Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant drug, originally synthesized for therapeutic use but now found predominantly as a recreational drug of abuse. Though it is a drug that is FDA-approved and prescribed for attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obesity under the name Desoxyn, methamphetamine’s illicit use greatly surpasses its intended consumption.
Methamphetamine is sometimes prescribed in pill form. Street versions of the drug are available in pills or white powder, and referred to as a long list of slang names like:
- Crank / krank.
- Mexican crack.
- Redneck cocaine.
Also, illicitly manufactured methamphetamine is available on the street with an appearance resembling translucent white or blue, shattered shards of glass.
Although similar, if not identical in chemical composition, this form is frequently called crystal methamphetamine (crystal meth), and it goes by street names including:
Crystal meth is frequently smoked in a glass pipe. Most forms of meth can be crushed into powder form, which is then snorted, swallowed or dissolved into solution and injected.
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Any route of drug administration can produce a range of desired effects on the user that make tolerance, addiction, and dependence likely.
History of Methamphetamine
Compared to other manmade drugs of abuse, methamphetamine is very old. Its chemical progenitor drug—amphetamine—was first produced in the late 1880s, in Germany. About 30 years later, Japan began making a more powerful, chemically modified version of the drug called methamphetamine.
During World War II, many soldiers from both sides of the battle lines were using the drug for its stimulant effects in attempts to stay alert and focused during long battles and periods of calm. Notably, Japanese Kamikaze pilots were given methamphetamine prior to their missions.
When the war ended, Japan was inundated with the surplus supply of the drug, which lead to wide-range intravenous abuse in the country.
In post-war US, methamphetamine was medically approved to treat depression and, additionally, was prescribed as a weight loss aid.
During the same time, many people used the drug for non-medical reasons such as:
- Staying up to study for tests.
- Keeping alert and focused when driving long distances.
- Improving abilities in feats of strength and athletic completion.
With rates of abuse peaking during the 1960s, the decision was made by the government to restrict and regulate methamphetamine, which made it illegal for most uses in 1971.
Due to continued demand by the public, gangs began to control the manufacturing and circulation of the drug until the 1990s when drug trafficking organizations based in Mexico and the American southwest began creating larger batches of the drug with higher potency.
Currently, methamphetamine is sometimes produced in “super labs” that house professional-grade equipment to produce the drug at higher quantities and quality. However, more regularly, methamphetamine is produced in “home labs” or “stove tops” where a few people will produce small amounts of the substance.
Methamphetamine and crystal meth are sought after for their strong stimulating effects that can last from 6 to 8 hours. Sought-after “positive” effects include:
- Increased alertness.
- Increased energy.
- Higher interest in goal-directed behavior like completing certain tasks.
- An initial “rush” that can last for 30 minutes when smoked or injected.
- Perceptions of increased intelligence.
Methamphetamine creates these effects by flooding the brain with a chemical called dopamine – a neurotransmitter instrumental in reinforcing the brain’s reward pathways. The more dopamine available in the spaces between neurons in the brain called synapses, the more pleasure the user will experience. Once this pleasure occurs, the person becomes interested in repeating the experience to feel the same high as often as possible.
Who’s Abusing Methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine is a commonly viewed as a dangerous substance when used in non-medical situations. Despite the dangers, use remains high in the US and even higher overseas in Europe, Asia, and Australia.
As many as half of people that seek drug treatment in the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia, and Latvia seek it for addiction to methamphetamine.
As the above graph illustrates, the people abusing methamphetamines come from every corner of the world, with higher concentrations of people in the Czech Republic, Australia, and the Philippines. It is interesting to note that Japan, the country that had very high levels of abuse following World War II, now has a lower abuse rate.
According to the graph below, there is not a strong relationship between purity and rates of consumption – with Japan and Switzerland leading in high purity levels.
In the US, the Drug Enforcement Administration reports that:
- Only 16,000 prescriptions for methamphetamine were given in 2012.
- About 4,000 prescriptions were written in the first quarter of 2013 – maintaining the expected rate.
- The total legal production quota of methamphetamine in the U.S. for the year 2013 was less than 4,000 kilograms (less than 4 metric tons).
Compare this with reports of 500 metric tons being produced worldwide, and 42 metric tons of crystal meth being consumed in the US alone.
