Meth is On the Rise Again: What Parents Should Know

meth crystals

“When I took those off-white crushed shards up that blue, cut plastic straw—well, my whole world pretty much changed after that. There was a feeling like — my God, this is what I’ve been missing my entire life. It completed me. I felt whole for the first time.” These are the words of Nic Sheff describing his experience with methamphetamine in his autobiography, Tweak.

Known by street names like speed, ice, biker’s coffee, tweak or crystal, methamphetamine — or meth for short — is made in a home or lab. It comes in a white powder or pill form and is bitter-tasting. The form that Nic describes is crystal methamphetamine and looks like glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks. It is a stimulant like caffeine and cocaine, although far more powerful.

Why is Meth is Experiencing a Resurgence?

In February 2018, The New York Times ran a story, “Meth, the Forgotten Killer, Is Back. And It’s Everywhere.” And it seems that it is. Government actions in 2006 restricted access to pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient used in making meth, resulting in a temporary decline in use. However, meth is on the rise again, largely smuggled in from Mexico. According to the DEA’s 2017 threat assessment, its purity has been steadily climbing and is now well above 90 percent. It’s also cheap, at $5 per hit.

Reports of high methamphetamine availability

Map of reports of high methamphetamine availability

The 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) offered more alarming findings related to meth as past year use increased significantly among 18 to 25 year olds. The prevalence of past-year use in this group grew to 1.1% in 2017, up from 0.8% in 2016.

In commenting on the rise of methamphetamine use, Elinore McCance-Katz, MD, PhD, of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), noted that it appears to be regionally-driven. States reporting the highest prevalence rates include Alaska, Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and South Dakota.

Other experts are worried that the use of meth will spread much like heroin has, making its way into more rural areas and parts of the country with untapped markets, especially in the northeast. There is also a concern that meth is being combined with fentanyl, a highly potent opioid, which has been a major driver of overdose deaths in the U.S.

How Does Meth Affect the Body?

Like other stimulants, meth increases wakefulness, focus and physical activity. Other effects include faster breathing, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, increased blood pressure and body temperature. Medicinally, it can be used to treat ADHD, narcolepsy and obesity — although due to its side effects, other medications are usually preferred. It’s important to note that when used as medicine, the dosage is much lower than what is typically used illicitly.

Meth produces a sense of euphoria that, at least initially, is beyond the impact of any other substance. It dramatically elevates dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s pleasure and reward system. If “normal” dopamine functioning is around 100 units, meth spikes it to 1250 units, well above the pleasure derived from food, sex, alcohol and cocaine. People who use meth report being high for periods of 8 to 12 hours from one hit. Often people engage in a binge and crash cycle, staying up for days or weeks using meth, and then crashing.

the meth project - brain imaging and effects

How Meth Affects the Brain

How Can I Tell if My Child is Using Meth?

Meth can be swallowed, smoked, snorted or injected. Paraphernalia associated with meth use are pipes, needles, crumpled foil, spoons, straws and broken light bulbs. Physical signs of use include heavy sweating as body temperature is elevated, dilated pupils, body odor that smells like ammonia, and burn marks on fingers and mouth. Often a person’s physical appearance deteriorates, especially from skin and/or hair picking, weight loss and dental decay, also referred to as “meth mouth.”

It can also produce significant changes in behavior. People engaged in meth use often stay up for days and then crash. Other signs of use include angry outbursts and mood swings, paranoia with concerns about being watched, and tweaking. “Tweaking” refers to engaging in frantic and compulsive behaviors for hours on end, often feeling hypersensitive, irritable and impulsive. Common tweaking behaviors include repetitively picking at one’s face or arms, obsessive cleaning, or taking things apart for no apparent reason.

Meth has also earned a reputation among some users as significantly enhancing sexual activity by heightening arousal and increasing stamina. That said, impotence can be a common side effect of longer term use, as well as a sense that sex is no longer enjoyable if one isn’t using meth as part of the experience. Lowered inhibitions can lead to unprotected sex, increasing the risk of transmitting HIV.

What Can I Do If My Kid is Using Meth? What Happens to Them?

It’s important to intervene early if your son or daughter is using meth, due to the short-term and long-term effects of the drug.

