Meth is one of the most dangerous drugs on the streets, and it has been for decades. Though it has been overshadowed by the opioid crisis, it remains a real threat. Meth addiction can be difficult to overcome, but recovery is possible. In this brief guide, we’ll explore the history of meth and how it triggers addiction by changing the brain.
What’s more, you’ll learn to identify the warning signs of addiction, as well as four startling facts about meth that underscore just how dangerous it is. Finally, you’ll learn what you should do right now if you are, yourself, struggling with meth addiction.
What is Methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Think coffee, if coffee had the potential to make you stay up for a week and hallucinate. Like amphetamine, methamphetamine stimulates the central nervous system, causing increased talkativeness, decreased appetite and a sense of well-being or euphoria, among many other potential side effects. However, methamphetamine is better at passing the blood-brain barrier than amphetamine, meaning a comparable dose is much more potent.
Methamphetamine is a drug with very high potential for abuse and is extremely addictive. Meth goes by many names. Below are the three most common.
Methamphetamine comes in many forms, but its most common manifestation is as a crystalline powder. In this form, meth is white, odorless and bitter-tasting. It dissolves readily in water or alcohol.
The U.S. considers Methamphetamine a Schedule II drug, along with cocaine, fentanyl and many others.
The precursor to meth, a drug known as amphetamine, was developed in the 19th century as a synthetic version of ephedrine, the active chemical in the ephedra plant. The ephedra plant is highly prized for its medicinal properties, and, indeed, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 4,000 years.
In 1885, Japanese chemist Nagai Nagayoshi derived methamphetamine from amphetamine for the first time. In 1919, another Japanese scientist, Akira Ogata, refined the manufacturing process, making meth much easier to produce.
Originally, methamphetamine was used as a nasal decongestant. It was also used for a short time in bronchial inhalers.
Methamphetamine saw widespread use by both Allied and Axis forces in WWII, as a stimulant.
Medicinally, it was also used as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and as a short-term component of weight loss programs, though both practices have largely fallen out of favor. After WWII, meth use increased substantially despite the U.S. declaring recreational use illegal in 1970.
The Meth Epidemic
The meth epidemic is a very complex problem. However, it has been eclipsed by the opioid crisis, with synthetic opioids like fentanyl causing numerous overdose deaths. Although some policy makers and researchers have declared opioids to be the more urgent threat, meth abuse remains a scourge.
In fact, meth has returned in full force, and it’s more potent than ever before.
In many states, such as Oregon, meth-related deaths outnumber those from heroin and other opioids. At the U.S. Mexico border, meanwhile, agents routinely seize 10 times more meth than they did even a decade ago. The truth is meth has never been cheaper or purer than it is right now.
Even back in 2005, when production methods were comparably primitive, street-level meth was fairly pure. According to the DEA, the average purity of samples tested in 2001 was 40 percent. By 2002, that had increased to 43.8 percent. In 2003, average samples were testing as 57.4 percent pure.
Today’s meth has much higher purity than this. The result is that a smaller dose has a bigger effect, leading to neurochemical changes in the brain which lead to rapid addiction. Indeed, meth use is surging in the U.S., particularly in the West. The uptick in meth abuse means that treatment centers struggle to meet demand and first responders are spread thin.
From 2011 to 2017, meth-related overdose deaths quadrupled. During the same period, admissions to treatment facilities increased by 17 percent. From 2008 to 2015, meth-related hospitalizations increased by 245 percent.
If you believe someone you love is experimenting with meth, read on. You’re about to find out what to look for. If you use meth yourself and are considering giving it up, see the last section of this guide, where we go over what to expect in recovery.
Methamphetamine Fact Sheet
There are several myths and legends surrounding meth use. In this section and the sections that follow, we’ll separate fact from fiction.
#1 Forms of Meth
Shows like Breaking Bad often depict meth in its crystalline form, but meth comes in several shapes and sizes. Knowing what to look for can help you more readily identify recreational use in others, if that’s your goal.
Meth comes in four forms:
- Methamphetamine crystals. This is what’s known as crystal meth.
- Similar to the crystal meth form, but its jagged, translucent shards are smaller than the crystals. Consequently, ice may be easier to hide.
- Base is a thick, resin-like substance. It can be either white or brown.
- Meth in powder form. Speed is often ‘cut’ with other drugs, or fillers. It provides a weaker high of shorter duration than crystals or ice. However, it is easier to hide and transport.
