Killer Meth: America’s Greatest Drug Threat

Killer Meth: America’s Greatest Drug Threat

Five years is a long time in the evolution of drug use. In August 2005, Newsweek magazine published a story claiming that meth was “America’s Most Dangerous Drug.” A lot has changed in the drug landscape in America since then, and it’s gotten to the point where many experts believe that killer meth is America’s greatest drug threat.

The Newsweek article cited federal estimates that more than 12 million Americans had tried methamphetamine, and that 1.5 million were regular users of the drug. A 2006 Frontline story, “The Reach of Meth,” said that there are now more than 1.4 million Americans using meth on a regular basis.

The Combat Meth Act was passed in 2006 and required minimum standards for retailers in the U.S. for selling products containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine (the precursors for making meth). In essence, sales per retailer were limited to 3.6 grams of base ingredient per day, 9 grams per 30 days, buyers had to provide identification and sign a sales log, products had to be kept behind the counter, and the retailer had to register online with the U.S. Attorney General.

Meth’s Reach Today

That was then, this is now.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) state factsheets ( show just how large the problem has grown. In California, to cite one example, with data reported as of 2008, methamphetamine is the primary drug threat. Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) continue to dominate both the production and distribution of high-quality meth. In addition, a secondary trafficking group consists of Caucasians operating clandestine meth labs in several areas of the state. These meth labs can be in densely populated residential areas, sparsely populated rural areas, sites in northern California mountains, and remote southern California desert locations.

Meth seizures and busts of meth labs in the state has declined in recent years, while there has been an increase in meth labs south of the border. In the state, according to the DEA, Caucasians and Hispanics are almost the exclusive consumers of the drug, whose purity levels have ranged from a low of 10 percent to a high of 100 percent. Increased law enforcement efforts have cut down the importation of the precursor pseudoephedrine from Canada into the U.S., but the slack has been picked up by China. In addition, restrictions on pseudoephedrine imported from Mexico, power struggles between the five Mexican drug cartels, and stepped-up law enforcement by the current Mexican government has significantly impacted meth production and distribution into the greater Los Angeles area.

In central and western Iowa, the DEA factsheet ( reveals that methamphetamine remains the principal drug of concern. The state has large Mexican communities and a significant illegal immigrant problem – particularly with Mexican nationals. Meth in Iowa comes through the Hispanic trafficking organizations and from illegal meth labs within the state. In fact, the decrease in purity of the Mexican “ice” has led to an increase in the use of higher-purity meth produced in toxic local labs. Thefts of anhydrous ammonia (used to manufacture meth) are up and the meth labs get around the laws by having friends and family members purchase of large quantities of pseudoepedrine pills from local retailers (a practice known as “smurfing”).

These are just two snapshots of a problem that today affects every state in this country.

And the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.

How Meth Kills

Everything about meth is dangerous. Those who try the drug quickly become hooked. In fact, this can happen after just one time. Once you’re hooked, there is no cure. There isn’t even any currently available medication that can assist in treatment. Long-term therapy is about the only option – and there are no guarantees with that, either.

The truth is that meth changes how the user’s brain works. Researchers have learned a lot about the effects of the drug on the human brain during the past decade. And what they’ve found should cause anyone contemplating using meth to step back and reconsider what they risk. The changes that occur affect the way users think, feel, and behave.

Meth use inflicts structural damage on the brain. This has been shown by brain imaging scans. Meth reduces mental flexibility, the ability to think abstractly, solve problems, and manipulate information. Parts of the brain develop a tolerance of the drug, leading users to require more of it and more often. At the same time, other parts of the brain become hyper-sensitized to meth, which, after a period of long-term use, can lead to delusions and hallucinations – even with small amounts of the drug.

Prolonged use of meth results in severe psychological and physical effects. Psychological effects, and associated risks, include:

• Paranoia – This can result in domestic violence, child abuse, shootings, knifings, and other violent behavior.

