Methamphetamine highly toxic to emotions and lives
By Hannah Penfield
By most expert opinions, methamphetamine is the most dangerous drug known to man. According to drugfree.org, the drug goes by many aliases: meth, crank, crystal, glass. The most telling name for it, however, is “the monster.”
Meth looks like a large, rock-like chunk that flakes off into a powdered substance that looks like glass. Depending on the purity, it is generally either white or yellow, according to drugfree.org. It can be taken orally, injected, snorted, or smoked.
At first glance, one can understand the allure of meth. Immediately after the person smokes or injects the drug, they experience an intense, pleasurable feeling called a “rush” or a “flash.” Snorting or swallowing meth causes a euphoric high rather than a rush. After the initial effects, users generally experience severe agitation that can lead to violence. Drugfree.org reports other effects such as wakefulness or insomnia, decreased appetite, or anxiety.
During meth use, a user will most likely experience a loss of inhibitions, a false sense of control and confidence, and an increased libido. According to drugfree.org, this makes meth users susceptible to hepatitis and HIV because of their unsafe sexual practices. Users can also contract these diseases from sharing needles. Some studies written about it on drugfree.gov even suggest that meth use after the contraction of HIV can speed up the progress of the disease.
However, the long-term effects highlight the deadly threat of meth. It is highly addictive and users can develop a tolerance quickly, according to drugfree.org. Often users will spend days “bingeing,” or using the drug continuously. Binges can result in three to five sleepless days, although some sleepless binges last as long as 15 days. As they “crash,” users will experience depression, paranoia, and aggression, followed by a collapse from exhaustion in which the user sleeps for long periods of time.
Additionally, according to drugfree.org, chronic meth use can cause paranoia, hallucinations, or repetitive behaviors, such as compulsively cleaning or grooming. Delusions can also occur, including the feeling of parasites or insects crawling under the user’s skin. Long-term usage can cause complete psychosis, often displayed through violent behavior and paranoia. Meth use has even been known to cause strokes and death.
Sergeant John T. Scruggs is a police officer in the Neighborhood Response Team (NRT) in the Portland, Oregon police department. He has had many encounters with meth users and has seen the effects. “We’ve had incidents where people high on meth have gone into a psychotic rage,” he says, “punching out windows, screaming, chasing people, and running into traffic.”
“Meth use increases the likelihood that an offender will be violent,” adds Scruggs. “We’ve also had incidents where a person [who] was high on meth showed unbelievable strength and a high tolerance to pain.”
Scruggs has one particularly memorable experience of “a naked man running through yards and jumping fences on a 30 degree night. We received multiple calls from neighbors saying they just had [a] guy run [through] their yards, yelling and grunting.” He continues, “The guy was running so far and fast that it took us over 45 minutes to finally catch him. Officers had to wrestle the guy to the ground as he was sweating, grunting, and screaming.”
“As we waited for an ambulance to transport him to a hospital for the methamphetamine overdose [and] psychosis, there was steam coming off his body,” he says. “I looked at his feet and noticed he had worn all the way through his skin on the bottom of his feet and he was bleeding profusely.” Scruggs concludes, “I [remember] looking into his eyes and I can only describe his look as pure rage.”
Meth use can also have a toll on physical appearance. According to the American Dental Association’s website, ada.org, meth can have severe oral health effects, causing what is known as “meth mouth.” Meth can cause xerostomia, or dry mouth, which reduces the amount of saliva produced and makes teeth more susceptible to decay. Also, during binges and crashes, users often abandon oral hygiene. They are also likely to grind or clench their teeth.
Scruggs has seen meth’s physical toll in person. He says that the drug’s “most common indicator is a bad complexion and rotting teeth.” He adds, “Prolonged meth use will also result in teeth rotting and [falling] out.” In addition to meth mouth, he has observed “bleeding sores and scratch marks from self-inflicted itching and scratching.” Lastly, “it is common for hard-core meth user to look significantly older than they really are.”
Various household ingredients can be used to make meth. These include over-the-counter cold medications, drain cleaner, battery acid, lye, lantern fuel, and antifreeze, according to drugfree.org. Cooking meth produces highly toxic fumes, vapors, and spillage; these are combustible and hazardous to both people and the environment.
Despite meth’s deadly effects, young people still use and abuse the drug. According to the Monitoring the Future Survey, a study of American young adults, in 2008, 2.8 percent of high school seniors reported having used the drug at least once in their lives. A smaller, but still concerning, 1.2 percent had used meth at least once in the last year. Comparatively, 2.8 percent of seniors reported trying crack cocaine at least once, and 1.6 percent reported using crack in the last month.
Other disturbing effects of meth are being discovered through the latest research. This includes meth’s continuing effect on the brain after a user quits. According to drugabuse.gov, long-term meth users can stop feeling pleasure or happiness from anything besides the drug. This makes the drug especially difficult to give up.
New information is becoming known as scientists using brain imaging techniques study meth users’ brains. According to drugabuse.gov, scientists have discovered that even three years after chronic meth users had quit using the drug, the dopamine and serotonin neurons in their brain were still damaged. This helps to explain why users who no longer take meth continue to not feel happiness, be paranoid, and have hallucinations months or even years after their use has stopped.