Note that all forms of meth can be cut with other drugs or with inactive fillers. This reduces purity, and a user will need a higher dose to get high. This is often how overdose occurs. A user becomes accustomed to a particular dose, but then they get their hands on the pure form of the drug without realizing it. They take a much larger dose than they should, thinking that it’s cut with baking soda or some other inactive filler, and they overdose.
#2 Street Names
Meth goes by many names. By familiarizing yourself with these street names, you can listen for them in conversation. Some folks use these as code names for meth:
#3 A Typical User Statement
When describing the effect of meth on a friend, a typical person will say something like, “I didn’t know what meth was until my friend starting using it, and his life fell apart. He completely changed as a person. It was like all he cared about was getting his hands on meth.”
This is a fairly typical account of a person who has lost a loved one or friend to meth addiction. As addiction takes hold, meth becomes the primary focus of the person’s life. The addict comes to crave meth more often. This can lead, in some cases, to criminal behavior as desperation to acquire the drug mounts. We’ll explore the effects of meth addiction more in the next section.
#4 Effect on the body
Methamphetamine has an instantaneous effect on the brain and body. The most immediate side effect, and the one that users fixate on, is a sense of euphoria or wellbeing. This feeling can last between 4 and 12 hours, though in rare cases, it can take a day or so for the drug to completely leave the system.
However, regardless of dose, toxic—and sometimes fatal—effects can occur. This applies to first time users as well as more experienced users.
The effects of taking meth may include:
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Enlarged pupils
- Increased energy
- Feeling of euphoria
- Aggressive behavior
- Bad headaches
- An unpleasant comedown
- Stomach cramps
- Reduced appetite
- Blurred vision
- Panic attacks
Long term effects include:
- Dental problems—the infamous ‘meth mouth’
- Heart, kidney and lung problems
- Increased risk of HIV and hepatitis C infection if the drug is injected
These long term effects come into play as the user begins to obsess on meth. As they do so, many other areas of life, such as proper hygiene, getting adequate rest and nutrition fall to the wayside.
Warnings Signs of Meth Addiction
Methamphetamine is by far one of the most potent street drugs, perhaps rivaled only by the opioid fentanyl. In this section, we’ll explore the various signs of meth abuse.
A sad reality of drug use is that people rarely realize addiction is taking hold until the damage is done. In order for chemical addiction to take root, significant changes to brain chemistry must occur. But those changes can occur while symptoms of frequent drug use are still manageable. This applies to any drug. But crystal meth has such a high addiction potential that it’s incredibly easy for a regular user to get hooked. As this happens, they’ll often see significant changes in their quality of life.
Physical Signs of Meth Abuse
Physical signs of meth addiction are fairly common, and can be quite difficult to hide. Signs begin to appear as soon as the user shifts from infrequent, experimental use to regular use. You may see:
- A thinning, frail body
- Facial acne, sores, scratches or rashes
- Rotting teeth
- A droopy quality to the facial skin
- Liver damage
- Lowered immunity to infectious disease
- Compulsive Scratching
- Higher than normal body temperature
Psychological Signs of Abuse
When a person uses meth, they experience an initial rush, or feeling of euphoria. This occurs because meth forces the brain to release the neurochemical dopamine. Dopamine is part of the brain’s reward pathway. Dopamine is a feel-good chemical that is released in the brain when we accomplish goals, learn new things or exercise.
But drugs like meth and fentanyl hijack this system, serving as a shortcut to dopamine release. Any drug that does this has a high addiction potential. However, dopamine has other functions in the brain. For instance, it’s important for the function of memory and learning. Ongoing meth use floods the brain with dopamine. But the brain has a finite supply of this neurochemical at any one time.
Consequently, frequent meth users may ‘burn out,’ suffering severe side effects, such as:
- Memory problems
- Inability to learn
- Problems with motor function
- Visual Hallucinations
- Severe insomnia
A frequent meth user may experience any or all of these side effects.
Behavioral Signs of Abuse
Because meth stimulates sexual arousal and can increase adrenaline levels, frequent meth users may engage in sexual activities for extended periods of time. They may also scratch compulsively because exhaustion or psychosis, or both, causes them to hallucinate. A common hallucination of the meth addict is the feeling of insects crawling on the skin.
In an effort to rid themselves of the ‘bugs,’ meth users scratch, often breaking the skin.
Intense periods of meth use are known as ‘tweaking’ events. Tweaking episodes can last for several days, during which the meth user is unlikely to:
A few days without sleep can cause hallucinations in and of itself, reinforcing whatever psychosis the drug is causing, but the combined stress of poor hygiene and malnutrition also weakens the immune system. Consequently, self-inflicted scratches often become infected.
