Of all the illicit substances currently troubling the United States, the two arguably most dangerous ones are heroin and meth, for a single similar reason: availability. While heroin production has grown rapidly both domestically and internationally, and US authorities continue to struggle with quelling the demand for opiates (including heroin and prescription drugs), meth production has also grown rapidly, particularly in Mexico.
While alcohol and cigarettes still claim countless American lives, opiates and methamphetamine have their own long list of deaths. Yet none of these drugs are very alike. Opiates are painkillers, prescribed to deal with a large variety of pain, from childbirth to post-surgery care.
Meth, on the other hand, is a drug synthesized entirely from industrial chemicals, made to mimic a completely naturally-occurring chemical that triggers the release of dopamine in the brain. Because of this, meth is a very potent and very powerful drug. Understanding its relationship to dopamine and its effects on the mind and body can help drive home its dangers.
What is Meth?
Methamphetamine is a stimulant, meaning that it boosts motivation, eases depression, and generally makes people feel good and strong. Soldiers have historically been prescribed meth to stay awake during watch hours, or while taking flight in fighter jets, especially during World War II.
Since then, regulation has restricted medical use of methamphetamine to rare and very specific cases of ADHD – if a patient does not respond adequately to prescribed amphetamines like Adderall, then a form of methamphetamine is prescribed instead.
Most meth taken for recreational use is manufactured illegally, and often made in unsanitary conditions, producing low-quality and impure meth. While pure meth is still dangerous, low-quality meth is often cut with toxic ingredients, causing an addict’s health to quickly deteriorate, attacking their teeth and skin.
When absorbed into the bloodstream through ingestion, inhalation or injection, methamphetamine travels to the brain and acts as an incredibly potent euphoriant, essentially causing an overflow of joy. Its potency as a stimulant makes it more neurotoxic than other stimulants, owed to the fact that it quickly wears out the CNS and damages neurons, and can quickly lead to drastic and lethal overdose symptoms, including heart attacks, psychosis, and even bleeding in the brain.
Because of these dangers, it is rarely prescribed, and is mostly produced or taken illegally. Due to its potency, methamphetamine is also highly addictive.
Meth and Other Stimulants
Methamphetamine differentiates itself from other stimulants like cocaine and amphetamine due to its potency, both for addiction and for an effective high. Methamphetamine is directly related to amphetamine, insofar that amphetamines are, in the simplest of terms, less potent forms of methamphetamine. It is similar to the difference between heroin and morphine.
Cocaine, on the other hand, is a completely different drug with similar effects in the brain and a separate manufacturing process. Although it is made from a plant, it is arguably less “natural”, insofar that amphetamines are directly analogous to phenethylamines, a naturally-occurring stimulant in the human brain, while cocaine is a completely foreign substance to the human brain. Both drugs do not actually occur naturally in the brain and pose a risk precisely because of their unnatural potency as stimulants.
Cocaine is absorbed much faster than methamphetamine, which gives it a more potent high, while methamphetamine stays in the body for much longer, producing a less potent albeit longer-lasting high.
Meth boosts the release of dopamine, while simultaneously blocking the reuptake of dopamine. Typically, when dopamine is released, it is as a form of reward for beneficial activity – something we are “hard-wired” to do, like eat a high-calorie food or procreate. After the initial euphoria, dopamine is reabsorbed into the brain’s cells.
Blocking the reuptake of dopamine makes the euphoria last longer and be more potent. This is essentially how antidepressants work, only that they block the reuptake of serotonin, to combat a problem in some cases of depression where a depressed brain struggles to be happy due to a neurochemical issue.
Cocaine only blocks the reuptake of dopamine, rather than boosting its release as well. This contributes to a list of reasons why meth is generally more addictive than cocaine.
Supply and Demand
Aside from its natural addictiveness versus other common stimulants like amphetamine and cocaine, meth is also a dangerous drug because it is much simpler to produce and export. Its ingredients are simple chemical precursors, often available as industrial chemicals or even as over-the-counter medicine. One common ingredient in the production of homemade crystal meth is nasal decongestant.
High-quality methamphetamine does less damage to skin and teeth, but can quickly fry a person’s neurons, and cause brain damage due to overuse. Its potency also speeds up the addiction process. Low-quality or “shake and bake” meth is even more dangerous, being inconsistent in potency and toxicity, thus often leading to fatal or near-fatal consequences.
Meth production is a problem both abroad and at home.
Awareness is Key
The methamphetamine problem in the US is not a recent one, but it has been growing alongside opioids. Making the dangers of meth clear to loved ones and community members can help, although a lot of time and resources must go into helping those who are already struggling with an addiction to meth and want to get better.
If you or your loved ones are fighting to stay clean, then learning more about methamphetamines and addiction in general can be a good place to start. It is also important to seek out help.
The most potent drugs are the hardest to recover from. Withdrawal symptoms for methamphetamine are mild compared to many other drugs, especially opiates, barbiturates, and alcohol, yet the biggest problem with meth is its long-lasting cravings. These cravings make staying clean a huge challenge, as many former addicts struggle to avoid relapsing in the first six to twelve months.
Treatment programs and services, particularly those that help provide a drug-free environment and plenty of support for a long period of time, such as sober-living homes, can help stave off many of the dangers of methamphetamine addiction and relapse.
If you or someone you love has struggled with meth use, chances are that the road ahead is long and difficult. But if you persevere and continuously go over the basics of the treatment process, it will eventually get easier to stay clean.