Methamphetamine is a man-made stimulant drug that was first manufactured in Japan in 1919. Originally, it was given to military personnel in various countries to help them stay awake and to enhance their job performance.
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In the 1950s, methamphetamine pills were sold in pharmacies in North America. Doctors prescribed them to people who suffered from sleeping disorders. Later, people started using methamphetamine for recreational purposes. Some people started making the drug illegially in home-made laboratories. They used either pure chemicals or chemicals derived from cough syrup, drain cleaner and other products. Two of the key ingredients in methamphetamine are ephedrine (or pseudoephedrine) and red phosphorus.
Methamphetamine is usually sold in three forms:
Pills or capsules (usually for swallowing, but can be inserted in the vagina or rectum, or crushed up and sniffed up the nostril or "snorted")
Powder (a white, pink or yellow substance that can be snorted, or dissolved in water and injected)
Crystalline chunks, known as 'crystal meth' (whitish, translucent shards that are normally smoked in a pipe)
Methamphetamine speeds up a person's breathing and heart rate.They may feel happy and alert at first. Afterward, they usually feel drained and may become tired and miserable.
When methamphetamine is smoked or injected, the drug moves quickly into the bloodstream and goes directly to the brain. When ingested or inserted, the drug is absorbed through membranes in the body and takes up to 20 minutes to take effect. A user may experience an intense high. Then, for several more hours they may feel energized and contented.
Methamphetamine increases three naturally-occurring chemicals in the brain - dopamine, noradrenalin and serotonin. These chemicals (neurotransmitters) activate a series of nerve cells in the brain's "pleasure pathway".
Crystal meth is usually more highly concentrated than other forms of the drug and produces the most intense effects.
Fast facts about methamphetamine use in BC
Some people use methamphetamine for fun. They try it because they've heard about its pleasurable effects and are curious about what they will feel like. Others use it because it's easy to access and less expensive than cocaine.
Methamphetamine is sometimes used as a medicine for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, sleeping disorders and Parkinson's disease. Some people with asthma or hyperactivity say the drug calms them down. Survivors of trauma say methamphetamine helps them detach from daily experiences of pain and struggle.
Certain effects of methamphetamine seem to attract different subgroups. For example, people who work long or odd hours - students, sex-trade workers, shift workers - use the drug because it increases alertness. Athletes like the way it enhances their physical performance. People who need a boost of energy in the day use the drug to reduce boredom or help them cope with tedious tasks.
Some young people like the way methamphetamine increases their confidence and makes them feel more skilled at socializing. Teenaged girls sometimes use the drug to suppress their appetite and control their weight.
Street and runaway youth without access to food and shelter say they benefit from the reduced appetite and enhanced wakefulness. Staying alert helps them protect themselves from theft and physical harm.
Some people - gay men in particular - use methamphetamine simply because it heightens their sexual experiences.
Using street methamphetamine is always risky because there's no way to know what's mixed in with the drug. People who make the drug sometimes add things that don't belong.
Sometimes people use large amounts of methamphetamine over a short period of time because they want to get very high quickly. When a person gets very high one day, they usually end up crashing hard the next day. Crashing means feeling very depressed, tired and physically ill.
When a person uses large amounts of crystal meth repeatedly, the original benefits turn into negative experiences. The high turns into feelings of depression. Improved social skills turn into isolation and paranoia. Wakefulness becomes memory loss and a shortened attention span. And better sexual experiences end in sexual problems. A long-term heavy user may suffer brain and organ damage. They may also become mentally ill and develop:
Schizophrenia-like behaviour and hallucinations
Repetitive behaviour patterns (picking at their skin or pulling their hair)
Delusions of parasites or insects on the skin
Aggressive behaviour and homicidal or suicidal thoughts
Whenever a person's methamphetamine use negatively affects their life, or the lives of others, they have a problem with the drug.
Using methamphetamine is particularly risky when it involves:
Mixing substances. Methamphetamine can alter the effects of other drugs. In some cases, the mix can lead to overdose, or reduce the effectiveness of prescription medication.
Masking mental illness. Methamphetamine can hide or worsen a user's mental disorder.
Using needles. Injecting the drug increases a person's risk of dependence. Sharing needles also increases a user's chances of becoming infected with hepatitis C and HIV.
Engaging in high-risk sexual behaviour. Users tend to engage in risky sexual behaviour and have higher rates of sexually transmitted infections than other groups.
Pregnancy and breastfeeding. Babies exposed to the drug tend to have a lower body weight at birth and a smaller head circumference. The drug is also linked to still births and hemorrhaging.
People who experiment with methamphetamine can get hooked on trying to reach the original high they achieved. The more they try, the more they use. The more they use, the more tolerant their body becomes and the greater their risk of developing a dependence.
Dependence on any drug can lead people to do things they don't really want to, such as steal from loved ones, deal drugs and commit other crimes. Users sometimes damage relationships with family members and friends. They may also give up on their goals or spend all their money on drugs instead of necessities.
Is methamphetamine legal?
In Canada, it's illegalto make, sell, buy or use methamphetamine (except when prescribed by a doctor). In BC, some communities have introduced laws to limit the availability of houshold products used to make methamphetamine.
For information on ways to help yourself with a substance use problem, see the "Tips" section of the Here to Help website: www.heretohelp.bc.ca. The website also features detailed information on substances and mental health disorders.
You can also find information on a wide variety of substance use issues on the Centre for Addictions Research of BC website: www.carbc.ca.
Copyright © 2008 – Centre for Addictions Research of BC, University of Victoria. Permission to copy granted. Production of this document has been made possible through a financial contribution from Health Canada. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of Health Canada.