Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine Abuse: Facts, Statistics, and Treatment

A highly addictive stimulant drug, methamphetamine is used by an estimated 12.3 million US citizens. With similar effects to cocaine, this drug is a Schedule II stimulant, which means that it may have medical use but it also has a high potential for misuse. However, even in the medical setting, methamphetamine is rarely ever prescribed, with doses being far lower than those required to achieve the high that the stimulant provides when misused.

Coming in the form of a white, crystalline powder, methamphetamine is bitter to taste and dissolves almost instantly in water. A single dosage of 0.25g costs an average of $20, which is why the drug has been known to cause significant financial problems for those who abuse it.

The History of Methamphetamines

First synthesized by a Japanese chemist in 1893, methamphetamine was first sold as a medication for asthma and nasal congestion. This inhaler medication was a non-prescription drug, and soared in popularity for its euphoric, energizing effects. And it was because of these effects that pharmaceutical companies soon developed the drug in pill form for the treatment of narcolepsy.

Japanese soldiers riding fighter planes were given exceedingly high doses of Pervitin – which has since been dubbed Pilot’s Salt – to give them the will to take on suicide missions. On the other hand, German soldiers were given a combination of meth and cocaine to help them work the frontlines of the battle.

Later in the 1950s, the inhaler form of meth started to become more and more popular. Called Benzedrine, this medication defined the beatnik culture. Earning its own street name, ‘Bennies’, this drug was used by many prominent writers of the time, including Jack Kerouac. But soon, the FDA would put a lid on amphetamine access by listing Bennies as a prescription medication.

However, the rising addiction among many users pushed people to find ways to synthesize their own meth. This is what pushed the FDA to put limits on the access of ephedrine – a precursor in the synthesis of crystal meth. Unfortunately, pseudoephedrine could also be found in OTC cough syrups, which was then used in meth labs to produce inexpensive meth.

Since then, the use of methamphetamine has risen exponentially. In 2006, the World Health Organization reported that meth was the most abused illicit, hard drug in the globally. And while its use has decline across the globe, meth remains a prominent problem not only in the United States, but across the world.

Fast Facts: Methamphetamine Abuse in Numbers

  • Only 16,000 people in the United States receive a prescription for amphetamines, which is supposedly less than 4 metric tons
  • 500 metric tons of methamphetamine and amphetamine-type stimulants are used every year in the United States
  • 2% of individuals seeking help for drug and alcohol abuse in Hawaii were methamphetamine users
  • Methamphetamine can sustain a high for up to 15 hours, so binge users can keep the effects going and stay awake for days
  • 3,728 people died from meth overdose in 2014
  • 15% of all drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved the use of methamphetamine
  • The average age for meth misuse is 23.3 years

What Happens When You Use Methamphetamines?

Methamphetamine is often compared to drugs like cocaine because it falls within the same stimulant category. But unlike cocaine, meth has also been associated with a significant decrease in inhibitions, making its user act out more wildly compared to cocaine. Its effects are also known to last much longer at 4 to 15 hours, while cocaine only lasts up to 30 minutes.

Some of the short term effects of methamphetamine use include:

  • Inability to feel sleepiness, drowsiness, or fatigue
  • Heightened level of activity
  • Extended wakefulness
  • Decreased or absent appetite
  • Euphoria and elation
  • Increased respiratory and heart rate
  • Increased body warmth
  • Willingness to take risks
  • Increased sexual desire
  • Uncharacteristic talkativeness
  • Argumentative behavior
  • Intense focus
  • Delusions and hallucinations

The methamphetamine rush happens during the first dose and brings the user feelings of intense physiological functions. This includes a fast heart rate, respiratory rate, and a jittery feeling as though rising building up energy. Unlike cocaine’s 3 minute rush, the meth rush can last for up to 30 minutes.

This is then followed by the feeling of a high. The high is characterized by a strong sense of well-being and euphoria. During this phase, people tend to feel more talkative and aggressive, often unable to wait for others to finish speaking before interjecting with their own thoughts.

These strong feelings will often drive the user to want to sustain the high and the result is a binge. As the euphoria starts to wane, most users tend to take more doses to keep the high going. And with each new dose comes a new rush and a new high. This can keep the effects around for up to 15 days, after which the body no longer feels a rush or a high.

