Table of Contents
- Methamphetamine Addiction
- What Meth is: A Brief History
- What Meth is Called on the Street
- What Meth Looks, Tastes, and Smells Like
- Crystal Meth
- How Methamphetamine is Abused
- How Meth Works
- Symptoms and Physical Consequences of Meth
- Abuse, Overdose, and Fatality Rates
- Responding to Meth Overdose
Meth is a highly addictive substance known more formally as Methamphetamine. Methamphetamine is a lab produced stimulant that does have legitimate medical usage and is therefore classified as a schedule II stimulant by the DEA. Meth is commonly used illegally for its long-lasting and intense high and is a dangerous drug whose powerful addictive properties have earned it a reputation as a hard drug.
What Meth is: A Brief History
Although amphetamines were first invented in 1877 by Romanian chemist Lazar Edelaneu, it was not until its properties as a central nervous stimulant (CNS) were noticed in the 1930’s that it began to be marketed as a medicine. Its first foray onto pharmacy shelves was as a nasal congestion inhaler called Benzedrine©. By 1937 it was available in tablet form and the medical establishment recommended amphetamines for a broad array of conditions – including narcolepsy, childhood hyperactivity, pregnancy, asthma, and weight reduction. Low production costs, relatively long-lasting effects and lack of awareness of its addiction risks all contributed to its rapid growth.
Although significantly more subject to abuse, methamphetamines, first developed in Japan, are chemically and structurally very similar to amphetamines. Meth causes increased endurance, alertness, and willingness to take risks – all which made it a natural choice as a battlefield drug. Japan, Germany, and the United States all distributed meth extensively to their militaries during WWII. John F. Kennedy, by way of celebrity physician Max Jacobson, is reported to have utilized meth throughout his presidency to retain his youthful appearance and treat his many private ailments.
Once its euphoric effects were recognized, amphetamines quickly became a staple of the recreational drug arena. “Bennies” (slang for Benzedrine) was stereotypical to the Beatnik generation of the 50’s. As an “upper”, athletes found it enhanced performance and focus. Through the 60’s and 70’s it became associated with motorcycle gangs, college students, and truck drivers, all of whom were seeking increased energy and alertness 1.
The following decade brought the discovery that ephedrine, a chemical found in many over-the-counter cold medications, can be made into meth. In a constant battle between meth cooks and the federal government, as soon as an ingredient was regulated, another was found. Paint thinners, battery acid, and acetone were all used in the production of meth. As flammables were added to break down ephedrine pills, the stereotype of exploding backyard labs emerged.
Much of the meth distributed in the US originates from Mexican drug trafficking organizations 2. On a smaller scale, homemade meth originating from clandestine labs is also quite prevalent.
By the time the 90’s rolled around, meth addiction was recognized as an epidemic, and in 2006 the UN World Drug Report called it the most abused hard drug in the world. Although its overall use in the US has decreased steadily since, it is still the number one abused drug in many areas of the country.
Both amphetamines and methamphetamines are Schedule II drugs under the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) 3, which means it has an accepted medical use but high addiction and abuse potential as well. Amphetamines are commonly found in the medical field, in medications such as Ritalin and Adderall. Licit meth is far more rare and only found in a handful of obesity medications.
What Meth is Called on the Street
- Black Beauties
- Black Mollies
- Crystal Meth or Glass
- Stove Top
What Meth Looks, Tastes, and Smells Like
Amphetamines usually come in pill or powder form. When illegally produced, it can come packaged in aluminum foil or small balloons. Although in its pure state it has no odor, when distilled to powder it carries a strong smell, due to the dissolvent chemicals used to break it down. It has a distinctly bitter taste.
Meth most often comes in an odorless, soluble, bitter white powder, but is available in pill form as well. Its colors can vary from brown and pink to orange and gray. Less common but still available on the street is an oily paste known as meth base 4.
Another popular form of the drug is crystal meth. Meth is extracted from cold medications or other substances containing the chemical ephedrine and heated with acid, forming shiny crystals resembling glass or ice. Since the advent of the TV show “Breaking Bad”, meth has been found with blue tint, purportedly to mimic protagonist Walter White’s discovery of pure blue meth (Blue Sky) and thus capitalize on the show’s popularity.
How Methamphetamine is Abused
Amphetamines and powdered meth are usually injected or taken orally. Although medications such as Ritalin have demonstrated its benefits in treating ADHD, when abused it is taken in much larger doses than prescribed. For recreational use, the pills are generally crushed and then snorted or injected. This form of ingestion reaches the brain much more quickly than when ingested as prescribed (as a legitimate medication).
