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Meth 101

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

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.

According to these statistics, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Northeast is the only region that appears to have had uniformly low rates and little change.

Nevertheless, "treatment admissions are a lagging indicator," Rawson says. "One of the things that has been documented in the data is that meth users generally will use for on average seven years before they hit the treatment system."

Another way to track the spread of methamphetamine is by looking at police and DEA busts. For example, in Florida, 15 meth labs were raided in 2000, compared with 215 in 2004. In Vermont, there were zero busts from 2000-2003, and one in 2004.

Why We Use

Methamphetamine lacks the glamour that movies and music have imparted to cocaine and heroin. Typical users still tend to be low-income and white.

"They take it because they want to work more hours and lose weight," Rawson says. "It's looked at as a functional tool, not a status symbol."

Increase in sexually transmitted infections via meth-fueled gay orgies has gotten a lot of attention, but heterosexual men and women use it for sex, too.

Meth Sex

"Methamphetamine is associated with sexual behavior like no other drug," Rawson says.

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