Anne is a freelancer with a passion for writing and helping others by writing about important topics and issues.
What Is Meth?
Methamphetamine, sometimes also referred to as “crank” or “crystal”, is a highly powerful and addictive drug that can cause serious health risks, side effects, and even death to users. Similar in name to amphetamine, methamphetamine is chemically very similar to amphetamine, a drug used to treat ADHD and narcolepsy.
Popular culture has given many accounts of meth addiction, including books and TV shows that portray the harmful effects of the drug. However, it is important to examine the real facts about the drug, as sometimes the media and popular culture can display inaccuracies about drugs and drug use that aren’t realistic. In this article, I will discuss the basic information about the drug methamphetamine, how it is used, how it is made, and the short- and long-term side effects and risks associated with the drug. Additionally, I will discuss how popular culture has created an “image” of meth addicts that can be detrimental to those seeking treatment for addiction to the drug.
Methamphetamine: A "Homemade" Drug
In the most basic sense, meth is very chemically similar to amphetamine, with a few major differences that make this drug dangerous and highly toxic to the human body. Whereas amphetamine is a prescription drug monitored and used safely in the pharmaceutical industry, methamphetamine is a drug that is mixed with many dangerous chemicals and is understood to be produced in “meth labs”.
Meth labs are unregulated labs that dealers, gangs, and many addicts utilize to make and sell the drug. It is illegal to use, possess, and create methamphetamine in any form. Since a lot of methamphetamines are created in these “labs”, a large majority of meth in the United States is illegally obtained from drug cartels in Mexico, where out in the deserted areas of Mexico, the meth industry is booming. Crackdowns on border control as well as the DEA’s investigation into drug cartels in the past several decades have sought to try and prevent this crisis, but as history has shown, if there is a way to sneak the drug into the country, people will find a way. Meth and heroin are probably the most sought-after drugs from the DEA in relation to the illegal importation of these drugs from other countries.
Contents of Methamphetamine
Methamphetamine is a combination of chemicals, including the popular cough medicine pseudoephedrine. Pseudoephedrine is sold in pharmacies around the country, but pharmacies must keep track of how much pseudoephedrine they sell and limit the quantity a person can buy when entering the pharmacy. This law is supposed to prevent the purchasing of this main ingredient for meth in bulk, but as stated previously, drug dealers and meth users will find ways to obtain the supplies they need to make the drug regardless of this law.
The other ingredients used in the formation of crystal meth include many different household chemicals. These other chemicals include acetone, lithium, red phosphorus, and lye among other things. All of these substances are highly combustible, which is why you may have heard in the news before about “meth lab explosions” happening. If something is not done right chemically, the consequences can be very dangerous. Additionally, inhalation of fumes from any of the chemicals involved in the processing of the drug could cause serious health problems or even death.
It seems surreal that people with meth labs in their basements might risk the possibility of explosion and death upon the creation of this drug, but there is a whole population of people that do so anyway. The consequences not only of the manufacturing of the drug but also the side effects of using the drug, can be deadly.
Short- and Long-Term Effects of Methamphetamine Use
Similar to cocaine and amphetamine, meth is a stimulant drug that acts on the dopamine receptors in the brain. When someone smokes, snorts, or injects crystal meth, they feel an intense rush similar to that of other stimulants. When they experience this rush, it is very short-term, so they must have more and more of the drug to feel these powerful effects longer. People are known to go on “meth binges”, again, similar to cocaine binges, where someone might spend hours, or days, using the drug every hour to obtain the intense rush associated with the drug. Users may not eat, sleep, or do anything else during this time except for taking the drug, which can lead to dire situations and dire health consequences. The mixture of all the other chemicals in the drug makes it highly toxic and deadly, with some of the damage to the body irreversible once someone starts using meth.
Some of the short-term side effects of meth use include increased blood pressure, heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat, decreased appetite, increased alertness or wakefulness, insomnia, and faster breathing. These side effects bear a striking resemblance to the short-term side effects of cocaine because, like cocaine, meth is a stimulant drug that is acting on the body and nervous system in the same way.
In the long term, there are many serious health risks associated with the use of meth. Firstly, because meth is sometimes injected rather than smoked or snorted, persons who use the drug in this way will always be at an increased risk of HIV and AIDs, as sharing needles is a very common occurrence. Additionally, the long-term impacts of meth use include memory problems, sleep issues, weight loss, anxiety, violent behavior, paranoia, hallucinations, and even changes to the brain structure. There is also a phenomenon referred to as “meth mouth” that happens to those who smoke meth. These persons will often encounter extreme dental issues and problems in the gums and teeth that may cause them to lose teeth, and the damage is often irreversible.