Crystal meth is a smokable form of meth, and its purest and most potent version. Finding the small glass pipe or “flute” used to smoke ice is a strong sign that a loved one is abusing the drug. Once heated and converted to liquid, crystal meth can also be injected.
When smoked or injected, the user experiences an immediate and intense rush of euphoria, with a subsequent high that can last for 12 hours. Being a stimulant, its effects are similar to cocaine but its high lasts considerably longer, adding greatly to its appeal. Often a person with meth addiction will descend into a “binge and crash” pattern, forgoing normal activity for days while chasing the “flash’’. This term refers to the initial sensation and absolute apex of euphoria brought on by meth use. It only lasts a few minutes and leaves the user desperately grasping for more.
Orally-ingested meth travels to the brain on a slower trajectory, and usually produces effects within 15 to 20 minutes.
How Meth Works
Noradrenaline is a neurotransmitter in the brain which acts as a threat responder 5. When the body releases this chemical, it stimulates the brain to raise the body’s heart rate and blood pressure, sharpen vision by dilating the pupils, and widen air passages in the lungs. Dopamine is another neurotransmitter responsible for natural feelings of pleasure during activities necessary for human survival, including eating, drinking, and sex.
Meth attaches itself to the neurons storing these neurotransmitters and compels their release in abnormal measures. It can raise dopamine levels by over ten times more than any other pleasurable action. This sudden deluge of chemicals triggers unprecedented alertness, energy and intoxicating euphoria.
But these neuron storehouses are of limited capacity. Once the meth drains them of all noradrenaline and dopamine, the body cannot keep up with the constant demand to replenish. Upon leaving the body, the drug leaves its user moody, irritable, and craving another surge just to feel “normal”. To get any semblance of a rush, the dosage now must be increased – and the vicious cycle of addiction is in full swing.
Symptoms and Physical Consequences of Meth
Amphetamines and meth abuse collect some of the worst physical and mental tolls found in drug use. Effects of prolonged use include significant risk increases of stroke, liver damage and low immunity. Severe dental issues including rotting teeth and gums are also associated with the drug, infamously known as “meth mouth”. Hyperthermia (dangerously increased body temperatures), convulsions, and mood swings are all consequences of meth addiction.
Meth increases libido. Combined with lowered inhibitions and impaired decision-making effects, it often leads to reckless sexual behavior, and can cause STDs. Meth users who prefer injections also carry an increased risk of contracting HIV through contaminated needles.
Prolonged insomnia is another common effect of meth abuse, and is referred to as “tweaking”. During tweaking episodes, users may exhibit paranoia, confusion, unfocused rapid eye movements, and jumbled talking and walking. Tweaking can last as long as 15 days.
Chronic abuse of meth often causes psychosis, delusions, and auditory hallucinations. A sensation of insects crawling under the skin, and incessant scratching to ward them off, are commonly reported in people addicted to methamphetamines. Psychotic symptoms can persist for months or even years after someone has stopped using the drug 6.
Abuse, Overdose, and Fatality Rates
In 2020 the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported over two and a half million meth users in the United States 7. Prescription stimulants including Ritalin and Adderall were reported to have been misused by over five million Americans in 2018, per the CDC 8. Perhaps more than most drugs, meth has a large regional variable. NIDA reports that east of the Mississippi River, less than one percent of drug user cite methamphetamines as their primary substance of abuse. Conversely, from the river westward the numbers jump from anywhere between 12 And 29%.
Nationally, overdose rates related to amphetamines, meth, or other psychostimulants (aside from cocaine) have risen over seven percent in the last decade. It claimed over 10,000 lives in 2017, roughly a third more than the previous year and triple the number from 2012.
Succinctly put, amphetamines and meth abuse remain a very large problem in this country.
Responding to Meth Overdose
Signs of an overdose may include extreme agitation, profuse sweating and loss of consciousness. 911 should be called immediately. Further guidance can be requested from poison control centers.
Once the emergency has been stabilized, entrance to a detox facility is crucial. Withdrawal can bring medical and psychological issues and must be done under the supervision of professionals.
Once detox has been completed, the user should be urged to enter a drug rehab and treatment facility, where they can acquire tools to help overcome their addiction and return to a productive and meaningful lifestyle. Great care should be taken when choosing a meth treatment provider, as the industry is rife with corruption. Ensure the provider has the patient’s well-being foremost in their mind; the meth user’s life is at stake.
To learn more about meth addiction, including how long methamphetamine stays in your system, read our online resources.