Methamphetamine (meth, speed, chalk, ice, glass) is a highly addictive manufactured stimulant drug that affects the central nervous system. It’s a white, odorless, bitter-tasting crystalline powder that easily dissolves in water or alcohol. The drug was originally developed early last century to be used in nasal decongestants and bronchial inhalers. Although most methamphetamine is produced in “superlabs” outside of the United States, it is sometimes made with inexpensive over-the-counter ingredients in small, illegal home labs. The process of making methamphetamine takes about 48 hours and can be dangerous. Heating the solution produces toxic fumes and carries the risk of explosion, possibly resulting in burns or other serious health implications, including death.
Methamphetamine can be taken orally, snorted, injected, or smoked. Methods of methamphetamine use vary by geographical region and have changed over time. Methamphetamine alters the user’s mood in different ways, depending on how it is taken. If smoking or injecting intravenously, the user experiences an intense rush that lasts only a few minutes and is described as extremely pleasurable. Snorting produces effects within 3 to 5 minutes and oral ingestion produces effects within 15 to 20 minutes; both create the feeling of euphoria, without the “rush” felt by smoking or injecting.
Methamphetamine gives the user a feeling of euphoria and enhances mood by releasing very high levels of dopamine. Some people use it to stay awake for long periods of time. Compared with other stimulant drugs, such as cocaine, the effects of methamphetamine last longer because a larger amount of the drug remains present in the brain longer. And compared to other street drugs, methamphetamine tends to be less costly. As with other stimulants, methamphetamine is most often used in a “binge and crash” pattern. Because the pleasurable effects of methamphetamine disappear even before levels in the blood fall significantly, users try to maintain the high by taking more of the drug. Some people are prescribed methamphetamine for the treatment of narcolepsy or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. However, these are very limited uses and the doses are much lower than doses that are typically used illegally.
Methamphetamine can alter judgment and lower inhibitions, and lead users to engage in unsafe behaviors. Because methamphetamine use can increase libido, it has become associated with risky sexual behavior. At low doses, methamphetamine blocks dopamine re-uptake, while increasing the release of dopamine, which can be toxic to nerve terminals. It’s believed that this may lead to problems with movement, similar to those of Parkinson’s disease (muscle rigidity, tremors, and a slowing of physical movement). Even when taken in small amounts, methamphetamine can result in
- increased wakefulness
- increased physical activity
- decreased appetite
- increased respiration
- rapid heart rate
- irregular heartbeat
- increased blood pressure
- hyperthermia (heat stroke)
Other effects of methamphetamine abuse may include irritability, anxiety, insomnia, confusion, tremors, convulsions, heart attack and death.
As use continues, tolerance for the drug will increase. This means that users will need to take more of the drug more frequently to obtain the desired effects. Withdrawal symptoms include depression, anxiety, fatigue, and an intense craving for the drug.
Long-term use can lead to psychotic conditions, including paranoia, auditory or visual hallucinations, and delusions. These symptoms can last for months to years after methamphetamine use has stopped. For people with HIV, methamphetamine abuse can worsen the progression of HIV. Other long-term risks include:
- problems with muscle rigidity and tremors
- reduced motor speed and impaired verbal learning
- emotional and cognitive problems
- extreme anorexia
- memory loss
- severe dental problems
- increased risk of stroke
- For intravenous (IV) methamphetamine users, there is increased risk of hepatitis or HIV infection, and endocarditis (inflammation of the inner layer of the heart)
Some, but not all, of the effects of methamphetamine use have been shown to be reversible. One study showed an association with abstaining from methamphetamine use and improved performance on motor and verbal memory tests. However, function in other affected areas of the brain did not show improvement, even after 2 years of abstinence, indicating that some methamphetamine-induced changes are long lasting.
Some danger signs are:
- More frequent use
- Needing more and more to get the same effect
- Spending time thinking about using the drug
- Spending more money than you have on it
- Missing class or failing to finish assignments because of methamphetamine
- Making new friends who do it and neglecting old friends who don't
- If you find it's hard to be happy without it
- Erratic or unpredictable behavior.
If you find that you can't stop using methamphetamine, there's help available.
Users of methamphetamine can become addicted very quickly. Methamphetamine destroys the brain’s dopamine receptors and without the drug, users fall into a deep depression and have difficulty expressing pleasure. As use continues, users will need higher doses more often to combat withdrawal symptoms.
Treatment for addiction requires comprehensive cognitive-behavioral therapy. Because the methamphetamine has trained users to associate all pleasure with the drug, they often need counseling to help them cope with their cravings, examine the issues that led to the abuse, and help them avoid situations that may cause a relapse
Although it can be prescribed, nonprescription use of methamphetamine is illegal and its possession, use, and sale carry heavy prison sentences and fines and disciplinary consequences at Brown. See the Brown University Policy on Drugs on the Student Rights and Responsibilities web site.
If you are concerned about a friend's drug or alcohol use, this page contains information about different ways to help them.
If you or a friend are having trouble with drugs or alcohol, or just have questions, there is help available.
National Institute on Drug Abuse
NIDA drug pages have research reports, statistics and information on addiction.
Frontline: The Meth Epidemic
Stream this PBS program to learn more about methamphetamine in the United States, including the geographic progression of the epidemic, the drug’s impact on child abuse and neglect, and the regulation of over-the-counter drugs to decrease production. Also included on the web site is additional information on methamphetamine, FAQs, videos, maps, and other interactive features.
A five-part series on methamphetamine published in The Oregonian.
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