• Depression – Meth users frequently suffer from depression, either before, during, or after meth use. What happens is that meth causes the body to release large amounts of dopamine, which results in the feel-good euphoria meth users crave. Over repeated use, however, meth depletes the brain’s dopamine supply and damages or destroys the wiring of dopamine receptors. This is the main cause of users becoming addicted to the drug. Without the constant high from the dopamine, they may no longer to feel pleasure from anything, a condition known as anhedonia. Users then typically fall into a deep depression.

• Delusions – During extended periods of sobriety (non-use of meth), the user can be plagued by delusional flashback episodes.

• Anxiety – Ever-present, anxiety thwarts the user’s ability to function normally.

• Hallucinations – The hallucinations that often accompany paranoia caused by meth use are often indistinguishable from schizophrenia.

• Thoughts of suicide – Suicidal thoughts are especially prevalent after coming down from an extended period of meth use.

Physical effects are equally frightening. Regular use can cause cardiovascular problems, including irregular heartbeat, and increased heart rate and blood pressure. Smoking meth can lead to pulmonary hypertension or edema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or other lung ailments. Acute meth intoxication or overdose can lead to the kidneys shutting down, stroke, heart attack, severe hyperthermia, and convulsions.

And that’s just some of the physical dangers.

Injecting meth puts the user at risk for severe infections at the injection sites, HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C infection. One recent study put the rate hep-C infection among meth injectors at 43.8 percent.

Meth use affects the skin and mouth. Teeth discolor and rot away. This is called “meth mouth” and is due to the acidic nature of the drug, lowered production of saliva in the mouth, and the increased meth-related cravings for sugary soft drinks, poor dental hygiene, and other effects of meth.

Meth users often scratch their skin uncontrollably, feeling that bugs are actually crawling beneath their skin. It is not uncommon to see long-term meth users with scars all over their bodies, as well as fresh, infected wounds with pus oozing out of them. Serious disfigurement and permanent damage can result.

But meth also affects more than the users. The small-time meth producers, called “batchers,” often blow themselves up in the process of cooking a batch. That’s not uncommon, either. Some of the ingredients or chemicals used (and meth cooks are always experimenting with and using cheaper ingredients) include:

• Acetone – extremely flammable, it is slightly toxic at typical concentrations, but in higher levels of potency, it depresses the body’s central nervous system.

• Anhydrous ammonia – which will rip through human flesh to join with water, its natural state. High level exposure can cause the throat to swell, resulting in breathing problems, or inflict chemical burns on the lungs.

• Battery acid – Also called sulfuric acid, it causes burns to the throat and any other areas with which it comes into contact once ingested. Battery acid is also highly reactive with other chemicals, producing toxic fumes.

• Benzene – Once an additive in gasoline, benzene, a carcinogen was removed because of harmful effects to human health and the environment. Benzene causes confusion, dizziness, rapid heart rate, and unconsciousness. It also breaks down the DNA structure, and damages vital organs.

• Chloroform – Once used as an anesthetic during surgery (but since abandoned because of its tendency to cause fatal cardiac arrhythmia), chloroform depresses the central nervous system.

• Drain cleaner – Yes, drain cleaner is used by meth cooks. This substance chemically burns the lining of the mouth, esophagus, and stomach.

• Ephedrine – A compound used as a stimulant, to treat hypertension, and for use as an appetite suppressant. It has been illegal to sell dietary supplements containing ephedrine since 2006, following an FDA ruling. Ephedrine is still prescribed in most countries in low doses as a means to treat illnesses such as hay fever.

• Ether – Diethyl ether has long been used as a recreational drug and in medicine. Meth cooks use starting fluid because it’s cheap and relatively safe on its own, but the starting source also contains butane, heptane, or propane.

• Freon – Overexposure to freon (chlorofluorocarbon) causes difficulty concentrating, dizziness, central nervous system depression, or fatal cardiac arrhythmia.