Since meth impacts memory and changes in brain structure, those that use crystal meth are also at an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and other progressive nerve disorders. Once the structure of the brain is altered, the damage has been done, which is why it is so important to educate everyone on the impacts of this highly dangerous and abusable drug.
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Treatment for Meth Addiction
While cocaine has a recommended treatment of medication and therapy, currently, there are no prescription medications that have been approved to treat meth addiction. Those that are addicted to methamphetamine have to rely on therapy to receive treatment. This can be very difficult for many people, as withdrawal symptoms are intense and difficult to deal with. Withdrawal symptoms from meth addiction are similar to withdrawal from other stimulant drugs, including insomnia, anxiety, depression, headaches, appetite changes, and increased cravings for the drug.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational incentives are the two forms of therapy used to help those with meth addiction. CBT often involves an examination of the behavioral patterns of addiction, helping users to figure out their triggers for drug use. Through the use of different techniques, they can combat these triggers with healthier alternatives. Motivational incentives work exactly the way they sound; rewarding users for their continued commitment to sobriety. Incentives prove to be very successful in addiction treatment in the long term. Despite the positive therapy techniques, it is still very difficult for one to overcome the powerful addiction to methamphetamine, and a lot of people just feel lost and hopeless. It is important to understand just how difficult this might be for someone and to always reflect on the positive strides that someone addicted to a drug is taking.
Relapse happens, and oftentimes, relapse is not preventable. The important thing is to help the person understand that relapse is a part of the process of recovery. A lot of therapists will use relapse as a way to discuss what worked and what didn’t work in addiction treatment prior to the relapse. When this happens, patients are more likely to respond in a positive way, seeing relapse not as a complete failure, but instead as a small bump in the road on the way to recovery.
Popular Media Portrayals of Crystal Meth
Throughout the decades, there are many popular TV shows, movies, and other forms of media that have portrayed meth addiction and its consequences. One of the most popular TV shows detailing the life of a meth lab chemist, Breaking Bad, follows the main character, a high school chemistry teacher recently diagnosed with cancer, on his journey to make large sums of money by producing meth for different drug lords and selling his breakthrough recipe of the drug that has dealers and users wanting more. While the show is interesting, and definitely makes an interesting commentary about the methamphetamine culture in the United States, there are obviously many flaws to the show in terms of how realistic it is in some parts. As with all TV and movie portrayals of drug addiction, directors will take liberties when writing these shows and movies in order to produce more revenue for their show or movie. The reality behind meth addiction is hardly anything like a TV show or movie. The characters that you come to love and think of as very strong characters, despite their life choices, are not people you want to aspire to be like, because the realities of real meth addiction are very grim.
A novel series that gives a more accurate portrayal of crystal meth addiction is the young adult novel series Crank by Ellen Hopkins, in which she details the true story of her daughter’s meth addiction. This series, I believe, shows the dark realities and consequences of meth addiction not only on the person using it, but on the family members caught up in the situation as well. Ellen Hopkins has been criticized by many parents, with some voting to ban the Crank series from being available to teens in school libraries. Despite the controversial nature of her books and this criticism, Hopkins remains strong and determined to show the world what addiction truly looks like with her novels. Hopkins said this about the pushes to censor and/or ban her books from school libraries: “This is why I push back against would-be censors, who claim my books are too dark or edgy, when what they mean is ‘real’. Yes, real life can be scary, and I represent that in my books. But I also write about hope and love and light beyond the darkness”. It is clear that Hopkins is shedding light on an important dilemma that today’s teens and young adults face: drug addiction. Although her work is often very realistic and heartbreaking to read, it really tells it like it is. This is the kind of literature and media portrayal we should be seeing more of when it comes to meth addiction, because these are the stories of those who have been through it and know what it’s like, and it’s anything but easy.
Methamphetamine is a drug closely related to other stimulant drugs. However, the dangerous mixtures of chemicals involved in the processing of this drug in basement meth labs make it highly toxic and even more dangerous. Meth can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system with continued use, and it is important to understand that this drug carries many long-term consequences with continued use. If you or someone you know is struggling with methamphetamine addiction, reach out to the SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services) hotline at 1-800-662-4357 for more help and information. The steps you take now toward recovery could mean you have many more years ahead of you, and you can overcome the monster; one day at a time.
Hart, Carl L., and Charles Ksir. Drugs, Society, and Human Behavior. Seventeenth ed., McGraw Hill Education, 2018.
National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2018 July.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2022 Anne Marie Carr