For the past decade, the use of methamphetamine—most commonly known as crystal meth—has reached epidemic proportions in our country. In the most recent methamphetamine use statistics available, the National Institute of Health reports that more than 1.5 million people in the United States have used methamphetamine in the past year, and nearly half a million report having used it in the past month.
The most serious methamphetamine addiction involves, sadly, our children. The average age of the new methamphetamine user in now around 18, and just over one percent of all adolescents from 8th to 12th grades have used the drug at least once. And according to the Drug Abuse Warning network, which gathers information from hospital emergency rooms around the country, methamphetamine accounted for more than 103,000 visits a year for the past four years, making it the fourth most mentioned illegal drug.
Whether you’ve just heard the methamphetamine nicknames—amp, crank, crystal and dozens of others—or just the methamphetamine addiction stories, to really understand the role the drug play in our society today it’s important to know that the use and abuse of methamphetamine has a long history. Its chemical cousin—amphetamine—was first constructed in 1887, with methamphetamine being discovered 30 years later. Both drugs were used to treat a variety of conditions, including obesity, depression, narcolepsy and what we now know as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It was even given to soldiers during World War II to keep them alert while on duty. However, in 1971 the U.S. Congress formally placed both drugs on its Schedule II classification, leading to an immediate surge in their demand.
Like amphetamine, the chemical structure of methamphetamine makes it a stimulant that works directly on the central nervous system. In its pure form, it’s an odorless, clear crystal that can be swallowed, snorted, smoked or injected. The effects of one dose usually last from four to eight hours, and include a decrease in appetite, an increase in activity and a sense of general well-being. Methamphetamine causes a surge of dopamine in the brain—twelve times more than is released during any normal activity—but over time the drug destroys the receptors that register dopamine, meaning methamphetamine addicts eventually reach a point where they must take more and more of the drug to achieve any sort of high.
Today, methamphetamine addiction is so rampant that it’s difficult to determine exact numbers: drug policy experts estimate that nearly 700,000 people may be addicted to the drug at any one point in time. And much of that addiction is because, as its prescription form is so highly regulated, the drug is mainly produced in illegal labs both here and overseas, and its production is very simple and extremely inexpensive given its few ingredients which are easy to obtain. Unfortunately, the illegal production of methamphetamine—resulting in its attractive price of between $5 and $20 a dose—has led to vastly unpredictable forms and strengths of the drug that can range from fairly mild to instantly deadly.