Continued use of meth appears to impact multiple areas of the brain, including the ability to experience pleasure, remember events, learn and perform basic verbal tasks, motor skills and judgment. It can also lead to the development of a substance use disorder.

A person using meth experiencing high blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, elevated body temperature, changes in breathing, anger or aggression, and paranoia may be experiencing an overdose. A meth overdose can result in a stroke, heart attack, organ failure or death. Factors that can contribute to an overdose can be taking more meth than a person is used to, combining it with other substances (i.e. “speedballing” — using meth and opioids like heroin, but also combining with alcohol, benzodiazepines, etc.) and/or having other health problems while using meth.

A meth overdose requires immediate emergency treatment. It’s important to note that naloxone (i.e. Narcan) will not reverse a meth overdose. Some people also believe that taking a sedative of some kind to offset meth’s stimulant effects can be helpful, but this is an extremely dangerous practice that places even more stress on the body.

Withdrawal from meth can result in anxiety, fatigue from disrupted sleep patterns, severe depression, psychosis, excessive appetite and intense drug cravings. The intensity of withdrawal symptoms is one reason given as to why people using meth don’t seek treatment, and continue to use the substance. As David Sheff, author of Beautiful Boy, writes after meeting with Dr. Edythe London of UCLA, “…meth addicts may be unable, not unwilling, to participate in common treatments, at least in the early stages of withdrawal. Rather than a moral failure or a lack of willpower, dropping out and relapsing may be the result of a damaged brain.” (Sheff 2008, p.135.)

Unlike opioids and alcohol, there are no medications to reduce withdrawal symptoms and manage cravings. Most often treatment includes behavioral therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy and the “Matrix Model,” in addition to vitamins, antipsychotics and antidepressants. In a recent article published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers report the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation as promising in treating withdrawal symptoms; however, more studies are needed to confirm its viability. There are also various drugs in development to address cravings and memories associated with meth use although they won’t be available commercially until clinical trials are successfully completed.

brain recovery from meth

Brain recovery from meth

Recovery from meth takes time. Brain imaging studies have indicated that it may take two years or more to recover from meth use, and some damage (i.e. related to a stroke) can be permanent. Getting a loved one to a reputable treatment program, whether outpatient or inpatient and supporting recovery, is crucial.

If someone you love is not ready to consider more formal treatment or if waitlists are encountered, risk minimization strategies might be helpful, especially with respect to IV use.

For more information and guidance as to how to help someone using meth, connect with the Helpline to speak to a specialist and make an action plan.

Additional Meth Resources

Other resources to better understand meth are listed below:

The Meth Project
The Meth Project is a large-scale prevention program aimed at reducing Meth use through public service messaging, public policy, and community outreach.

National Institute on Drug Abuse
NIDA’s mission is to advance science on the causes and consequences of drug use and addiction and to apply that knowledge to improve individual and public health.

PBS’s Frontline on Meth
An investigation into how and why meth use spiraled out of control and became the fastest-growing drug abuse problem in America.

The Harm Reduction Coalition
Harm Reduction Coalition was founded in 1993 by a working group of needle exchange providers, advocates and drug users, and today is strengthened by an extensive and diverse network of allies who challenge the persistent stigma faced by people who use drugs and advocate for policy and public health reform.

Breaking the Ice in Our Community
A fact sheet providing information on harm reduction for people who use methamphetamine.

Learn More About How Meth Affects the Family

The film “Beautiful Boy” follows Nic Sheff’s journey of meth addiction, as well as his father David’s struggle to save him. Learn more and download the film discussion guide for your family.

Beautiful Boy movie image
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    November 3, 2019 at 9:39 AM

    I think the people who wrote they have everything under control using meth, are lying to themselves.

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    March 4, 2019 at 4:36 PM

    I need to stress the fact that it is not the meth that is making people do bad things, like steal from friends and family, or leave their kids. People who do those bad things on meth, would do those same bad things without meth. It stems from a lack of discipline and poor sense of morality. I am a compulsive meth user – compulsive! I probably do more meth than your daughter and all her friends put together.

