Methamphetamine is a stimulant, also called meth, crank, crystal, and ice. This drug is incredibly addictive because of the way it quickly and intensely acts on the brain.
Most Americans have been introduced, in one way or another, to the meth problem in the U.S., having watched the fictional meth chemist Walter White on BreakingBad, seen a before-and-after picture of a user ravaged by meth addiction in an anti-drug campaign, or read about meth-related drug busts in their local newspapers.
Some might have watched MethStorm, an HBO documentary about meth taking over an entire county in Arkansas. Many haven’t had to watch or read about the methamphetamine epidemic in the U.S. They have seen it for themselves in their own town, neighborhood, or even family.
Methamphetamine can be smoked, swallowed (in pill form), snorted, and injected. No matter how methamphetamine is ingested, it ends up in the bloodstream and makes its way to the brain.
Methamphetamine affects the body in several ways, but perhaps most significantly, it greatly increases the amount of dopamine in the body.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, or brain chemical, that plays a major role in how the brain experiences pleasure as well as feelings of motivation and reward. Dopamine also plays an important part in motor function and learning capabilities.
Methamphetamine may affect the behavior of two other important neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine. It also affects blood pressure.
Neurons, or nerve cells, communicate through neurotransmitters like dopamine. Usually, these neurons take in neurotransmitters and recycle them. Once the neurotransmitter has conveyed its “message,” such as a pleasure sensation, it is then recycled by the receiving neuron. It is released by the receptor and returned to the neuron that it came from and stored for later use.
Methamphetamine is very close in size, shape, and chemical structure to dopamine. It is, therefore, able to easily manipulate the behavior of these nerve cells. Neurons take in the meth as they would dopamine. But once inside a neuron, methamphetamine causes the neuron to release very high levels of dopamine and may stop it from recycling the dopamine as it usually would.
These high levels of dopamine cause the user to experience feelings of euphoria — the “rush” of meth. Users feel energized, high, and more alert.
When dopamine levels finally do start to dissipate, it can result in a crash. Users may be unable to feel pleasure, even from activities and people that used to bring them joy. This dopamine crash is experienced with, and contributes to, other short-term effects of using meth, such as exhaustion, anxiety, and severe depression.
This cycle contributes to the drug’s addictive nature. Users experience the highest of highs (dopamine rushes) and then the lowest of lows (a dopamine crash). While experiencing the lows, a user may be tempted to quickly use again to get back to the high.
Some studies have indicated that neurotransmitters remain damaged long after meth use and may destroy brain cells that release dopamine and serotonin. This impairs the ability of users to experience pleasure and can also cause motor skills problems that resemble Parkinson’s disease.
Users often develop a high tolerance for the stimulant and need more of it to create the desired effect, which puts their brain at more risk. High doses can quickly lead to overdose.
These long-term effects are part of why methamphetamine is so addictive. Users have to overcome the acute withdrawal and short-term effects of addiction, but they then have to endure a possibly long period after immediate withdrawal, during which they may be unable to fully experience pleasure or a mental state like they had before their addiction.
Without behavioral therapy or learned coping mechanisms, the option of using may seem like their only escape, especially if they don’t understand the feelings they are experiencing.
Even compared to the highly addictive substance cocaine, meth’s effects on brain chemistry are extreme. While cocaine is almost entirely absorbed and quickly removed from the body, meth will remain in the body for a much longer time and result in longer-acting stimulant effects.
In animal studies, meth also results in much higher levels of dopamine being released, as the drug has a different effect on nerve cells than cocaine does.
Cocaine signals nerve cells to block the reuptake of dopamine. This means less dopamine is being absorbed, resulting in the dopamine actions in the brain being prolonged.
Methamphetamine may block the reuptake of dopamine as well, but it also increases its release. This causes higher levels of dopamine to be present in the gap between neurons — the synapses. This higher concentration of dopamine can be toxic to nerve terminals, altering the brain’s behavior and resulting in serious long-term effects.
A primary reason for meth’s rise to epidemic levels of use throughout the U.S. is its accessibility. To understand why meth remains so accessible even today, it helps to have some understanding of its recent history.
Like most drugs, meth has gone through cycles of popularity and availability. It first became a popular street drug in the 1960s. More recently, use of meth soared in the early 2000s. Makeshift home labs and clandestine meth labs played a major role in the skyrocketing rates of use during that time. Areas with a seemingly never-ending supply meant lower prices and ample availability.
During those years, meth became a very real and visible problem in many areas of the country. As crime rates soared and police and federal agents became all too accustomed to donning Hazmat suits and dealing with dangerous home labs, state and federal agencies made plans to curtail the epidemic.
One of the most effective of the actions taken was the 2005 Combat Methamphetamine Act, passed by Congress in 2015. This limited the number of pseudoephedrine products — which are vital to the production of meth in homes and illegal labs — people could buy. These regulations, along with many large successful lab busts, helped to seriously reduce meth production in the country.
This may have provided people with a false sense of security — a feeling that the meth epidemic had been overcome. People stopped seeing so many meth lab busts on the news, and the opioid epidemic became the focus of the public and law enforcement. As visibility faded, in the shadows, a new player took over U.S. meth supply: Mexican drug cartels.
Cartels have been entering the U.S. with readymade methamphetamine that’s not only cheaper but also purer. DEA officials report that some cocaine and crack users are switching to meth because it’s cheaper, more powerful, and easy to get.
United States Custom and Border Protection reports that seizures of meth have tripled in the past five years. Seizures of other drugs, including heroin and cocaine, have reduced or stayed relatively steady in comparison.
Meth-related deaths are on the rise. In 2016, according to a federal study of 31 states, deaths related to amphetamines (mostly meth) had increased by a third in just one year. In Oregon, for example, the number of recorded meth-related deaths in 2016 was more than triple the number in 2012, indicating meth was responsible for more overdoses than heroin.
Meth is an incredibly addictive drug. It acts on the brain quickly and powerfully, and it can lead to addiction with very few uses. The best course of action is to avoid all meth use, even when it is intended to be a one-time experiment.
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