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Substance Abuse and Addiction Health Center

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Meth 101

Methamphetamine use has taken off in the U.S., but what makes it such a hot commodity?

The Crash

Of course, the high comes at a cost. When the drug wears off, dopamine in the brain is depleted, and users are left feeling depressed, fatigued, and irritable. After heavy use, some people become psychotic and paranoid, and they may experience a state of "anhedonia," or an inability to feel any pleasure, which makes them crave the drug.

"It takes the brain months and months to recover," Richard Rawson, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and assistant director of the Integrated Substance Abuse Programs at UCLA, tells WebMD.

What's more, research on rats and monkeys has shown that methamphetamine use may permanently damage the brain cells that make dopamine, as well as those that make serotonin, another brain chemical involved in pleasure.

Roots in California, Growing Nationwide

In the early 1960s, recreational drug users, mainly heroin addicts in California, started injecting Desoxyn, a prescription form of methamphetamine.

Not long after, however, the black market for meth took root in San Francisco. Motorcycle gangs, notably the Hell's Angels, started to make and distribute the drug. It followed where they went, which meant that for decades meth use was limited to California, some other areas of the West, and a few pockets in the Midwest.

Cooking Meth

Methamphetamine can be cooked up easily, just about anywhere, using common household ingredients -- rubbing alcohol, drain cleaner, iodine, etc. -- and equipment such as coffee filters, hotplates, and Pyrex dishes. Meth "cooks" taught others to make the drug, who in turn taught others.

By the mid-1980s, some Mexican drug cartels had gotten involved in the trade, but most meth was still produced locally at makeshift clandestine labs. Rawson says he learned from meetings with government drug officials that an agreement once existed between major West Coast meth dealers and East Coast cocaine traffickers that neither would move into the other's side of the Mississippi River. Any such agreement must have fallen apart, because in recent years meth has been spreading eastward.

7 Years Before Treatment

From 1992-2002, the rate of admissions into treatment programs for methamphetamine abuse increased fivefold nationally. In California, the rate quadrupled. But in Arkansas, it was about 18 times higher in 2002 than it was 10 years earlier. Iowa's rate was 22 times higher.

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