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Methamphetamine: Something Else to Worry About

June 27, 2014  |  Falmouth Enterprise

Dr. Michael Bihari

Earlier this month police uncovered a methamphetamine lab in a house in Falmouth, the first documented such lab on the Cape. Although other parts of the country, especially the midwest and southwest (think “Breaking Bad”), have been plagued by the use of methamphetamine, there has been a noticeable increase in use of the drug in New England in the past several years.  

Methamphetamine is highly addictive and can cause a number of physical and mental health issues, including anxiety and confusion, insomnia, mood changes, dental problems (known as “meth mouth”) and unsafe and violent behaviors. Aside from the cost to an individual, meth poses a threat to a community with an increase in crime, the spread of toxic materials used in meth labs, and the tax dollars needed for extra police work and environmental cleanup. 

The following information about methamphetamine is from the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

How Meth Is Abused

Methamphetamine comes in several forms and can be smoked (the most common method), inhaled (snorted), injected, or orally ingested. Smoking or injecting meth puts the drug very quickly into the bloodstream and brain, causing an immediate, intense “rush” and enhancing the drug’s potential for addiction and adverse health consequences. The rush lasts only a few minutes and is described as extremely pleasurable. Snorting or oral ingestion produces euphoria—a high, but not an intense rush. 

Methamphetamine is most often abused in a “binge and crash” pattern. Because the pleasurable effects of the drug disappear even before the concentration of the drug in the blood falls significantly, users try to maintain the high by taking more of the drug. In some cases, an abuser indulges in a form of binging known as a “run,” foregoing food and sleep while continuing to take the drug for up to several days.

How Meth Is Produced

Most of the methamphetamine abused in this country is manufactured in “superlabs” in Mexico controlled by drug cartels. However, the drug can easily be made in small clandestine laboratories (such as the one found in Falmouth), with inexpensive over-the-counter products such as pseudoephedrine, a common ingredient in cold medications. 

To curb production of methamphetamine, Congress passed the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act in 2005, which requires that pharmacies and other retail stores keep logs of purchases of products containing pseudoephedrine and limits the amount of those products an individual can purchase per day. Locally, cold medications containing pseudoephedrine are kept behind the pharmacy counter. 

But manufacturers of meth adapt to these restrictions via small- or large-scale “smurfing” operations: obtaining pseudoephedrine from multiple sources, below the legal thresholds, using multiple false identifications. 

The production of meth also involves a number of other easily obtained chemicals that are hazardous. Toxicity from these chemicals can remain in the environment around a meth lab long after the lab has been shut down.

Health Effects of Meth

As a powerful stimulant, methamphetamine, even in small doses, can increase wakefulness and physical activity and decrease appetite. Methamphetamine can also cause a variety of cardiovascular problems, including rapid heart rate, irregular heartbeat, and increased blood pressure. Hyperthermia (elevated body temperature) and convulsions may occur with methamphetamine overdose, and if not treated immediately, can result in death.

Long-term abuse of methamphetamine has many negative health-related consequences, including addiction. As is the case with many drugs, tolerance to meth’s pleasurable effects develops when it is taken repeatedly. Someone who abuses the drug often needs to take a higher dose, take it more frequently, or change how it is taken in an effort to get the desired effect. Chronic abusers of meth may develop difficulty feeling any pleasure other than that provided by the drug, fueling further abuse. Symptoms of stopping or withdrawal from meth include depression, anxiety, fatigue, and an intense craving for the drug.

In addition to addiction, the long-term abuse of meth may cause significant anxiety, confusion, insomnia, mood disturbances, and violent behavior. Someone who is a chronic abuser of the drug may develop psychotic behavior, including paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, and delusions (for example, the sensation of insects creeping under the skin). Psychotic symptoms can sometimes last for months or years after a person has quit abusing methamphetamine, and stress has been shown to precipitate spontaneous recurrence of methamphetamine psychosis in formerly psychotic methamphetamine abusers.

These and other problems reflect significant changes in the brain caused by abuse of methamphetamine. Research studies in chronic meth abusers have shown severe structural and functional changes in areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory.

Additionally, long-term meth users also suffer physical effects, including weight loss, severe tooth decay and tooth loss (“meth mouth”), and skin sores. The dental problems may be caused by a combination of poor nutrition and dental hygiene as well as dry mouth and teeth grinding caused by the drug. Skin sores are the result of picking and scratching the skin to get rid of insects imagined to be crawling under it.

Recommended Resources

Drugs + Your Body: An interactive site for teens about the impact of drug abuse on the body. The site includes a Meth-a-Morphosis to demonstrate the effects of meth.

Drug Facts for Teens: Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine Research Report: An in-depth review of the meth problem

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