Meth is back and it’s cheaper and purer than ever before. With national attention focused on the country’s epidemic of heroin and prescription painkiller abuse, law enforcement and health care professionals are seeing a massive resurgence of methamphetamines on the street.
To complicate matters, a staggering number of people dependent on opioids appear to also be struggling with meth addiction and, essentially, creating a spike in demand for the illicit stimulant.
“We knew that since there was a clamp-down on opioid abuse, people were switching to other drugs, but our main concern was heroin. We were surprised to not only see a rise in heroin use, but a sharp increase in the use of methamphetamine.” Theodore Cicero, Ph.D, professor of psychiatry at Washington University, St. Louis, said at the recent College on Problems of Drug Dependence meeting.
Dr. Cicero was lead researcher on a study that found more than one-third of people that reported opioid use in 2017 also admitted to methamphetamine abuse.
Street Names for Meth
Going by various street names for meth – ice, glass, crank, crystal meth – methamphetamine looks like small whitish or bluish, crystalline rocks.
Though it’s not that difficult to manufacture, domestic production of the drug crashed after Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005.
A little more than a decade later, however, Mexican Cartels are filling the void in the meth marketplace.
Increase in Meth Production and Overdoses
From January to July 31, 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has seized nearly 60,000 pounds of meth, which is more than the individual yearly totals of the last six years, and, so far, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.
Nationally, overdose deaths from psycho-stimulants, such as methamphetamine, increased from 5 percent in 2010 to 11 percent in 2015 – around 6,000 predominantly meth-related deaths – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“I have been involved with meth for the last 25 years,” Steven Bell, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman told The New York Times.
“A wholesale plummet of price per pound, combined with a huge increase in purity, tells me [the cartels] have perfected the production or manufacturing methamphetamine. They have figured the chemical reactions to get the best bang for their bucks.”
Signs of Meth Use and Comedown
Signs of meth use and addiction, especially from long-term use, often include rotted teeth and gums, along with facial sores around the mouth and nose.
Even in the short-term, though, methamphetamine use is extremely addictive. When the stimulant hits the brain, it releases dopamine and serotonin, which boost alertness, energy and sociability.
Users immediately build a tolerance to the drug and need more of it to get the same “high” as before. Depending on the amount a person ingests, either by smoking, snorting or injecting it, the “meth high” can last up to eight hours.
A meth comedown from the drug leads to a number of painful or very uncomfortable symptoms and side effects that drive a person to seek out more of the drug. These side effects include:
- Muscle aches
Treating Meth Withdrawal Symptoms
Treatment for addiction to meth starts with managing withdrawal and detox. The body starts withdrawal around 24 hours from the last use, with symptoms peaking between seven to 10 days.
Meth withdrawal lasts anywhere from two weeks to 20 days and includes some of the following physical and psychological effects:
- Overwhelming lethargy and sleepiness as the body adjusts to the normal amounts of serotonin and dopamine levels
- Jitteriness or tremors
- Dry mouth
- Increased appetite
- Rapid mood swings, anxiety and depression
Medications for Methamphetamine Withdrawal
Though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t specifically approved any medications for methamphetamine withdrawal, physicians often use off-label prescriptions. These may include:
- Modafinil – a mild stimulant most often prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Mirtazapine (Remeron) – an antidepressant that interacts with serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain
- Bupropion (Wellbutrin) – an antidepressant that is FDA approved for nicotine addiction, but appears to reduce cravings in patients that suffer from light to moderate meth addiction
Combining Meth and Opioid Use
As it concerns meth abuse among opioid users, each drug counteracts the other. Meth is an upper while opioids are downers.
Dr. Cicero believes there’s evidence to suggest that many meth and opioid users are trying to balance out the effects of the drugs, in essence attempting to mitigate the worst physical symptoms caused by the drugs. Each substance is dangerous on its own, but combining them can be especially toxic.
Cicero also noted that drug polices, like the Combat Methamphetamine Act, sometimes have unintended consequences and simply limiting access to one illicit drug isn’t necessarily an effective solution.
“As we address the opioid epidemic, we’re creating a different problem,” he said. “We have to realize that people often take drugs trying to escape from depression, anxiety and the circumstances of their lives. We have to address the demand side of the equation – why do people need to escape from life, not just try to limit the supply.”
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