Here’s What Happened While Everyone Else Was Focused on Opiate Abuse

While the opiate epidemic took center stage, meth abuse quietly rose to new heights.

With the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation, heroin and painkiller abuse have been in the spotlight for treatment providers and law enforcement. While all eyes have been focused on this front, we may have ignored another battle that needs greater attention: since 2014, meth use has risen 30 percent.

Between 2010 and 2015, regular use of meth increased from three percent of the population to four percent. Based on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control, 3,700 Americans died from drug overdoses involving methamphetamine in 2014. This is twice the number from 2010.

By 2015, this number had risen to nearly 4,900 deaths for the year. Based on what federal officials have learned from the spread of opioids, they suspect methamphetamine use will grow even more.

The Meth Customer Journey

Back in the ’90s, we saw a similar surge in meth use. That epidemic involved meth lab explosions that captured headlines and brought the issue to the forefront. Today, these incidents are somewhat of a rarity. After all the lab incidents of the ’90s, federal and state laws restricted the sale of over-the-counter cold medicine. This led to a drastic decrease in US meth labs.

These efforts seemed to help, but now many people assume if the number of meth labs are down, meth use must also also down. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Meth use is still happening, it’s just that the supply is now coming from Mexico.

According to the DEA, the majority of meth is smuggled across the Southwest border. It flows into Arizona, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, up to Montana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and all across the south. The drug’s street price is fairly low and its purity is high, making it much more appealing than the risk of cooking it up stateside.

Some areas are being hit particularly hard with this surge in meth use. Last year, Oklahoma saw 328 overdose deaths. In 2015, this number was 271. This yearly death toll from meth has outgrown the number of deaths from prescription painkillers. In Minnesota, 11,600 individuals were admitted for meth treatment in 2016. In 2005, that number was around 6,700.

Ken Roy, medical director for Addiction Recovery Resource in New Orleans, noted, “What we’re seeing is that the use of methamphetamines has recently moved out of trailer parks and rural areas and into inner cities…It used to be the only way we got meth patients was when they came to the hospital from rural areas.”

What Makes Meth So Dangerous?

Methamphetamine – also known as meth, crystal meth, crank, speed, ice, and crystal – is a potent stimulant. It causes destructive long-term effects including skin lesions, rotting teeth, and heart and kidney failure. Its use causes a sense of elation and hypervigilance. Meth users may binge on the drug for days without eating or sleeping, causing paranoid and aggressive behavior.

Unlike opioids, which affect the user’s breathing and can cause instant overdose and death, meth has a lower potential for overdose. But don’t misunderstand; it does occur.

Methamphetamine death is usually caused by stroke or heart attack as the body suffers from overheating and over-stimulation. Many users eventually die from long-term use that results in organ failure, but for some reason, these deaths are typically not counted in overdose statistics.

Can Our Healthcare System Survive the Strain?

Officials are now looking at a meth epidemic on top of the already overwhelming opioid crisis. SAMHSA Director Johnson pointed out that “…the addiction treatment workforce has not grown in proportion to the growth in overall drug use” since the first wave of meth flooded the US. The concern is that fighting both battles will severely strain the country’s already ailing healthcare system. Johnson also noted, “I don’t think what we’ve done to scale up access to treatment for opioid disorders is going to be that helpful for methamphetamines.”

Treatment providers will have to focus on meth-specific strategies if the goal is to curb the rise in use. Somehow, we need to continue our focus on the opioid crisis, while also turning our attention to a growing meth problem that’s threatening to become an epidemic of its own.

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