Methamphetamine is an addictive stimulant drug that strongly activates
certain systems in the brain. Methamphetamine is closely related chemically to
amphetamine, but the central nervous system effects of methamphetamine are greater. Both
drugs have some medical uses, primarily in the treatment of obesity, but their therapeutic
use is limited.
Methamphetamine is made in illegal laboratories and has a high potential for abuse and
dependence. Street methamphetamine is referred to by many names, such as
"speed," "meth," and "chalk." Methamphetamine hydrochloride,
clear chunky crystals resembling ice, which can be inhaled by smoking, is referred to as
"ice," "crystal," and "glass."
Methamphetamine releases high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which stimulates
brain cells, enhancing mood and body movement. It also appears to have a neurotoxic
effect, damaging brain cells that contain dopamine and serotonin, another
neurotransmitter. Over time, methamphetamine appears to cause reduced levels of dopamine,
which can result in symptoms like those of Parkinson's disease, a severe movement
Methamphetamine is taken orally or intranasally (snorting the powder), by intravenous
injection, and by smoking.
Immediately after smoking or intravenous injection, the methamphetamine user experiences
an intense sensation, called a "rush" or "flash," that lasts only a
few minutes and is described as extremely pleasurable. Oral or intranasal use produces
euphoria - a high, but not a rush. Users may become addicted quickly, and use it with
increasing frequency and in increasing doses.
Animal research going back more than 20 years shows that high doses of methamphetamine
damage neuron cell-endings. Dopamine- and serotonin-containing neurons do not die after
methamphetamine use, but their nerve endings ("terminals") are cut back and
re-growth appears to be limited.
The central nervous system (CNS) actions that result from taking even small amounts of
methamphetamine include increased wakefulness, increased physical activity, decreased
appetite, increased respiration, hyperthermia, and euphoria. Other CNS effects include
irritability, insomnia, confusion, tremors, convulsions, anxiety, paranoia, and
aggressiveness. Hyperthermia and convulsions can result in death.
Methamphetamine causes increased heart rate and blood pressure and can cause irreversible
damage to blood vessels in the brain, producing strokes. Other effects of methamphetamine
include respiratory problems, irregular heartbeat, and extreme anorexia. Its use can
result in cardiovascular collapse and death.
A study in Seattle confirmed that methamphet amine use was widespread among the city's
homosexual and bisexual populations. Of these groups, members using methamphetamine
reported they practice sexual and needle-use behaviors that place them at risk of
contracting and transmitting HIV and AIDS.
Extent of Use
Monitoring the Future Study (MTF)*
MTF assesses the extent of drug use among adolescents (8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders) and
young adults across the country. Recent data from the survey:
In 1997, 4.4 percent of high school seniors had used crystal methamphetamine at least once
in their lifetimes - an increase from 2.7 percent in 1990.
Data show that 2.3 percent of seniors reported past year use of crystal methamphetamine in
1997 - an increase from 1.3 percent in 1990.
Community Epidemiology Work Group (CEWG)**
Methamphetamine is the dominant illicit drug problem in San Diego. San Francisco and
Honolulu also have substantial methamphetamine- using populations. Patterns of increasing
use have been seen in Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Seattle, and Tucson. New
trafficking patterns have increased availability of the drug in Missouri, Nebraska, and
National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA)t
According to the 1996 NHSDA, 4.9 million people (aged 12 and older) had tried
methamphetamine at least once in their lifetimes (2.3 percent of population). This is not
a statistically significant increase from 4.7 million people (2.2 percent) who reported
using methamphetamine at least once in their lifetime in the 1995 NHSDA.
* MTF is an annual survey on drug use and related attitudes of America's adolescents that
began in 1975. The survey is conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for
Social Research and is funded by NIDA. Copies of the latest survey are available from the
National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information at 1-800-729-6686.
** CEWG is a NIDA-sponsored network of researchers from 20 major U.S. metropolitan areas
and selected foreign countries who meet semiannually to discuss the current epidemiology
of drug abuse. CEWG's most recent reports are available on the CEWG web site.
t NHSDA is an annual survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Copies of the latest survey are available from the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and
Drug Information at 1-800-729-6686.