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Opioids Are Epidemic, but Meth Addiction is on the Rise

Methamphetamine in blue crystal form. (Wikimedia commons)

Drug dealers don’t belong to the Better Business Bureau, but you’d think they would at least want their customers to live to continue to buy their products.

Maybe not. First, opioid drug dealers started supplying their oxycodone-seeking clientele with facsimiles made of the much stronger opioid fentanyl. Not only is fentanyl stronger than the prescription opioid pills that got so many people hooked, but it also is dozens of times stronger than heroin.

That substitution—made without the knowledge of the users—has resulted in many deaths, including pop stars Prince and Tom Petty.

Opioids are not the only drugs contributing to a rise in addiction and overdose deaths. Methamphetamine abuse is again on the rise, too, and at least one user claims he started using it because his dealer mixed it in with his heroin without telling him. When he found out, he tried meth straight and preferred it.

At first glance meth and opioids seem an odd combo. Meth is a stimulant—you “feel confident and energetic”—and opioids are depressants—you feel “a rush of good feelings and happiness … as if the world has slowed down” and “your worries are gone.” It seems like they would cancel each other out.

That is the reason behind users combining the two in the first place. The cocktail is called a speedball (originally cocaine and heroin), and the purpose, in theory, is to combine the euphoria of both drugs and decrease the negative side effects.

In practice, it doesn’t work that way for long.

  • Opioids’ effects last longer than meth’s, which can cause a fatal overdose when the meth wears off if the dose of opioids was too large.
  • This push-pull effect puts a strain on the system which can result in a stroke or cardiac arrest.
  • It doesn’t diminish all of the effects of meth use, cosmetic as well as life-threatening. All by itself, meth damages the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys, teeth, and skin, causing body sores and decaying teeth (“meth mouth”).

So, if meth is so bad for you, why is its abuse increasing? (No, it’s not because of Breaking Bad. It increased awareness of the drug, and to some extent mainstreamed it, but it also increased arrests and busts of suppliers. Meth abuse was higher before the show debuted). The reasons include:

  • It’s cheaper.
  • Meth isn’t an opioid. A test specifically for opioids won’t detect meth. (This also means anti-overdose drugs for opioids won’t reverse a meth overdose.)
  • As opioids become harder to obtain, meth which can be made in part from other easier-to-obtain drugs such as ephedrine and pseudoephedrine,
  • It gives you the energy of a much younger person. One ex-user says it makes people in their 70s feel like they are in their 20s.

By some accounts, drug abuse is a zero-sum game. Although the overall rate of addiction for all drugs has steadily increased, the rates of abuse for specific drugs fluctuates. Although the rate of meth abuse is rising, the number of overdose deaths from opioids still far exceeds those for meth.

We don’t have just an opioid epidemic; we have a drug epidemic. We need treatments for all drug abuse and its root causes.