Crystal meth, short for crystal methamphetamine, is a very powerful stimulant form of methamphetamine that is usually smoked, although it can be injected or snorted. It is colourless and odourless, and derives its name from its similarity in appearance to small fragments of glass, or crystals. It is in fact FDA-approved for use in treating obesity and ADHD in both children and adults, whereby it is sold under the trademark name of Desoxyn, and can also be used to treat narcolepsy and depression. However the high that it can give users means that it is also abused. To that end, it is known to be a very addictive and damaging drug, and has a Schedule II classification in the US.
Its effects are similar to that of cocaine, including increased confidence, alertness and enthusiasm. In higher doses it can induce a feeling of euphoria. These effects last longer than cocaine, but carry high health risks, especially from long-term addiction.
Crystal meth was first synthesised in Japan in 1919, and was thought at the time to have potential practical uses in medicine for treating afflictions as diverse as narcolepsy, alcoholism and hayfever. It was also experimented with in the military as a stimulant to help both Axis and Allied WWII bomber pilots stave off tiredness and remained focussed during long flights. However, the negative side effects including irritability, impairment of judgement and difficulty in channelling aggression made it unsuitable for this purpose and its use was phased out.
Despite the banning of methamphetamine production in Japan in the 1950s, drug companies continued to produce the drug, which ended up on the black market. In America in the 1990s, new methods of synthesising the drug were discovered, with stronger strains developed. This led to an increase in use and abuse of the drug in the US, and by 2000 had become one of the most popular illegal drugs available in the country, surpassing heroin, crack and cocaine.
Crystal meth has a reputation on the street as being a cheaper alternative to crack and cocaine, making it the drug of choice for many addicts. Its most common street names are “glass” or “ice”, although it can also be known as “chalk”, “blade” or “shards”. As with any drug there are many more street names by which it is known, varying from location to location. Other colloquial terms for crystal meth include crystal glass, hot ice, Tina and shabu. One of its more common street names on the West Coast of America is LA Ice, due to the prevalence of the drug in the poorer areas of Los Angeles.
Due to its relatively low cost compared to other drugs, as well as its potent effects, crystal meth is one of the most popular illegal drugs available, particularly on the club circuits. It also tends to be purer than for instance heroin, which is often cut with other drugs or chemicals. It is particularly popular in western parts of the United States. Crystal meth users are sometimes known in these regions as “tweakers”.
Crystal meth’s major effects include hyperactivity, increased confidence and alertness, with higher doses creating a feeling of euphoria. These effects last much longer than those experienced with cocaine. These however are accompanied by a range of negative effects both in the short and long term. Physiological effects include dilated pupils, as well as increased heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature.
Other effects can include loss of appetite, convulsions and insomnia. Crystal meth can also induce feelings of depression and irrational behaviour, potentially leading to suicidal or homicidal thoughts, as well as anxiety and paranoia. Withdrawal symptoms include depression, increased appetite and fatigue often lasting for days, however this can stretch to weeks or months with prolonged use.
Crystal meth affects dopamine levels in the brain, and long-term use can lead to psychosis, brain damage and a range of other psychological problems including Parkinson’s disease. Users are also at a significantly increased risk of comas and strokes. Abuse among pregnant women can be particularly damaging for the child, resulting in premature birth, heart defects and cleft palate. Injection of crystal meth also puts users at a higher risk of HIV.
“Meth mouth” is a condition caused by crystal meth abuse, resulting in users losing their teeth unusually quickly. This is a product of a combination of the effects of crystal meth, including dry mouth, frequent grinding of the teeth, poor oral hygiene and poor diet as a result of appetite fluctuations.
Use of crystal meth is relatively limited outside of the US, and whilst it is known to be used in parts of Asia and Australia, crystal meth has virtually no presence at all in the UK. The US represents a third of all worldwide crystal meth consumption, although it is thought that 80% of crystal meth consumed there originates from abroad, particularly from Mexico. Other countries where crystal meth manufacture and use remain relatively high include Thailand and Japan.
The constituent ingredients of crystal meth are relatively easy to obtain, and are present in over-the-counter household items. The main ingredient, pseudoephedrine, can be found in some common pharmaceutical products. This is then heated with red phosphorus and blue iodine to create the crystal meth.
Although crystal meth can potentially be manufactured anywhere so long as the ingredients and equipment are available, the volatile and dangerous nature of the chemicals and reactions involved make it rare for users to produce their own supply of the drug. Meth labs allow greater quantities to be produced and sold, and thousands of these labs are discovered by authorities across the US every year.
