Methamphetamine (more commonly known as “meth” or “crystal meth”) is a very strong stimulant of the amphetamine-type which is abused recreationally for its intense euphoric “high” and its aphrodisiac effects. It is typically available in the form of powder or off-white crystals which are most frequently smoked, but can be snorted or injected. Highly addictive, meth has had a catastrophic social impact in various parts of the world (including highly developed nations like the USA and Australia) and although certain forms of the drug are available for medicinal use (including, in tiny quantities, as over-the-counter medicine), in the form and volumes in which it could be abused recreationally meth is a prohibited substance and has attracted much attention from authorities desperate to limit its ravages. It is especially popular within certain sections of the homosexual community who value it for its libido-enhancing and orgasm-suppressing effects; however, its increasingly widespread availability means that its appeal stretches across social and demographic boundaries. Meth can be harmful even in small doses, and addiction can result very quickly; long-term meth abuse poses a number of serious implications for the health of the user and can result in death from any of a variety of causes.
Methamphetamine is derived from amphetamine, which was first synthesised in 1887. Six years later methamphetamine was discovered in Japan, and research began into its stimulant properties. Particular interest was shown by various national militaries; during the Second World War, methamphetamine tablets were sold in Germany and beyond under the brand name Pervitin, and its use was common in all branches of the Nazi Wehrmacht (armed forces) thanks to its performance-enhancing effects and to stave off sleep. However, as early as 1940 the German Army, in particular, restricted its use, as its aftereffects were pronounced and debilitative, and it had been associated with episodes of extreme violence and war crimes by soldiers taking it. After the war, methamphetamine saw a period of popularity as a diet drug and general stimulant and was increasingly used recreationally, but its addictive nature and negative side-effects saw governments begin to restrict its use; nevertheless, even once illegal methamphetamine became ever more widely available. In the UK, where meth use has not reached the levels seen in some other western countries, it is a Class-A controlled substance (the most serious classification); in the year to 2013, some 17,000 Britons were estimated to have taken meth (compared with around 2 million annual cannabis users). Some slang or “street” names for meth include ice; crank; Christina; Tina; fast.
There are a number of signs that a person may be using meth (some of which may resemble symptoms of the abuse of other substances, however, so try not to jump to conclusions without having as much evidence as possible), including:
A person using meth regularly is very likely to develop an addiction within a relatively short time; that level of substance abuse may result in a number of indirect signs that something is amiss, including:
If you think someone may be consuming meth, keep an eye out for certain paraphernalia which they may use, including small glass pipes, a lot of aluminium foil, and stained metal spoons (all of which may be blackened as a result of being held over a flame); needles/syringes for intravenous use, and laces or cords to act as a tourniquet; chopped-up straws or rolled-up pieces of paper or bank notes (for snorting).
Meth has a reputation as one of the most physically destructive of all recreational drugs, partly as a result of highly publicised campaigns showing the ‘faces of meth’: mugshots of people at the beginning of meth addiction compared with how they look after years of meth abuse. However, the potential health effects of long-term meth abuse go way beyond the merely cosmetic.
As with many other stimulants, as a result of its causing elevated heart rates (especially when combined with intense physical activity such as dancing or prolonged sexual intercourse) and higher blood pressure, long-term meth use can lead to significant problems for the heart and wider cardiovascular system which may result in heart attacks. Seizures and strokes may also prove fatal, both as a result of overdoses (which can also cause brain damage) and stemming from long-term use. Meth users frequently display “meth mouth”, severe damage to the teeth and gums resulting from poor dental hygiene, intense grinding of the teeth and poor nutrition; other aesthetically unpleasant effects can include skin conditions and infections (especially amongst users injecting the drug). Meth abuse reduces the efficacy of the immune system, placing the user at higher risk of illness which they might not otherwise have suffered. The increased tendency towards risky sexual behaviour also means that meth users are in greater danger of contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (a risk which grows dramatically if the user is participating in the drug-fuelled orgies with which meth is increasingly associated, particularly – though, of course, not only – within certain sections of the gay community).
An overdose of methamphetamine has a high likelihood of resulting in at least mild brain damage, with obvious consequences for mental health. However, even without overdosing a long-term user is at risk of developing a form of stimulant psychosis, which can include intense paranoia, hallucinations, delirium and prominent delusions, and which in up to around 15% of cases prove permanent to at least some degree. Users can develop a tendency towards obsessive behaviour, and can also experience bouts of anxiety and suicidal ideation – which can worsen dramatically during withdrawal, when an addict may also suffer from dysphoria, fatigue (often oscillating with insomnia), severe agitation and inanition. Withdrawal also typically results in depression, which for meth users is notoriously severe and longer-lasting than for those withdrawing from many other substances.
The intensely pleasurable effects of taking meth can inspire a user to want to take more of the drug soon after their first dose, and psychological addiction can begin to take hold very quickly as a user strives to repeat and retain those pleasurable sensations. This can be exacerbated, in the case of meth, by the circumstances in which the user has begun to experiment and the actions they performed under the influence: they may have enjoyed the experience of losing their inhibitions and doing things they might otherwise have not done and might want to seek out the drug to facilitate such activity in future. Whatever the circumstances, repeated use of methamphetamine causes the brain to alter the rate of production of certain chemicals linked with happiness and pleasure; as a result, the user may feel unable to experience those emotions in the absence of the drug and may crave methamphetamine in order to feel “normal” and to stave off the feelings of depression associated with withdrawal.
As with any addiction, meth abuse tends to be a very secretive activity and to produce feelings of shame and worthlessness in the addict. First and foremost, you should make it clear that you are willing and able to help the addict as long as they recognise that they have a problem and are determined to change: they must take that first step themselves, as no treatment for addiction is possible unless the addict truly wants to turn their life around. Reassure them that they are loved and that it’s not too late for them to lead a happy life. You may find it useful to do some research (either with the addict or by yourself) into rehab options (either in your area or – if you feel the addict needs to be kept well away from local temptations – some distance away) and the kind of treatment an addict should expect, including the various therapy options available and any support groups in your locality to help them avoid relapse once they have been through the rehab process. Always remember that going through detoxification without the assistance of a medical professional is highly dangerous, so do all you can to encourage the addict to speak with their GP before taking any steps to break their addiction independently.