While tweaking, a subject may exhibit rapid eye movements while awake and may speak in a rapid, jumbled manner. Additionally, they may move in a stiff, jerky manner.
Tweaking can make a person more likely to engage in violent or anti-social behavior due to lack of sleep combined with the psychological effects of meth.
Identifying Meth Paraphernalia
While in the early stages of addiction, a user will often take care to hide their habit. However, once the addiction becomes the focus, it becomes harder for the individual to do so. It’s at this point that you stand a good chance of finding drug paraphernalia.
Below are a few things to be on the lookout for:
- Empty baggies. Drug dealers often put crystal meth into small baggies.
- Cheap baggies. These are made by cutting a lower corner of a sandwich bag. They’re closed with cheap twist ties.
- Aluminum foil strips. Users place meth on these strips and heat them with a lighter. Such strips would contain burn residue.
- Used to ignite the drug.
- Gutted light bulbs. Users crack the bulb and use it as a collection device for meth smoke.
- Meth users may use short straws to draw the smoke in.
Remember, meth may be taken by mouth, snorted, smoked or injected.
What to Expect in Treatment
Note: because of the harmful side effects of meth abuse, recovery in a structured rehabilitation treatment program is always your best bet.
If you know you should quit and are ready to do something about it, seek a treatment center that offers a wide range of services. Simple detox may not be enough. You must learn to manage the addiction. Treatment centers come in two flavors:
- You’ll reside in your own residence while you learn to manage the addiction.
- You’ll reside in the treatment facility.
Because of the incredible addictive potential of methamphetamine, we recommend seeking inpatient treatment.
The first stage of treatment is, of course, detox. If you’ve been using for a long time, you may need to detox in a hospital. Though detox is typically not life threatening, it is very unpleasant. You’ll experience a wide array of withdrawal symptoms as the drug leaves your system and as your brain adjusts.
Potential symptoms include:
- Anxiety. Anxiety is one of the most common meth withdrawal symptoms. Studies show that up to 30 percent of meth addicts struggle with anxiety once they quit.
- When using meth, you probably felt hyperactive, or as if you were full of energy. As you come off of meth, however, you’re likely to feel the opposite. During the first week, in particular, you’ll feel lethargic. This will pass.
- While going through meth withdrawal, it’s normal to feel depressed. This will likely resolve by the second week of treatment.
- If you ever experienced psychosis while taking meth, you may have a bout of psychosis as the drug leaves your system. This is one of the main reasons it’s so important to seek treatment in a facility that is familiar with meth withdrawal. Anti-psychotic medications like benzodiazepines may be prescribed to help, though symptoms usually resolve without pharmacological treatment.
- Naturally, you will feel intense cravings to use while in recovery. These cravings will subside with time.
- Increased appetite. Meth depresses appetite in some people. When going off meth, these people often experience strong cravings for food, particularly foods rich in carbohydrates.
As you move through these symptoms, it’s important to actively support yourself. You can ease the process by:
- Distracting yourself. Your cravings are likely to be very intense at the beginning, so you’ll want to have a plan in place to cope with the cravings as they arise. Some recovering addicts read, others play games. Whatever you choose to do, make sure it will get you through the first few weeks. Of course, one of the advantages of going to a treatment facility is the structured environment, which will keep you busy.
- Avoiding Triggers. Naturally, you’ll want to avoid other users while in recovery. Similarly, avoid any triggers that make you want to use or that make you think about using.
- Eating a healthy diet. As mentioned, your appetite will likely return with a vengeance once in recovery. If you’re receiving outpatient care, you must take charge of your diet. Avoid processed foods as these will stimulate your reward pathway. Processed foods are any foods that contain refined sugar, fat and salt as the primary ingredients. Instead, eat whole foods that are a mix of complex carbohydrates, natural fats and protein. For instance, consider steak with asparagus instead of cookies, cake or biscuits.
Natural, whole foods will help your body recover. Hyperpalatable processed foods will trigger cravings of their own.
Remember: once you’ve acquired an addiction, you can only manage that addiction. You won’t ever be rid of it completely. But you can learn to manage it. Therapy modalities like CBT—which you can learn in a quality treatment facility—will teach you how to cope with triggers and cravings.
You can prevent relapse.
If you’re trying to get addiction treatment for yourself or for someone you love, reach out to The Hills for comprehensive and caring treatment that will help patients detox and learn the skills to cope with their triggers and their addiction. You have options, let The Hills be one of them.