The damage to the dopamine system may also have other effects. Brain imaging studies have shown that damage occurs in areas of the system associated with reduced motor speed and impaired verbal learning. Recent studies have also shown severe structural and functional changes in the brain which may explain emotional and cognitive problems observed in meth abusers. Meth can also cause permanent damage to blood vessels in the brain, making strokes still possible after quitting.
Scientists have also compared meth to its fellow stimulant, cocaine. According to drugabuse.gov, many argue that meth is a “worse” drug than cocaine. While 50 percent of cocaine is quickly metabolized and removed from the body in just one hour, the same amount of meth is removed after a full 12 hours. This indicates meth is present in the brain longer and therefore has prolonged effects. Also, cocaine is plant-derived while meth is man-made; this isn’t a valid argument except in considering that users never can be sure what exactly is in the meth they have.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse, found at nida.nih.gov, has collected data on drug-related emergency department (ED) visits to hospitals. The most recent data, from 2003, shows that stimulants, or amphetamines and methamphetamine, were involved in nearly seven percent of all drug-related ED visits. For non-emergency visits due to drug abuse or misuse, stimulants accounted for 10 percent of visits. NIDA also has data of the admissions to publicly-funded substance abuse treatment programs, most recently from 2006. In that year, 8.7 percent of people were admitted because of stimulants.
Another devastating effect of meth is the formation of meth labs. Most meth labs are now located in Mexico. Scruggs explains, “Meth labs in Oregon are very rare now, due to restrictive legislation on the sale of precursors. Oregon, like many states, has limited the quantity of products that people can buy that contain pseudoephedrine, a necessary ingredient in the making of methamphetamine.”
However, Scruggs has seen local meth labs as well. “Every lab I have seen or discovered [has] been inside very messy houses,” he says. “The labs have had all kinds of corrosives lying around with the living conditions in the rest of the house totally filthy.” He adds, “Meth labs are mostly discovered through the chemical smells, during a call for service for something unrelated, citizen informants, through traffic stops, and explosions and house fires.”
Meth users and cooks are not the only ones affected by labs. According to methamphetamine.org, approximately 40 percent of home-based labs seized have young children living in or adjacent to the lab. In addition to neglect, the children can be harmed by the toxic ingredients and fumes from cooking meth. The ingredients and process are both highly combustible, so labs often catch on fire or explode.
Preliminary data has shown that about 38 percent of children removed from California meth labs have tested positive for meth, according to methamphetamine.org. These children also had higher-than-expected incidences of respiratory, dermatological, and dental problems. Other data from San Bernardino County, California, found that 43 percent of children removed from meth labs had abnormal medical exam results following the seizure. A further 42 percent of developmental exams showed at least one developmental delay or two cautions also known as signs of possible future delays.
Even a child who does not live in a meth lab, but who lives with a meth user, can have serious issues stemming from the presence of the drug. According to the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare (ncsacw.samhsa.gov), children can ingest meth through secondhand meth smoke. In addition, parents high on meth may become violent or not provide adequate supervision, resulting in abuse and neglect. Often, they live in poor conditions, lacking food, water, gas, and electricity; many children [also] lack medical care, dental care, and immunizations.
According to NCSACW, children are more likely than adults to have negative health effects from exposure to chemicals. Children have higher metabolic rates, their skeletal and nervous systems are still developing, and their skin is thinner and absorbs chemicals faster. Also, some fumes or gases heavier than air sink down to the level of a child walking or crawling.
Scruggs has witnessed the horrific effects of meth on children. “Meth addicts have left children unattended for long periods of time or have not provided food to eat,” he says. “We’ve also found children that have become victims of physical and sexual abuse,” Scruggs adds. “Most meth houses are extremely filthy[...] We’ve found kids crawling around in the mess and chemicals.”
Despite the destruction meth has had and continues to have on children, families, governments, and police, Scruggs believes there is hope. “Education, prevention, treatment, mental health care, and law enforcement combined is the only strategy that will be successful” in stopping meth abuse, he says. Scruggs also believes “a change in societal attitudes” is necessary. “The less people [who accept] drug use or tolerate it by their peers, friends, and relatives, the less people will use or try drugs,” he says.
Scruggs also believes that meth users can ultimately recover “if they quit soon enough.” He explains, “I know a very successful apartment manager who was addicted to meth and lost her kids. She went to jail, got clean, and was finally able to get her kids back.” He concludes, “She then worked her way up and now manages a large apartment complex.”
To help combat meth’s devastating effects, drugfree.org has multiple suggestions. They recommend volunteering at a local treatment center, hospital, or burn center, or offering time to social workers helping youth whose parents are addicted. Also, advocating for an in-school meth education program at PTA meetings can be helpful. Joining a meth education, support, or activist group is simple but very helpful. Lastly, look to bigger organizations and groups in the community for help; these include newspapers and TV stations, places of faith, neighborhood watch programs, colleges and universities, and parents’ organizations.