The History of Methamphetamine
By Dr. Dru
Crystal methamphetamine addiction has devastated the lives of millions of individuals around the globe. The drug's many nicknames, including "crank", "crystal", "tweak", and "speed", are a testament to the diversity of its users. In the United States alone, millions of people have used this drug. Entire communities have been impacted by the higher crime rates, fractured families, and heightened levels of unemployment that are associated with crystal meth addiction.
Among substances that are commonly abused, methamphetamine is relatively new. It was introduced in the 1920s as a remedy for various medical and psychological conditions. Yet, it is the potent nature of this drug that makes it so destructive. The evolution of meth - from a prescribed pharmaceutical to the deadly street drug it is today - provides insight on the nature of this epidemic.
The methamphetamine that is used today is often derived from many different chemical components. However, this artificial compound, which is often produced in home laboratories, finds its roots from a natural source. Methamphetamine is derived from the Chinese herb Ma Huang, commonly referred to as Ephedra. In extract form, Ephedra is a stimulant that was commonly used to treat respiratory ailments. It was a popular ingredient in remedies for asthma and bronchitis. However, researchers hoped to strengthen the herb's potency in effort to develop more effective treatment options.
Medical Applications of Meth
Around the turn of the nineteenth century, advents in science made it possible to replicate the effects of Ephedra in pharmaceuticals. In 1880, German chemists succeeded in synthesizing methamphetamine from its herbal predecessor. However, this discovery was not put to use until forty years later.
By 1920, methamphetamine was commonly used in bronchial inhalers. Other uses of the new drug were expanded to include treatments for narcolepsy, depression, Parkinson's disease, and attention deficit disorder. Methamphetamine products were also believed to be effective in aiding weight loss. Consequently, meth became popular among women. The military also took advantage of the stimulant properties of meth. During World War II, an injectable form of this substance was administered to soldiers, so that they could remain alert during combat. Methamphetamine was also prescribed by the military during the Korean and Vietnam War. In Japan, the widespread use of meth among soldiers led to a major epidemic. Japan is still grappling with the impact that meth abuse has had on its military and civilian population.
From Medical Use to Abuse
The abuse of pharmaceuticals containing meth became common in the 1950s and 1960s. Motorcycle gangs are credited with popularizing the drug and facilitating its distribution. However, the stimulant was popular among a broader demographic, including women seeking to lose weight, college students, and truck drivers who needed to stay awake.
During this period, users experimented with different methods of taking the drug. Abusers began to inject or ingest it in large doses and addiction to meth became prevalent. The popularity of injecting meth led to a rise in transmitted diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV. Users also altered the substance in home labs in effort to modify its potency. This led to the availability of variations that were impure and potentially lethal.
For over half a century, methamphetamine was widely available to the general public. The prevalence of this substance in common products made it a popular choice for recreational use. The Controlled Substance Act of 1970 was the legislative attempt to curtail this abuse. Under the act, methamphetamine was classified as a Schedule II controlled substance. Congress found that while it had acceptable medical use, it also had a high potential for abuse and could lead to psychological as well as physical dependence. As a result of this categorization, measures were put in place to limit access to medications that contained methamphetamine. Following the passage of the Controlled Substance Act, the use of meth started to decline.
Meth Trends In the US
The 1980s witnessed an explosion in the meth abuse. Not long after its criminalization in the 70s, widespread abuse was revived. At first, this problem was restricted to one region. Abuse originated in Hawaii and crystal methamphetamine addiction afflicted cities along the west coast. However, by the 1990s, the use of meth spread to the Midwestern region. Home laboratories began to emerge in both urban and rural areas. Users were able to manufacture meth from ingredients that were available in over the counter products. This made it difficult for law enforcement to control the distribution of methamphetamine. By the 1990s, the substance emerged in the Northeast and Southern.
According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, there are more people using meth worldwide than any other drug. In the United States, the National Survey on Drug Use reported that over 10 million people in the US have tried meth. The abuse of meth has increased in alarming rates and has spread to communities across the country and around the world.
The Development of Treatment Programs
The alarming increase in methamphetamine abuse led to a demand for drug treatment options in the 1980s. Due to an increased probability of relapse, crystal methamphetamine addiction has been especially challenging for healthcare providers. Because meth created psychological dependence in its users, withdrawal from the substance created strong feelings of depression, anxiety, and confusion. Studies demonstrated that users could expect decreased dopamine levels in the brain for as long as 6 months after quitting methamphetamine. Thus, aggressive approaches were necessary to ensure long-term abstinence. Following the Minnesota model, a 28 day treatment plan was commonly implemented in the 1980s. The plan called for an inpatient program that was designed to prevent or address depression and other withdrawal symptoms that could result in relapse. However, later developments in research would provide insight on the cognitive impact of meth on patients in recovery.
Previously, clinicians were concerned about the impact of prolonged methamphetamine use on the brain. Common wisdom suggested that cognitive functioning might permanently be altered. New research has shown that drug treatment can lead to a successful recovery. A 2004 UC Davis study concluded that the brain injury caused by meth use can be reversed after a period of abstinence, but other studies suggest otherwise. Developments in drug treatment have helped to effectively combat the impact of meth abuse. The widespread availability of meth helps to explain why addiction has become pervasive. While legislation has worked to restrict access to this dangerous drug, it is important to treat and assist individuals that have struggled with addiction.
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