. Coma, seizures, heart attack, stroke and problems with breathing may occur, and any of these overdose-related conditions may result in death.
Social and Economic Impacts of Meth
The effects of meth abuse aren’t limited to the individual using the drug. The economic cost of meth abuse in the United States exceeded $23 billion in 2005, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The Rand Corporation cites a range of societal consequences of meth abuse, including lost productivity, crime, child endangerment and abuse, and environmental hazards that include fires and explosions at meth labs.
Treating Meth Abuse and Addiction
The successful treatment of meth abuse and addiction almost always requires professional intervention due to the severe symptoms of withdrawal that are associated with quitting meth and which will quickly lead to relapse in most cases. The most severe of these symptoms is often a deep depression that lasts for about a week and may lead to suicidal thoughts.
Psychosis, fatigue, insomnia, agitation and vivid, unpleasant dreams are also common withdrawal symptoms, and like the depressive symptoms, these usually resolve in a week or so. Intense cravings associated with quitting meth can last five weeks or longer, further underscoring the importance of getting treatment through an intensive residential rehab program.
Most treatment centers offer medical detox, which is a detoxification process supervised by medical and mental health professionals. There are no medications approved by the FDA to alleviate the withdrawal symptoms associated with methamphetamine, although research is currently underway to develop medications to treat stimulant addiction.
Detox is the first step in overcoming a meth addiction, but it doesn’t address the underlying issues that contribute to meth abuse. A variety of therapies are essential for long-term recovery from meth abuse or addiction.
Therapies include cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps patients identify self-destructive patterns of thought and behavior and replace them with healthier ways of behaving and thinking; contingency management interventions, which offer tangible rewards like vouchers for continued abstinence; and family therapy, which helps restore function to the family system by working through various issues and improving communication among family members.
The Matrix Model is a 16-week behavioral treatment approach for stimulant addiction that combines drug testing, family education workshops, family therapy, individual psychotherapy, contingency management interventions and encouragement for engaging in non-drug-related activities. This model has been proven effective for treating meth addiction.
The components of the aftercare plan are chosen based on need and may include moving into a sober living facility to help ease the transition from treatment back to the community and vocational rehabilitation to help improve job skills and assist with finding a job and maintaining employment. Ongoing monitoring of any mental illnesses or medical conditions and a lifelong commitment to participation in a 12-step program are also essential to recovery.
Almost all aftercare plans include ongoing individual and group therapy that builds on the momentum gained in treatment and helps those in recovery to continue working through the various underlying issues surrounding the meth abuse.
Treatment Changes Lives
Recovery from a meth addiction isn’t easy. It takes a lot of work and a high level of engagement in the treatment process, but it gets easier as time goes by, and in the end, you’ll enjoy an exponentially higher level of happiness and productivity and vastly improve your quality of life.
Give us a call or come visit our Detox Treatment Center In Los Angles California