Meth Myths, Meth Realities

What we know--and what we don't--about methamphetamine's history, chemistry, and impact on users

Meth does not have classically hallucinogenic properties. However, the sustained sleep deprivation that is a product of meth use can cause auditory and visual distortions. On binges, users frequently report catching glimpses of so-called shadow people. Not surprisingly, this serves to heighten the drug's paranoia-inducing effects. After the high, users begin to tweak. Tweaking occurs when continued intake no longer induces the release of dopamine. At that point the user is often unable to experience any pleasure--a condition called dysphoria--yet remains under the effect of the stimulant. The tweaking phase is the part of the cycle most closely associated with violent or antisocial behavior. In an effort to allay the unpleasant effects, many users turn to other drugs, such as alcohol or heroin. Then comes the crash. Once the body is depleted of adrenaline, users are left listless and profoundly fatigued. Sometimes they sleep for days.

Chronic meth use can have a host of effects on the body's organs. It has been linked with sometimes-fatal kidney problems, hypertension, and gastrointestinal disorders. Among meth users who smoke the drug, lung problems are common. And long-term users often suffer a host of complications as a result of poor nutrition related to the drug's appetite-suppressing quality. At drug treatment centers, counselors say, you can identify the meth users by their terrible teeth, which are either rotted away or ground down.

But meth's most profound and disturbing effects are on the brain. When used heavily, the drug can produce psychotic symptoms that are all but indistinguishable from paranoid schizophrenia. "We sometimes see similar symptoms with crack cocaine users, but it's much more prominent with methamphetamine," observes Christine Cloak, a neuroscientist at Brookhaven National Laboratories. So much so, in fact, that researchers like Cloak are hoping further study of methamphetamine abuse might shed some light on the mysteries of schizophrenia.

The long-range neurological consequences of meth use remain a subject of considerable disagreement. Some scientists believe the drug permanently ages the brain, and that it may lead to the premature onset of Parkinson's and Alzheimer-like conditions. In a study at Brookhaven, Cloak and her fellow researchers examined brain scans of 15 former heavy meth users. The images showed lower than normal levels of dopamine transporters, which confirmed what had been found in numerous animal studies: Meth is neurotoxic, meaning it damages brain cells. In monkeys, high doses of methamphetamine have been shown to cause damage to as many as 50 percent of the brain's dopamine-producing cells. Now those results appear to be mirrored in humans. And significantly, the researchers at Brookhaven found that people with depressed levels of dopamine also performed more poorly on tests of motor skills and mental acuity. But whether those effects are permanent is not clear. Why? "We just haven't been able to look at people who have been abstinent for multiple years in large enough numbers to know," says Cloak.

Nobody has any idea how many users or cooking facilities there are in Minnesota. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1998, an estimated 9.4 million Americans have tried meth at least once; that is roughly four percent of the total population. But if you ask cops, especially ones in the harder-hit parts of rural Minnesota, they describe a burgeoning plague. "I can't tell you how many thousands are addicted, but it's swallowing up tons of people. Pretty soon, meth is going to be in every corner of every county of every state in the country," declares Paul Stevens, a special agent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Stevens, who trains local police in meth lab response, has watched with dismay as the number of lab busts has skyrocketed in recent years. "Six years ago we had maybe 15 labs. Last year, we had 297. Those were just the ones where the DEA sent out a cleanup team. There are a lot of labs that don't require a cleanup, or that don't get reported because the county or city didn't fill out the proper paperwork." In other words, the real numbers are higher, possibly around 400 or so. And those are just the ones that police know about. Stevens thinks the cops are getting, at best, a tenth of the labs.

Still, Minnesota's meth problems don't look too bad by comparison to other states. Last year, Stevens points out, Iowa had over 700 meth lab seizures, Washington had about 1,500, Missouri over 2,600. One reason for the increased number of seizures both here and elsewhere is an increased law enforcement focus on meth. In 1999, Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey declared meth "the most dangerous drug this nation has ever seen," and police and lawmakers have reacted accordingly.

Some of that response has been a direct result of disturbing anecdotes about some users' worst behavior. In one highly publicized case from 1997, a meth user in San Diego commandeered an army tank and went on a bizarre rampage before being shot dead by police. The most notorious case, however, involved a 30-year-old Arizona man. Following an eight-day meth binge, he became convinced his teenage son was the devil. After stabbing the boy repeatedly, he cut off his head and threw it out a car window as he sped down the highway.

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