A new surge of the psychostimulant methamphetamine is coursing through U.S. streets and towns, competing with the opioid epidemic as it ruins lives, devastates families and decimates communities. This new wave of the illicit drug is now being sold in a purer, more potent form and it’s no longer cooked up in household kitchens, it’s being shipped in from Mexico. Law enforcement, government officials and users’ loved ones are all sounding the alarm over this new corrosive threat to health and well-being.
In towns like Cincinnati and others across the country, meth, which can induce psychosis, is the principal drug inundating communities. Ohio implemented over 20 drug task forces to combat the problem after seeing a 1,600% increase in seizures of the drug in less than four years (2015 to 2019).
Here is a short list of how meth destroys the body and mind:
- Disordered lifestyle
- Increased heart rate
- Reduced resistance to illness
- Liver damage
- Rise in temperature, which can lead to brain damage
Across the country, meth-related deaths are rising. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths involving methamphetamine and other psychostimulants increased nearly fivefold from 2012 to 2018. Additionally, the amount of meth seized by the Kentucky State Police increased by 77% from 2016 to 2018.
What makes meth such an alluring high? Users tell of experiencing a rapid rush of pleasure and/or an extended feeling of euphoria, along with boosts to levels of energy, confidence, and focus. However, after the initial experience, users require increasing amounts of the drug to get and maintain the desired state and sensations.
Meth works by releasing a flood of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls pleasure, resulting in an intense rush of pleasure and exhilaration. Richard Rawson, associate director of UCLA’s Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, says that while there is a multitude of reasons individuals try meth, “once they take the drug their reasons are pretty much the same: They like how it affects their brain.” He says that while all drugs of abuse (including alcohol and nicotine) prompt dopamine release, “methamphetamine produces the mother of all dopamine releases.” Nevertheless, with prolonged use the drug actually destroys dopamine receptors, effectively killing the ability to feel pleasure.
The damage that takes place in the brain’s so-called pleasure center can resolve with time, but researchers believe that in many cases the destruction to cognitive function is permanent. For example, prolonged meth use changes the brain’s chemistry, rendering the brain’s pleasure center nonfunctional. In other words, it can become impossible to feel any kind of pleasure. Some studies show that the brain can repair itself but the process can take years, and there is no guarantee that the brain will regain full function.
Additionally, one study revealed that following a 14-month period of abstinence, the brain scans of meth users showed regrowth of the majority of dopamine sites, but zero improvements in drug-related decline in cognitive ability. In fact, these subjects still had severe memory and judgment impairments and decreased motor coordination, similar to the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Long term users may be prone to extreme aggression, anxiety, insomnia and psychotic behavior marked by paranoia, delusions, and hallucinations. Meth, like all stimulants, prompts the brain to release adrenaline which can lead to a heightened sense of anxiety, insomnia, and hyperactivity.
According to Rawson, experiments show that methamphetamine use results in a dopamine release from a baseline level to a level that’s roughly 12 times the amount reached after pleasurable activities such as eating and sex. “This really doesn’t occur from any normally rewarding activity,” he states. “That’s one of the reasons why people, when they take methamphetamine, report having this euphoric feeling that’s unlike anything they’ve ever experienced.” However, once the pleasurable effects wear off, a sense of depression sets in leading users to feel compelled to use again in order to avoid this undesirable rebound effect.
The change in the physical appearance of chronic meth users is one of the most conspicuous and stunning effects. For instance, meth use makes blood vessels constrict, restricting blood flow throughout the body. Continued constriction damages the vessels, leading to tissue damage and a decrease in the body’s ability to heal itself. As a result, the skin becomes dull and saggy, acne pops up and sores take longer to heal. “Meth mouth” is a particularly gruesome effect of meth use and is characterized by rotting, blackened and broken teeth and is occurs because the drug causes salivary glands to dry up, allowing mouth acid to eat away tooth enamel. Ironically, while methamphetamine users claim to perceive an increased sense of confidence and attractiveness, the drug is actively eroding both their ability and appearance, causing the exact opposite of what they desire.
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