While opioids are wreaking havoc in this country, they are not the only culprits behind the current drug epidemic. Studies have shown that in 2020, there were an estimated 1.5 million people in the US who struggled with methamphetamine (commonly referred to as meth) addiction. There are three key factors behind the surge in meth use: accessibility, potency, and lack of treatment options.
Meth is becoming more accessible
While in the past, meth has been predominantly available in the Midwest and western parts of the US, over the years, meth production has shifted from small local operations in clandestine labs to “super labs” run by Mexican cartels. With more extensive trafficking channels, cartels have introduced meth to areas previously unfamiliar with the drug, such as the Northeast. Historically, meth use was a problem that plagued rural communities but now the country is seeing an upsurge in large cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City – and crossing racial and socioeconomic lines in the process.
However, wider availability is not the only factor increasing accessibility to the drug. Meth’s comparably cheap price also makes it an appealing option for drug users looking for a powerful high at a low cost. Instead of paying 60 to 150 dollars for a gram of cocaine, individuals can purchase a gram of meth for 20 to 60 dollars.
Meth’s low cost is in part due to it being a chemical-based product that can be manufactured anywhere and from relatively easy-to-find ingredients. Production of cocaine, on the other hand, has limitations and is a labor-intensive process. Cocaine is derived from the coca plant, which requires a warm climate, abundant space, and adequate time to grow.
Today’s meth produces a better high
Despite making a name for itself in the 1990s, meth today has changed a lot since then, specifically by how much more potent it is. One reason for this change is in its production process. Mexican cartels now make meth using a method known as the P2P process, which uses phenyl-2-propanone as the main ingredient. This variation provides the user with a more euphoric feeling than previous versions. Another factor behind the increase in potency of today’s meth is its purity. While meth in 2010 was on average 30 percent pure, today the purity of meth sold on the street is nearly 100 percent pure.
An increasingly popular drug mixture of meth and fentanyl, also known as a speedball, has also become a common choice among those chasing a better high. By combining a stimulant like meth with a depressant like fentanyl, the user experiences a longer-lasting high with fewer drawbacks. For example, meth can cause the user to feel agitated, but this feeling is minimized by the presence of fentanyl. Similarly, fentanyl users often combine fentanyl with meth to feel more energized, allowing them to enjoy the high longer. This push and pull effect on the body can pose extreme health risks like overdose or respiratory failure. Yet, this combination has contributed to the 1,000 percent increase that the DEA has reported seeing regarding the creation of this mixture since 2015.
The powerful high that today’s meth brings increases a user’s risk of developing an addiction, as well as suffering from an overdose. Not to mention, this new, stronger meth also has severe side effects such as violent behavior, paranoia, hallucinations, and delusions. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, overdose deaths involving methamphetamine nearly tripled from 2015-2019.
There is a lack of meth treatment medications
While the nation is facing both an opioid and meth uptick, the resources used to combat these threats are not comparable. A Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) option does not exist for meth, nor does a rescue medication like Narcan (which can reverse opioid overdoses) in the case of a meth overdose.
However, a 2021 study in The New England Journal of Medicine has experts in the addiction recovery field hopeful that a viable treatment option for meth is on the horizon: the use of naltrexone plus bupropion. Researchers believe that bupropion could limit the harmful neurological and emotional effects of meth withdrawal, and naltrexone could reduce the euphoric effects that many people experience when under the influence of meth.
While this study is promising, barriers set by the FDA are making it difficult for further research to take place. The FDA currently mandates that addiction medications must lead to abstinence, not a reduction in use. Becoming completely sober is typically the desired outcome in recovery, but not everyone can get there right away. Addiction medications can help limit the severity of withdrawal symptoms, like depression and cravings that often hinder one’s progress. So, for some, gradually decreasing their use can effectively lead them to achieve sobriety. By broadening the FDA mandate to include harm reduction options, more lives can be saved for those struggling with meth addiction and other substance use disorders.
Despite the surge in meth use, one reason to be optimistic is that with the amount of government funding for fighting addiction increasing, grants once reserved for opioid abuse are now extended to combatting meth. These resources and the success of studies dedicated to curtailing the use of this substance are crucial in order to counteract the devastation that meth is bringing to the US.