At the end of the high when new doses no longer take effect, the user may experience what’s called ‘tweaking’. This is characterized by hallucinations and feelings of exhaustion. Persistent, intense itching is also common, with most abusers convinced they have bugs crawling under their skin.

As the effects of the drug wash away, the person is left feeling without energy, hungry, and dehydrated. The crash can last for up to three days and will usually usher in nothing but long bouts of sleep. The hangover that follows can be especially unpleasant, making the person feel completely wasted physically, emotionally, and mentally. And to escape these feelings, they’re likely to take a new dose.

Over the long term, recurrent, frequent meth use can lead to addiction and dependence. Some of the long term effects of the stimulant drug include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Psychosis
  • Intense fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Mood disturbances
  • Insomnia
  • Violent behavior
  • Paranoia
  • Repetitive motor activity
  • Deficit in cognitive and physical function
  • Memory loss
  • Severe dental problems
  • Weight loss
  • Impotence

It’s also worth noting that methamphetamine abusers are more likely to contract HIV-AIDS as a result of the stimulant drug use. This isn’t only because of the sharing of paraphernalia like syringes, but also because their willingness to take risks and the decreased inhibitions make it more likely for them to engage in promiscuous sexual acts.

The longer that a person uses meth, the stronger the dependence becomes. The dependence makes it difficult to perform daily responsibilities without the drug, while the addiction imposes heightened cravings to keep taking the stimulant as the effects start to wane. Extended methamphetamine use makes it near impossible for abusers to function without the drug, so binges become more and more common.

It isn’t uncommon for meth addicts to fall into financial turmoil as a result of their addiction. At a certain point when all monetary resources have been exhausted in pursuit of the next fix, abusers will turn to theft and other illegal activities in order to sustain their expensive habit.

How Does Methamphetamine Affect the Brain?

There are two main ways in which this stimulant drug affects the brain, and the first is through direct interference with the neurotransmitter dopamine. The drug facilitates increased concentrations of dopamine in the reward centers of the brain, which in turn reinforces the drug use. Over time, this pathway can be so abused that the user no longer feels any sort of pleasure unless through the drug.

Another way that meth affects the brain is through the function of microglial cells which work to remove dead neurons. With meth, these cells’ activity becomes far more aggressive, attacking even healthy cells. The result is that areas of the brain are killed and depleted, especially those involving memory and emotional regulation.

Treating Methamphetamine Abuse

There are presently no medications approved for the treatment of stimulant drug abuse. So in the treatment of methamphetamine abuse, the most viable options include behavioral therapies in combination with detox assisted by a health care professional.

One specific management system called the Matrix Model extends for up to 16 weeks and provides patients a comprehensive therapy that involves family education, individual counseling, behavioral therapy, and various support techniques.

Contingency management is also another well-known technique that involves giving incentives for various milestones throughout the treatment process. This provides patients with rewards like movie tickets, gym memberships, or dinner at a local restaurant for every achievement they accomplish. Others use a token system in which patients collect points which they can exchange for a positive lifestyle reward of their choice.

Methamphetamine Relapse Rates

The changes that meth impose on the brain are incredibly difficult to reverse so relapse is particularly common among those going through therapy. Many of those who undergo treatment are expected to relapse early into the process because of the strong cravings that the drug imposes. It’s also important to remember that meth makes it almost impossible to experience pleasure without the stimulant drug.

One study found that 61% of patients relapse within the first year after treatment, and 25% relapse after two and a half years. Nonetheless, a relapse doesn’t mean that treatment has failed. It’s important to remember that meth’s effect on the brain and how difficult the stimulant drug makes it to overcome dependence.

Nonetheless, treatment programs are well-equipped to deal with relapse as long as the patient is willing to seek help. Once discharged, patients are provided support and follow-ups to keep track of their status. During treatment, they’re also given training on how to identify situations that could intensify cravings, and what they can do to avoid giving in.

Methamphetamine Abuse is Treatable

Although it might seem like an impossible hurdle, it is possible to overcome methamphetamine addiction. There are studies that have found that although it might take years, many of the drug’s effects are in fact reversible, giving patients the hope that they may be able to resume healthy living without the remnants of the drug’s impact plaguing their system. With proper treatment, a healthy outlook, and a strong network of support, methamphetamine addiction can be effectively treated.

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