Crystal meth can sometimes get buried when we talk about the most dangerous drug threats in America. We talk a lot about alcohol, which is and has been the top threat in addiction treatment ever since addiction treatment has existed. The headlines all seem to go towards prescription painkillers and heroin, the two sides of the same coin that have generated the ongoing opioid crisis. And there is no doubt that those headlines are warranted. Opioids have killed thousands upon thousands of people, just in the last few years, and is one of the biggest drug threats the country has ever faced. But in the shadow of those monsters is the much quieter, ever-present threat of crystal meth. A 2012 survey showed that about 1.2 million Americans use crystal meth, and while that number represents a slight decline over previous years, 1.2 million meth users is about 1.2 million too many. Meth isn’t like opioids, where there are legal, helpful versions of the drug that lead to illicit use because of abuse and addiction. Meth is damaging from day one, and there is no real benefit to its use in any context. Yet people use and get addicted to it by the million. Why is that, and what do you need to know about the realities of crystal meth? Let’s start with breaking down what the drug in question actually is.
What is Crystal Meth?
There are a few things you need to know about methamphetamine. Crystal meth is not what all methamphetamine is like. Meth is often a powdery white substance or a white pill. Crystal meth specifically refers to the form of the drug that looks like small pieces of glass, with a bluish-white tint. The form the meth is in doesn’t really change its effects, it only changes the delivery method. The powder form can be inhaled, snorted, or injected when dissolved in water or alcohol. It can be swallowed in pill form, and smoked in its crystal form. Methamphetamine is similar chemically (but effectively different) to amphetamine, a legal prescription drug often used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy. It is primarily manufactured in Mexico, but is also made frequently in smaller quantities in the United States. The reason why some over-the-counter cold medicines must now be sold in limited quantities is because they contain psuedoephedrine, a key component in manufacturing meth. But the most notable aspect of crystal meth isn’t what it looks like or how it’s made – it’s what it does to people.
What are the Effects of Crystal Meth?
One of the most commonly-known effects of meth abuse is a rapid and noticeable decay of the teeth. That is one of the most visible and cosmetic changes your body goes through on meth, but it is far from the only one. Meth affects the brain in much the same way many addictive substances do – by flooding it with dopamine and triggering all of the brain’s reward sensors. This is what makes meth – and addictive substances like it – so hard to quit. Your brain is hard-wired to seek out things that give you that rush. Things like eating good food, getting exercise, and engaging in hobbies you enjoy give you a drip feed of dopamine at normal levels that encourage you to do more of that activity in the future. This is a healthy feedback loop that keeps you going happily through your life. Taking meth breaks that loop by overloading your brain with dopamine. Sure, it might feel good for a bit, but that initial rush leads to a total breakdown of your brain’s reward sensors. Once it adapts to that flood of dopamine, it is no longer sensitive to the usual drip feed that you get from normal healthy activities. All it wants is that same rush, and everything else you do loses all appeal. That’s what addiction is. Of course, meth is far from being purely a mental drug. Meth is a stimulant, which means it speeds up and stresses your body’s normal processes. Some effects of meth abuse include:
- an increase in physical activity
- increased tension and over-alertness
- rapid breathing
- less appetite
- irregular heartbeat or increased heart rate
- increased blood pressure and body temperature
These effects are partly why meth often goes by the street name “speed.” It artificially “speeds up” the body’s processes, and is mistakenly believed to make people more alert and focused. In reality, while meth does indeed make people temporarily more energetic, it also makes them a great deal more erratic, and often less able to focus. It is often pitched as a study aid, and it rarely helps to that end. Crystal meth is also highly addictive. The larger the quantity it is consumed in, the more potent its effects, and the more addictive it becomes. This also means that meth is a common culprit of overdoses. Since addicts are always chasing their “high,” and that high gets stronger and stronger the more and the faster they take meth, it is common for people to drive their addiction to a natural extreme and go over the edge.
What Happens During a Meth Overdose?
Because meth is a stimulant, it sends the body into overdrive. The symptoms of a meth overdose are consistent with what you’d expect from the body’s functions being driven past their limit. In a meth overdose, the body’s temperature raises to a high fever, and heart rate elevates to dangerous levels. This often leads to a stroke, heart attack, or some sort of organ failure. Kidney failure is a common occurrence during meth overdoses. Treatment for a meth overdose generally consists of treating these symptoms, either trying to prevent these severe conditions, or mitigating the damage from them, all while lowering the body’s temperature. Effects of meth can be cumulative, leading to “long-term” overdoses that can lead to hallucinogenic effects that may last for months. Meth overdose fatalities have spiked in recent years, and as a majority of public thought and effort goes into stopping the dangerous opioid epidemic, the meth problem continues to gain momentum. As prescription painkiller overdoses begin to drop, meth threatens to become the next big epidemic.
Who are the Most Common Users of Crystal Meth?
The average meth user is under 20 years of age, which is considerably younger than the average usage age for many other drugs. This highlights how serious meth abuse is in teenagers. This has partly to do with how often meth is mistakenly billed as a “study aid,” as well as its status as a “party drug” that is common in clubs and is often taken with ecstasy and other stimulants. But it also has to do a new push by drug cartels to popularize methamphetamine. As marijuana legalization comes to an increasing number of states, drug cartels are seeing their profits shrink as the market for illegal marijuana continues to wither. One way these cartels are attempting to compensate for those lost profits is by increasing production of other illicit drugs, with meth standing near the top of that list. This is why states with legalized marijuana like Washington and Colorado are seeing a significant uptick in meth abuse.
How is Meth Addiction Treated?
Like any addictive drug, meth must be treated with a combination of medical and therapeutic methods. Meth frequently comes with withdrawal symptoms that range in severity from anxiety and fatigue to severe depression and psychosis. Naturally, the cravings for meth will be intense after quitting, but unlike some drugs, withdrawal symptoms for meth are not known to be deadly. Still, a medical detox period can help to take the edge off that initial withdrawal period. Still, the most important part of treating meth addiction is not treating the meth, but the addiction itself. Behavioral-cognitive therapy is necessary to help those struggling from addiction understand how addiction works, and how to recognize and avoid the behaviors that support it. Fighting meth addiction is a lifelong battle, but drug rehab can give you the start you need to make it a battle you can win. A quality rehab will offer completely personalized, evidence-based treatment that understands the reasons why people begin using meth, the circumstances that make it seem unavoidable, and their personal circumstances. Meth addiction can be treated and beaten, but it is a lifelong battle to keep it that way. That’s why any treatment for meth addiction is going to take the long view of making sure people can get clean and stay clean. That means changing attitudes and beliefs, not just flushing out the substance. Eliminating the meth is only part of the process – the more important part is making sure people don’t go back to it the moment they can. Have you, or has anyone you know, used crystal meth before? What was the most difficult thing about the experience? We would love to hear about your experiences – just one person’s story of addiction or recovery may make the difference for someone else. So please, share your story with us in the comments below.