Types of Methamphetamine

Types of Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine is the word commonly used to describe methamphetamine hydrochloride, a drug that produces intensely stimulating effects when introduced into the body. Most people think of the drug as a single, monolithic entity. However, there are actually several different types of methamphetamine that produce distinctly different results when used. One form of the drug, called levomethamphetamine, has no mind-altering effect and serves as a common ingredient in nonprescription nasal decongestants. Two other forms of the drug, called dextromethamphetamine and dextro-levomethamphetamine, produce varying degrees of mind alteration. The vast majority of meth abusers and addicts use dextromethamphetamine.

The Basics

In chemical terms, methamphetamine belongs to a group of natural and manmade substances called substituted amphetamines, which also includes amphetamine itself, as well as MDMA (Ecstasy), ephedrine and pseudoephedrine. All of these substances contain a core molecule of amphetamine surrounded by atoms of additional elements arranged in specific chemical structures. Inside the human body, the mental and physical impact of any given substituted amphetamine depends upon the type of extra atoms it contains, as well as the ways in which those atoms are arranged within the drug’s structure.

Like a wide variety of natural and manmade substances, methamphetamine molecules come in two different forms that contain the exact same type and number of extra atoms, but hold those atoms in different structural arrangements. Chemists call these types of closely related molecules isomers. The two basic isomers of methamphetamine are levomethamphetamine-also known as l-methamphetamine-and dextromethamphetamine, also known as d-methamphetamine. The drug dextro-levomethamphetamine is a compound that contains molecules of both d-methamphetamine and l-methamphetamine.

Levomethamphetamine

Levomethamphetamine achieves its effects in the body by increasing the normal level of activity in a network of involuntary nerves known as the sympathetic nervous system. Part of this system overlaps with the spinal cord, which forms the lower end of the central nervous system; the other part extends throughout the body and connects to various organs, including the blood vessels. When activated, the sympathetic nervous system produces a wide variety of body changes that facilitate a rapid response to severe stress and imminent threats of danger. These changes include narrowing of the blood vessels (also known as vasoconstriction), a vasoconstriction-related elevation in blood pressure, a reduced sensitivity to hunger, an unusually accelerated heart rate and an unusually accelerated breathing rate. The blood vessel-narrowing effects of levomethamphetamine make the drug well suited for use as a nasal decongestant.

Dextromethamphetamine

Because of the details of its chemical structure, dextromethamphetamine produces effects in both the sympathetic nervous system and the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). As a result of its central nervous system effects, the drug possesses mind-altering characteristics not found in levomethamphetamine. Chief among these effects is the ability to boost the levels of a brain chemical called dopamine, and thereby trigger heightened activity inside the brain’s pleasure centers. It is the extreme nature of the drug’s pleasure-boosting abilities that makes d-methamphetamine so addictive to its users. In addition, it produces effects within the sympathetic nervous system that are typically anywhere from 2 to 10 times as powerful as the effects of levomethamphetamine.

As stated previously, most meth abusers and addicts use dextromethamphetamine, whether in a relatively impure powdered form or in a relatively pure, more potent crystalline form (sometimes known as “ice” or “crystal meth”). This is true, in part, because d-methamphetamine produces particularly intense mind alteration when compared to other forms of methamphetamine, and therefore comes with higher abuse and addiction risks for its users. However, it’s also true because most of the people who illegally produce methamphetamine can obtain the main ingredients for low-quality dextromethamphetamine (typically ephedrine or pseudoephedrine) relatively easily.

Dextro-Levomethamphetamine

As noted previously, dextro-levomethamphetamine contains molecules of both d-methamphetamine and l-methamphetamine. While it produces the same basic effects as d-methamphetamine, it produces them in a less extreme form. Typically, when compared to d-methamphetamine, it also carries an increased risk for the onset of toxic side effects. Use of dextro-levomethamphetamine actually predates the popularity of dextromethamphetamine. It was first commonly produced in the 1960s and distributed amongst motorcycle gangs, where it earned the nickname of “biker speed.” When dextromethamphetamine rose to prominence in the drug culture, it largely replaced dextro-levomethamphetamine as a source of meth-related abuse and addiction.

Considerations

Not all dextromethamphetamine is produced illegally. Doctors sometimes use a prescription form of the drug, referred to medically as methamphetamine hydrochloride (Desoxyn), to address the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or temporarily decrease appetite in dangerously obese individuals. However, because of the abuse and addiction risks associated with d-methamphetamine, its medical use is a relatively rare phenomenon.

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