So recently I was introduced to an award winning television show called Breaking Bad. For those who are not familiar with this show, it tells the story of Walter White, a struggling high school chemistry teacher who has been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Since he has nothing to lose, he decides to embark on a career of crime by producing and selling methamphetamine to secure his family’s financial future before he dies. Naturally, as a curious individual I wanted to know more about this drug; what makes people take it? How does it work? And what are the long-term effects?
Amphetamines are a group of molecules, and methamphetamine is a family within this group that is able to stimulate the central nervous system to produce a short, intense ‘rush’. Essentially, it creates a false sense of happiness and increases alertness, confidence and energy. It is highly addictive; and creates a dependence that is only relieved by taking more of the drug. In fact, many users report getting addicted to it from the first time they use it. With repeated use, methamphetamine takes a toll on the mind and body. Understandably it is also one of the hardest drug addictions to treat. Symptoms of withdrawal are so painful and difficult that 93% of people return to methamphetamine use.
One of the negative consequences of methamphetamine use is addiction, which is a chronic disease characterized by the dependence on a substance. So a person will have trouble cutting back on their drug use even though it has started causing social, financial and health problems. Like all drugs of abuse, methamphetamine causes the brain to release high levels of the chemical dopamine, which controls pleasure. However, the level of dopamine released from methamphetamine is the mother of all dopamine releases. It actually produces 12 times the amount of dopamine you get from food and sex and other pleasurable activities. It’s no wonder why methamphetamine users are ‘hooked’ from the get go.
Users who are dependent on methamphetamine suffer from poor mental health. This usually consists of:
- Agitation and aggression
- Decreased motivation
- Symptoms of depression and anxiety
- Psychotic symptoms such as paranoia and hallucinations
- Long-term cognitive impairment (decreased concentration and memory)
Some of the physical effects include:
- Weight loss – loss of muscle tissue and bone density
- Permanent damage to blood vessels in the heart and brain
- Increase heart rate and blood pressure – leading to a heart attack or stroke
- ‘Meth mouth’ – broken, discoloured and rotting teeth
- Obsessive skin picking brought on by the hallucination of bugs crawling beneath the skin
In recent years countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States have identified an increased use of methamphetamine. This increase is characterised by an increase in both domestic production and importation. Methamphetamine in Australia is usually sold in the form of powder, paste or crystal. Powder and paste methamphetamine are mostly domestically produced with moderate purity (10-20%), while the crystal form, which is usually imported is higher in purity (up to 80%).
Just to give you an idea how common methamphetamine use is in Australia; it has been reported that:
- One in 10 adults have used it at some time in their life
- 90% of amphetamines are produced locally
- 297 illegal amphetamine laboratories were detected in 2008-09
- 585kg of the substance was seized this year in a single haul – with a street value of $440 million!!!!
This gives you an idea how serious amphetamine use is in Australia. It’s an issue that most people are not aware of, at least not to this magnitude.