    Quitting meth has a 97% failure rate, but one can learn how to balance meth with other responsibilities such as work, family, hobbies, etc. The trick is to develop a ‘healthy’ (I use the term loosely) pattern of use, so that the meth doesn’t occupy 100% of the user’s day and they have time for other activities.

    Focus on the behaviour, not the use.

    Eventually the need for meth decreases on it’s own, as the user eventually tires of the drug and its effects. It’s ok for your daughter to use meth, it’s not ok to abandon her kids. But if she’s abandoning her kids on meth, she’s not really committed to being a parent anyways. The meth is just acting as a catalyst. Maybe the kids are better off?

    I’m so glad I’m not a parent. I grew up in a very strict household, so I can control my use better than someone who grew up in a more liberal household. All things aside, meth is on the rise because life is becoming more and more unbearable for a lot of people – especially in Canada. Day by day, people are losing compassion and empathy for one another, and that frightens me. Meth is used to fill a void caused by our society’s tendency to isolate people, while demanding more and more from them each day. We have all of this technology, yet we’re working harder than ever for less and less. Homelessness and precarious housing situations are becoming the norm, as rent and housing prices skyrocket to astronomical levels.

    Life is unfair. Meth gives the user something to wake up for in the morning, after life has taken everything away. We’re left with nothing but the meth, and fentanyl or heroin to take the edge off at the end of the day. People’s standards for relationships and friendships are too high, and characteristics such as trust, honesty and loyalty are damn-near impossible to find among people today- especially the younger generation.

    The meth won’t abandon you, steal from you, tell you you’re not good enough, abuse you or spread rumours behind your back. If you do it enough, your body adjusts to it and you can even eat and sleep on it. I’ve had an MRI of my brain and there was actually improvement. It helps with my autism and ptsd better than any other medication.

    I love my meth. I am good person. I return things I find – wallets, phones, jewellery. I am honest, but I am a heavy meth user. The drug is certainly not awful, and I am not stopping any time soon. Sadly, I make up the minority of meth users, but good meth users do exist, go to work, and contribute to society. The bad ones contribute too, by creating more jobs in health and social services. LOL

    I use meth multiple times daily – smoking and injecting- and I do not have sores all over my skin and I have an athletic build of 145lbs and am a heavy eater. I am not a skeleton. I get at around 6-10 hours of sleep every night. I’m 31 years old and I look like I’m 17. I use more meth than the majority of heavy users that I come across.

    It’s not the meth.

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      June 22, 2019 at 4:52 PM

      I also am a daily user and very much an honest, hard working and caring person. The fact that most users already have the disposition to do illegal, selfish and dangerous things makes the drug “responsible” for “causing” those behaviors.. NO, it simply gives them an excuse to act on those urges!! They do things they have considered but not had the courage to doing the past

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      September 21, 2019 at 7:01 AM

      I am also not surprised that anyone can conceal their habit and believe they appear normal to themselves or other people. I have met hundreds of decent people with addiction problems. I see the results of the choices they made and how it eventually took over their life. Most of them do think they are in control of their habit, until they are not. So you are not really unique or different in that aspect, actually you are fairly common in my realm. Facts and statistics are often relative but people are people. Their reality is relative to their own perspectives and individual life experiences. I can only speak from personal experience, my contact, my observations and the lives of users I have witnessed. So no judgment here but given enough time and exposure to anything so chemically altering to your own body chemistry will eventually yield obvious results. So in conclusion time itself is the true revealing factor that will eventually expose the already proven expected results for the overwhelming majority of chemically addicted users. I really do hope for your sake and anyone who cares about you or you care about… will be the exception to the norm. Wish you the best.

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    Brenda Green

    February 27, 2019 at 11:08 PM

    My daughter was 33 years old when she started using meth. She became very manipulative that is something I think every meth user does . The trick is how do you get them to stop she has two little boys that she just walked away from how do you get them to stop this horrible horrible drug ?

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      Josie Feliz

      February 28, 2019 at 1:59 PM

      Thanks for your message Brenda. We have forwarded your message to one of our helpline specialists who can help better answer your question, and she will be reaching out to you shortly. Our Helpline is a good place to start if you’d like to talk to someone about what you’re going through. Feel free to connect with us in whichever manner you choose in the future:
      Thank you. -The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids

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