In contrast with cocaine, methamphetamine has a longer duration of action, is cheaper and is easily made with commonly available ingredients.
Developed in the early 20th century, methamphetamine was first used during World War II to help keep soldiers awake. After the war, it became a popular diet aid and non-prescription stimulant among college students, truck drivers, athletes and homemakers.
Methamphetamine's dangerous addictive properties eventually became widely evident, and in the 1970s, the drug was added to the list of controlled substances. Methamphetamine is illegal except for when it is prescribed by a physician for a very limited number of medical conditions.
Because of its evolved potency and the ease of its production, methamphetamine remains a serious drug of abuse. Long-term methamphetamine use is associated with many devastating effects to both the user and society.
Here are some key points about methamphetamine. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- After cannabis, methamphetamine is the second most used illicit drug, with an annual global prevalence estimated at 0.4%
- Methamphetamine dominates the global market for synthetic drugs
- The majority of domestic methamphetamine is produced in "Mom-and-Pop" cook laboratories in home kitchens, workshops, recreational vehicles and rural cabins
- Using methamphetamine during adolescence is associated with adulthood depression
- Violent behaviors are common among methamphetamine users
- Methamphetamine is neurotoxic, capable of damaging dopamine and serotonin neurons in the brain
- Illicitly manufactured methamphetamine may include drain cleaner, ephedrine, antifreeze, lantern fuel, battery acid, hydrochloric acid, acetone (fertilizer), red phosphorus (matches or road flares) and lye
- Methamphetamine is commonly used as for its aphrodisiac effects and is related to higher frequencies of unprotected sexual intercourse
- The effects of methamphetamines can last for several hours whereas the effects of cocaine typically last less than 1 hour
- Studies in chronic methamphetamine users have shown structural and functional changes in the brain associated with emotion and memory, some of which may be irreversible
- If used during pregnancy, methamphetamine is associated with premature delivery, vaginal bleeding, smaller than normal fetuses and sudden death of the mother or developing fetus
- Methamphetamine toxicity is increased when it is combined with alcohol, cocaine or opiates.
What is methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine, a variant of amphetamine, was first synthesized in Japan in 1893 from the precursor chemical ephedrine. It is a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that easily dissolves in water or alcohol. It can be smoked, snorted, injected or ingested orally. It also is administered rectally (butt rocket or plugging).
Methamphetamine is one of the most commonly used illicit drugs in the world.
Smoking or injecting methamphetamine causes an immediate, intense "rush" or bliss that lasts for a few minutes. Snorting does not produce the intense rush but rather a euphoric high within 3-5 minutes of ingestion. The oral effects can be felt within 20 minutes.
Depending on how the methamphetamine is ingested, the effects of the drug can last for 6-24 hours.
As with many stimulants, methamphetamine is most often abused in a "binge and crash" pattern. Users try to maintain the high by taking more of the drug before the first dose wears off. Some abusers binge for several days, withholding food and sleep while continually using until they finally run out of the drug.
The pleasurable effects of methamphetamine result from the release of very high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, the brain chemical involved in motivation, pleasure and motor function. However, the elevated release of dopamine is also thought to contribute to the drug's toxic effects on these nerve terminals in the brain.
What makes methamphetamine different and more dangerous than other stimulants is that a larger percentage of the drug remains unchanged in the body. This allows the drug to be present in the brain longer, extending the stimulant effects.
Common abused doses are 100-1,000 mg a day, and up to 5,000 mg a day in chronic binge use.
When prescribed to treat legitimate medical conditions such as narcolepsy, doses of are 2.5-10 mg daily, with dosing not to exceed 60 mg a day.
Extent of methamphetamine use
Typical methamphetamine users are white, in their 20s or 30s, and have a high school education or better. Almost as many women use methamphetamine as men, and use has spread to adolescents. Methamphetamine use is widespread in the US but varies regionally, with higher use in Hawaii, the West and parts of the Midwest.
Methamphetamine is manufactured in "superlabs," with the bulk of methamphetamine on the US market coming from California or Mexico. However, the drug is also easily made in home laboratories with relatively inexpensive over-the-counter ingredients such as pseudoephedrine. It is often mixed with other substances, including caffeine, talc and other toxic additives.
The Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 requires pharmacies and retail stores to keep pseudoephedrine and ephedrine products behind the counter while requiring a log of consumer identification and the amount of product purchased.
One form of methamphetamine is crystal meth. For further information on this specific form of methamphetamine visit our Knowledge Center page - Crystal Meth: Facts, Effects and Addiction.
Side effects of methamphetamine
Methamphetamine causes increased activity and talkativeness, decreased appetite and a pleasurable sense of well-being or euphoria. It removes tiredness and brings a feeling of power and self-control.
Commonly experienced effects include:
Chronic methamphetamine users can experience severe tooth decay
- Increased attention
- Decreased fatigue
- Increased physical activity
Side effects of methamphetamine include:
- Increased distractibility
- Dry mouth
- Dilated pupils
- Muscle twitching
- Memory loss
- Aggressive or violent behavior
- Mood disturbances
- Severe dental problems
- Weight loss
- Skin sores
- Rapid or irregular heart rate
- Increased blood pressure.
Health risks of methamphetamine use
Methamphetamine has a high potential for abuse and dependence. Tolerance develops quickly, and users may become psychologically addicted within a relatively short space of time.
Chronic methamphetamine use can lead to psychiatric symptoms such as paranoia, hallucinations and delusions.
The reason methamphetamine is so addictive is because a large amount of dopamine remains in the brain cells synapses for long periods of time after use. The dopamine keeps the cells activated, allowing the user to experience the powerful feelings of euphoria.
After a while, the user is unable to naturally produce dopamine and requires the drug to feel normal, needing larger doses to experience feelings of pleasure.
Abrupt discontinuation of methamphetamine does not cause a physical withdrawal (like heroin) but rather results in extreme fatigue, mental depression, irritability, apathy and disorientation.
Elevated body temperature and seizures can occur with overdose, and if not treated immediately, a methamphetamine overdose can result in death.
Methamphetamine users are at an increased risk of heart problems such as chest pain, abnormal heart rhythm and high blood pressure. A user can consequently die from a heart attack, acute aortic dissection or sudden cardiac death even after their first use of the drug.
Long-term methamphetamine users can experience:
Long-term methamphetamine users can also experience the following symptoms of psychosis (methamphetamine psychosis):
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
- Mood disturbances
- Delusions such as the sensation of insects creeping on or under the skin.
Paranoia can result in homicidal or suicidal thoughts. Researchers have reported that as much as 50% of the dopamine-producing cells in the brain can be damaged after prolonged exposure to relatively low levels of methamphetamine.
Psychotic symptoms can last for months or years after a person has stopped methamphetamine use, and can spontaneously recur.
Methamphetamine abuse can also cause tooth decay so severe that the majority of teeth either rot (meth mouth) or require extraction. Reasons for tooth decay are believed to be from dry mouth, increased consumption of sugary drinks, teeth clenching and grinding and a general lack of dental hygiene.
Illicit drug manufacturers are called "cooks" and are at risk for numerous injuries related to the production of methamphetamine. Anyone in the vicinity of a methamphetamine laboratory is also at risk of exposure to chemicals, including children.
Withdrawal symptoms of methamphetamine use
Withdrawal syndrome can occur within 24 hours of the last dose of methamphetamine.
Symptoms of withdrawal include:
- Drug craving
- Poor concentration
- Unpleasant dreams
- Sleeplessness or sleepiness
- Increased appetite.
Symptoms vary considerably in intensity and duration, and typically last between 7-10 days.
Treatment for methamphetamine addiction
There are currently no available medications for methamphetamine addiction.
The most effective treatments at this point are behavioral approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy, family education, individual counseling and a 12-Step support model.
Impulsivity, sensation-seeking and substance abuse have long been linked. Although individuals who abuse drugs are known to act impulsively and have subtly different neuroanatomy, it is not clear whether these changes are the cause or the effect of the abuse. A new study investigates these links further.
A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry paints a bleak picture of the current state of drug addiction in the US.
Methamphetamine is a powerfully addictive psychostimulant and dangerous drug of abuse. Users may die from the severe stimulant effects on the heart or may suffer brain damage, including memory loss and extreme mood swings.
Methamphetamine abuse carries serious significant health repercussions for not only the user but also their family, the economy and society at large.