• Iodine – Although one of the safest components of meth cooking, too much iodine can create an enlarged thyroid and consequent organ dysfunction.

• Lithium from batteries – When meth cooks use lithium strips from batteries, they’re putting themselves in serious danger. Side effects include twitching, hyperparathyroidism, and muscle tremors. When used in conjunction with iodine, it cause even more havoc in the human body.

When meth labs explode in densely populated residential areas, many innocent people may be seriously injured or die as well.

Meth labs are dangerous for the environment and for people living or working anywhere nearby. Law enforcement officials say that for each pound of meth produced, it leaves behind five or six pounds of toxic waste. Meth cooks, often high on the drug themselves, may pour the leftover chemicals and byproduct sludge down sinks and plumbing in kitchens and bathrooms, in storm drains or sewers, or directly onto the land. The chlorinated solvents and other toxic byproducts used in meth production are extremely hazardous since they can persist in groundwater and soil for years. And, due to the fact that the toxic waste has to be incinerated, the cost to clean it up is exorbitant. Clean-up efforts are labor intensive and cost-prohibitive for many communities. Estimates range from $5,000 to more than $150,000 to perform a meth lab-related toxic waste cleanup.

Treatment for Meth Addiction

Although meth addiction is serious, there is treatment that can help. But it takes time – sometimes a lot of time. Meth typically stays in the body longer than other drugs – including cocaine and alcohol. For that reason, treatment for meth addiction usually entails at least a 90-day commitment in a residential treatment facility. This is longer than the typical 30-day alcohol rehab, granted, but the addiction to meth has often left the user with some serious psychological impairment that needs to be dealt with.

While detoxification – removal of all traces of meth from the body – can take a relatively short amount of time, the so-called “wall” remains for anywhere from six months (for a short-term user) to up to a year or two for long-term meth addicts. So, after detoxification, and treatment for any psychotic symptoms and life-threatening conditions (including extreme high blood pressure and heart rate), the slow process of healing can begin.

It’s also important to note that meth addiction isn’t something that can be self-treated. Addicts can’t simply will themselves to stop using meth. It doesn’t work that way. In fact, their brains are so damaged as a result of constant meth use, that they can’t function without the drug. They will do anything, literally, to keep on using meth. Even meth cooks who have suffered third-degree burns over 95 percent of their body, whose nose and flesh on hands and legs has melted off after direct exposure to the toxic chemicals and solvents used in meth production, still crave and use meth.

Treatment for meth abuse and addiction is only performed at a few specialized treatment facilities in the United States. That’s because methamphetamine addiction requires a comprehensive and specialized treatment plan that must be constantly adjusted according to the client’s progress (or lack thereof). Counseling and therapy sessions are an integral part of the overall treatment plan for individuals seeking to overcome meth addiction.

Research of evidence-based treatment that has proven effective for meth addiction shows that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is required. Traditional treatment approaches don’t work. CBT, on the other hand, which focuses on how the way we think affects our actions and feelings, helps patients (clients) identify and plan for how to deal with the triggers that prompt substance abuse – in this case, meth.

Treatment involves individual and small group approaches, counseling to teach the addict new skills to be able to cope with cravings for meth and to prevent relapses. And relapses, which are common, are not regarded as failures but as opportunities to learn. Following relapse, the client is encouraged to develop more effective coping mechanisms so that he or she is better able to deal with recurring cravings and urges.

A client will be released from treatment for meth addiction when he or she reaches treatment goals that have been set. The counselor assists the client to set up a system of support that will help him or her sustain recovery. This will often include a lifetime involvement in a 12-step or other recovery-oriented support group.

How to Find Treatment Programs for Meth Addiction

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a searchable directory of drug and alcohol treatment programs around the country. The Treatment Facility Locator includes more than 11,000 addiction treatment programs. There is also a toll-free, confidential 24-hour Treatment Referral Helpline available at 1-800-662-HELP.

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