Use of methamphetamine, a powerful and addictive stimulant, is rampant and spreading across the United States, reaching levels that have been called “epidemic.”
In places where it hasn’t been a problem in the past, it may seem to have come out of nowhere, but methamphetamine has been a fixture of the American drug scene for a long time.
A lot of recent news coverage has focused on the impact of methamphetamine among gay men, who are taking it, having risky sex, and possibly fanning the flames of HIV/AIDS. Michael Siever, PhD, director of the Stonewall Project, a San Francisco outreach program for gay men, says the drug is nothing new in his neighborhood.
From War to Prison
Like several other drugs that are now illegal, methamphetamine got off to a legitimate start. During World War II, soldiers on all sides were given the drug to help keep them in fighting form. Throughout the 1950s, doctors commonly prescribed methamphetamine as a diet pill and antidepressant, known by the brand name Methedrine. Learn more about prescription methamphetamine.
Today, there are many slang names for it, including “ice,” “crystal,” “glass,” “Tina,” “crank,” and just “meth.” Though it’s sometimes sold in pill form, meth mainly comes in the form of a white powder or crystals. It can be swallowed, snorted, injected, or as is becoming more common, smoked. Read more on why meth is so addictive.
When it’s smoked or injected, it brings on an immediate and intense euphoric rush that lasts several minutes. Taken other ways, the high comes on more gradually, producing an elevated sense of well-being, increased alertness and activity, and decreased appetite, which lasts up to 12 hours. The effects of meth are often compared to those of cocaine. Find out what methamphetamine intoxication looks like.
Meth works by flooding the brain with massive amounts of dopamine, a neurochemical normally released in small amounts in response to something pleasurable. It also raises blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and body temperature. It is not proven to cause cancer.
Of course, the high comes at a cost. When the drug wears off, dopamine in the brain is depleted, and users are left feeling depressed, fatigued, and irritable. After heavy use, some people become psychotic and paranoid, and they may experience a state of “anhedonia,” or an inability to feel any pleasure, which makes them crave the drug.
“It takes the brain months and months to recover,” Richard Rawson, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and assistant director of the Integrated Substance Abuse Programs at UCLA..
What’s more, research on rats and monkeys has shown that methamphetamine use may permanently damage the brain cells that make dopamine, as well as those that make serotonin, another brain chemical involved in pleasure. Recognize the symptoms of methamphetamine withdrawal.
Methamphetamine can be cooked up easily, just about anywhere, using common household ingredients — rubbing alcohol, drain cleaner, iodine, etc. — and equipment such as coffee filters, hotplates, and Pyrex dishes. Meth “cooks” taught others to make the drug, who in turn taught others.
By the mid-1980s, some Mexican drug cartels had gotten involved in the trade, but most meth was still produced locally at makeshift clandestine labs. Rawson says he learned from meetings with government drug officials that an agreement once existed between major West Coast meth dealers and East Coast cocaine traffickers that neither would move into the other’s side of the Mississippi River. Any such agreement must have fallen apart, because in recent years meth has been spreading eastward.
Why We Use
Methamphetamine lacks the glamour that movies and music have imparted to cocaine and heroin. Typical users still tend to be low-income and white.
“They take it because they want to work more hours and lose weight,” Rawson says. “It’s looked at as a functional tool, not a status symbol.”
Increase in sexually transmitted infections via meth-fueled gay orgies has gotten a lot of attention, but heterosexual men and women use it for sex, too.
“Methamphetamine is associated with sexual behavior like no other drug,” Rawson says.
In a study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, Rawson surveyed 464 alcohol, opiate, cocaine, and methamphetamine users about how their drug of choice related to their sexual thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Eighty percent of the male meth users identified themselves as heterosexual.
Meth users were the most likely to say their drug use heightened their sexual pleasure, that it made them obsessed with sex, and that they had sex more often while using the drug. They were also the most likely to say they had engaged in risky sexual behavior and sex acts that were unusual for them while on meth. Many also said that sex was so closely tied to their drug use that they would have difficulty separating the two.
There wasn’t much difference between the answers of men and women who used meth, but among cocaine users there was a significant gender difference, even though the two drugs have similar effects.
Meth enhances the sexual experience, but that’s not all. “Because it has such a long effect of 8-12 hours, and it can delay orgasms, people have these sexual marathons,” Rawson says.
Sleep doesn’t get in the way, either, as long as there’s a supply of meth. “You can get high and party for 24, 48, 72 hours without stopping,” Siever says.