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Meth 101

Methamphetamine use has taken off in the U.S., but what makes it such a hot commodity?
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Use of methamphetamine, a powerful and addictive stimulant, is rampant and spreading across the United States, reaching levels that have been called "epidemic."

In places where it hasn't been a problem in the past, it may seem to have come out of nowhere, but methamphetamine has been a fixture of the American drug scene for a long time.

A lot of recent news coverage has focused on the impact of methamphetamine among gay men, who are taking it, having risky sex, and possibly fanning the flames of HIV/AIDS. Michael Siever, PhD, director of the Stonewall Project, a San Francisco outreach program for gay men, says the drug is nothing new in his neighborhood.

"I've been doing work on methamphetamine in the gay community for about 15 years now," he tells WebMD.

From War to Prison

Like several other drugs that are now illegal, methamphetamine got off to a legitimate start. During World War II, soldiers on all sides were given the drug to help keep them in fighting form. Throughout the 1950s, doctors commonly prescribed methamphetamine as a diet pill and antidepressant, known by the brand name Methedrine.

Today, there are many slang names for it, including "ice," "crystal," "glass," "Tina," "crank," and just "meth." Though it's sometimes sold in pill form, meth mainly comes in the form of a white powder or crystals. It can be swallowed, snorted, injected, or as is becoming more common, smoked.

When it's smoked or injected, it brings on an immediate and intense euphoric rush that lasts several minutes. Taken other ways, the high comes on more gradually, producing an elevated sense of well-being, increased alertness and activity, and decreased appetite, which lasts up to 12 hours. The effects of meth are often compared to those of cocaine.

Meth works by flooding the brain with massive amounts of dopamine, a neurochemical normally released in small amounts in response to something pleasurable. It also raises blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, and body temperature.

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.

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