As noted in the bar graphs above, in 2013 about 12.3 million people over 12 years of age report using methamphetamine at some point during their lifetime. This number is only a slight decrease from 2012. The same decline is not shown when looking at the last year and last month non-medical use, as these numbers saw an increase. Also, note that:
- In 2013, about 30,000 more people admitted to using methamphetamine non-medically in the last year than in 2012.
- In 2013, about 15,000 more people admitted to using methamphetamine non-medically in the last month than in 2012.
- Of the 12.3 million users, about 530,000 of them are thought to be regular users.
Encouragingly—though, overall, the use of methamphetamine is steady or increasing—use among teenagers is showing a decline based on findings from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. They report lifetime use:
- By 8th graders was 1% in 2014 (down from 1.3% in 2011).
- By 10th graders was 1.4% in 2014 (down from 2.1% in 2011).
- By 12th graders was 1.9% in 2014 (down from 2.1% in 2011).
The Methamphetamine Market
As mentioned, the market for methamphetamine is high across various regions of the world. Since the legitimate production of the substance is so low, very little of the amount abused comes from diverted legitimate prescriptions – but from illicit manufacturing instead.
Methamphetamine has been a billion-dollar industry in the US for a number of years including an estimated $13 billion in 2010, down from a high of $23 billion in 2005.
The $13 billion spent annually on methamphetamine equates to a relatively high price per gram. Counterintuitively, the most money was made from the substance when it was the cheapest in 2005. Since then, the drug recovered in price, then dropped to $328 per one quarter of a gram in 2010.
Internet Searches on Methamphetamine
Methamphetamine-related spending follows the same trend as the volume of Internet searches for the drug. Consider the follow trends from Internet search queries for crystal meth:
- Search interest peaked in May of 2005.
- Search interest declined until July 2009 but has shown consistency since then.
- Search trends show that CA, NY, and TX have historically shown the most interest in the drug.
- Currently, Mississippi and Hawaii have overtaken California with increased Internet activity.
Is Methamphetamine Illegal?
Only people that receive one of the 16,000 yearly prescriptions for methamphetamine can use it legally.
The substance is a schedule II controlled substance, which means the Drug Enforcement Administration imposes restrictions including:
- Limits on manufacturing.
- Constraints on how prescriptions can be filled and refilled.
- Larger consequences for illegal usage, manufacturing and distribution.
Because of its relative ease of production with inexpensive materials, ingredients needed for methamphetamine manufacturing—such as pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in many cold medicine formulations—were made more difficult to obtain, especially in large quantities. These medicines are no longer available for unmonitored, over-the-counter sale in an attempt to limit availability for methamphetamine production.
Because of the drug’s legal status, authorities are active in tracking and seizing large quantities of it. Refer to the graphs for more information about seizures in the US (above) and around the world (below).
Legal Penalties of Using Methamphetamine
Illicit methamphetamine activity can carry strict legal consequences. Note the following:
- Methamphetamine is classified by the DEA as a Schedule II drug.
- Repeated trafficking of a Schedule II drug such as methamphetamine—even fewer than 50 grams—can carry a life sentence.
- State penalties for possession of Schedule II drugs can include prison sentences of up to 15 years.
- The effects of methamphetamine can cause impaired driving and lead to DUI charges.
How Dangerous Is Methamphetamine?
Directly and indirectly, methamphetamine is a dangerous substance and carries physical, psychological and social risks.
Meth abuse can lead to many physical health issues, including:
- High heart rate.
- High blood pressure.
- Weight loss.
- Skin picking.
- Skin infection or abscess (esp. if used intravenously).
- Elevated body temperature.
- Poor dental health known as “meth mouth.”
Meth use can lead to many mental health issues, including:
These effects can be difficult to reverse.
Social and Environmental Risks
The highly addictive nature of methamphetamine can lead to financial and relationship dangers since an addict can become hyperfocused on their next high, neglecting responsibilities like their job, children, and housing.
The production of methamphetamine creates large amounts of poisonous and toxic by-products that can pollute food, air, and objects in surrounds. People that never used methamphetamine can be killed from exposure.
The Drug Enforcement Administration paints a picture of the associated risks through the following statistics:
- Over 100,000 emergency department visits related to methamphetamine.
- More than 3,200 poisoning exposures have been reported to poison control due to methamphetamine.
- At its peak in 2005, methamphetamine was responsible for almost 4,500 deaths in the US alone.
The dangers of methamphetamine are not outweighed by the limited therapeutic benefits. This substance is cause for concern in the US and around the world.