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According to the United Nations World Drug Report, the amount of methamphetamine seized worldwide has nearly quadrupled from 2009 to 2014, spiking in 2012, with the sharpest increase in East and South-East Asia. Though the number has increased overall since 2009, the spread and growth of methamphetamine use has slowed down from 2012-2014 compared to 2009-2014.
According to the DEA and 2011 NSDUH survey, 11.9 million people in the United States (roughly 4%) reported nonmedical methamphetamine use at least once in their lifetime. According to the same survey, there were 133,000 people aged 12 and older that used meth for the first time that year.
The U.N.’s report shows that methamphetamine is third amongst drugs most commonly tied to unemployment in the United States behind heroin and crack, with 25% of past-month users being unemployed.
According to a RAND study conducted in 2014 to detail America’s drug use from 2000-2010, methamphetamine estimates are “subject to greatest uncertainty” because of several legal changes that occurred during the decade, as well as gaps in data collection from 2004-2006 when meth use was believed to be at its peak. The best estimate from the study is that the number of chronic methamphetamine users increased from 0.9 million in 2000 to 1.6 million in 2010, with a sharp peak from 2005-2006 with 2.6 million chronic users. According to a SAMHSA study that number decreased to 1.6 million nonmedical stimulant users in 2014.
Mexican superlabs are the main providers of meth to US users, and Southeast Asia is a lesser sources as well. Smaller labs were a growing problem in the US, particularly in the southwest, but precursor laws (such as restrictions on pseudoephedrine) have reduced the number of lab seizures in the United States from over 10,000 in 2003 to around 6,000 in 2010 according to the RAND study.
Methamphetamine produces a strong and euphoric rush that fades rapidly, so many meth users will take repeated doses to maintain the rush and avoid the heavy crash and withdrawals. This repeated dosing is one of the biggest contributors to methamphetamine addiction.
Whether it’s snorted, swallowed, injected, or smoked, methamphetamine eventually enters the bloodstream. Once in the body, meth can alter many functions of the brain, but it primarily affects dopamine levels.
Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter that conveys pleasure and good feeling. Methamphetamine hijacks the neurotransmitter process and tricks the neuron to release an excessive amount of dopamine, leading to the euphoric and pleasurable rush methamphetamine users describe.
Eventually, the euphoric high ends and the crash makes the user feel worse than they did before taking it in the first place. After prolonged methamphetamine abuse, users have a hard time deriving pleasure without the drug due to dopamine suppression, which contributes to the addiction.
NIDA shows that brain scans of meth abusers have a highly reduced binding of natural dopamine with dopamine transmitters, which fosters a dependence on the drug for the feeling of pleasure. The good news is that these brain scans also show that after rehabilitation and prolonged abstinence from methamphetamine, the dopamine system in the affected areas can rebuild themselves.
Because of methamphetamine’s dopamine-emulating qualities, the withdrawal symptoms from quitting meth can be the most painful and traumatic part of the addiction. The severity of withdrawal symptoms will vary depending on the level of abuse and dependence the user had on the drug. A few of the main symptoms of methamphetamine withdrawal include:
These symptoms typically reach their peak between 7 and 10 days after quitting methamphetamine. Dopamine distribution won’t be back to normal until months of abstinence from meth have passed, giving the body’s natural dopamine transporters time to restore.
While methamphetamine has an immediate rush of good feeling, energy, and euphoria, those side effects can turn into negative and often dangerous outcomes rather quickly. Some of the short-term effects of meth use include:
Tweaking occurs when the user has gone 3-15 days without sleep and is a persistent state of irritability and paranoia. The abuser, or “tweaker” is seeking to replicate the high that started the binge but is unable to, leading to erratic and potentially dangerous behaviors like sudden violence or driving a vehicle while under the effects of the drug.
To calm the stimulating effects of the meth binge, tweakers often counteract it with a depressant like alcohol. However, alcohol can increase paranoia and make the tweaker’s behavior more unpredictable and therefore dangerous.
Prolonged abuse of methamphetamine can open the door to dozens of detrimental long-term effects on the mind and body of the user. Here are some of the damaging effects of long-term meth abuse:
The longer methamphetamine abuse lasts, the worse its effects and addictive qualities become. Long-term meth use can alter the structure of the brain itself, specifically targeting the activity of dopamine transporters.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, studies have shown that chronic methamphetamine abusers also suffer from functional breakdowns in the areas of the brain associated with memory and emotion. Abuse of the drug has also been linked to severe psychosis, including hallucinations, acute paranoia, and delusions, all of which can last for months or years after abusing the substance.
Abusing meth and crystal meth also has negative effects on the non-neural brain cells known as microglia. These cells help to protect the brain by defending against infections and removing any damaged neurons. Using meth activates microglia and causes an increase beyond normal levels. Too many of these cells lead them to attack healthy neurons, causing a neurotoxic effect.
There is only limited data, but existing research indicates that meth use during pregnancy is a thoroughly unsafe and unhealthy practice for both the mother and the fetus. Congenital disabilities from small size to brain disorders, heart problems, premature birth, and placental abruption have all occurred in cases where the mother was abusing methamphetamine with a child in the womb.
According to early findings from an ongoing study, there’s been a noticeable trend of neurobehavioral problems, including increased stress and attention issues.
A study by UCLA found that Naltrexone, which is an FDA-approved drug that is commonly used to treat alcoholism, may be a breakthrough treatment for those struggling with methamphetamine addiction. The scientists found that the drug, which blocks opioid receptors in the brain, dramatically reduced patients’ cravings for meth and reduced the attraction the meth in general.
A review in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry states that the available evidence shows that meth is linked to an increased risk of hemorrhagic strokes in young people (under the age of 45), and showed that men are twice as likely as women to suffer from any stroke associated with meth use.
Because of the damaging effects and dangers of both short-term and long-term use, if you or a loved one are struggling with a meth addiction, now is the time to get help. Regardless of your financial situation, there are programs that can help, and recovery is possible. For more information on programs for methamphetamine rehab and how to best find a facility near you, you can read our guide to methamphetamine and crystal meth rehabilitation.