Owing to the flammability of the chemicals involved, the manufacturing process can still be a relatively dangerous one. Indeed, explosions caused by the volatility of the ingredients are often how meth labs are discovered. The residues caused by such explosions carry significant public health risks for the local area, and particularly for those involved in the manufacturing process
For practical reasons, meth labs are usually set up in a relatively close geographical proximity to the areas where the drug is likely to be sold and consumed, although significant amounts are known to be smuggled across borders. Despite supposed natural occurrences of methamphetamine in certain trees found in Texas, these findings were thought to be as a result of cross contamination. It is therefore widely thought that crystal meth can only be synthesised artificially.
In the last 20 years American authorities have sought to clamp down on the production and use of crystal meth, leading to many thousands of meth labs being shut down every year. This means that levels of supply can sometimes be inconsistent, although considering the availability of the ingredients it is not uncommon where one meth lab is shut down for another to spring up nearby. US Government officials have been quoted saying that crystal meth represents the country’s biggest drug problem, and so considerable resources are allocated to attempts to eradicate it. This extends to restriction on the purchase of products containing constituent ingredients, and increasingly lengthy jail sentences for those who traffic, deal and consume crystal meth.
A large amount of crystal meth consumed in the US is manufactured in Mexico and smuggled across the border, either in the form of its separate component ingredients or as crystal meth that is ready for the street. This is most likely an extension of Mexico’s existing trade in other illegal drugs, as well as the increasing number of labs shut down in the US forcing production abroad. With meth labs moving to Mexico, this means that availability of the drug is not likely to dramatically decline any time soon without considerable progress made in tackling overall illegal drug traffic across the border.
As with many drugs, some of the signs of addiction to crystal meth can be obvious, whilst some are more clandestine. There are both physiological and behavioural symptoms to look out for.
One of the more blatant side effects of meth abuse is “meth mouth”. This is where meth addiction causes teeth to decay and fall out through a combination of factors involved in using the drug. Someone missing an unusual amount of teeth, with poor dental hygiene, is potentially a sign of being on crystal meth.
Another negative effect of crystal meth is insomnia. During a meth binge users will sleep very little if at all, so persistent tiredness could be a sign of addiction. Meth suppresses the appetite, so weight loss or unusual eating patterns are another sign to look for. Constant restlessness, short term memory loss and bloodshot eyes are other identifiable symptoms.
In the longer term, meth users will begin to exhibit signs of irrational behaviour, including anxiety and paranoia, potentially culminating in suicidal or homicidal thoughts. It is obviously very important that someone abusing meth receives help before this stage, so as to reduce the risk of them causing harm to themselves or to others.
Whilst crystal meth is generally less expensive when compared to heroin, crack or cocaine, users will still go to extraordinary lengths to feed their habit. Persistent financial troubles can be potentially indicative of meth abuse, with some users resorting to stealing to fund their addiction.
The withdrawal symptoms of crystal meth usually last for days with occasional use, but this can stretch to weeks or months with prolonged use. For this reason it is exceptionally difficult to attempt to give up crystal meth without professional assistance.
The addictiveness of meth means that addicts need to be kept in an environment where they cannot obtain or use the drug, and considering the relatively long time for which withdrawal symptoms last, users should be monitored to ensure that they do not experience health complications, or cause harm to themselves or others. To that end, a “cold turkey” approach to recovery from addiction to crystal meth is not recommended, and is rarely successful without external assistance.
It is worth noting that as one of the most addictive drugs available, crystal meth is also known to be exceptionally difficult to treat. Unlike heroin, for which medicinal alternatives can be used to mitigate cravings, crystal meth has few if any such alternatives. The depression associated with withdrawal from crystal meth is also far more severe and longer lasting than that of cocaine.
Prolonged use of crystal meth can lead to a range of conditions and complications, including serious heart disease, memory loss and impaired concentration, as well as depression and suicidal tendencies.
Over 20% of meth addicts develop long term psychosis, which is often resistant to treatment and can last for more than 6 months, sometimes indefinitely. It is therefore important that as well as treating the addiction itself, the damage that it has caused to the body is also dealt with. The most effective way to do this is to engage the help of medical professionals either in a hospital or rehab clinic. The first step should be to see your local doctor, who can advise you as to what treatments might be most beneficial.
It is also important to deal with the underlying issues that might have contributed to addiction in the first place, otherwise there is a high risk of relapsing in the future. Job status, social standing, geographical location or even a recent bereavement when combined with addictive tendencies can send someone on a downward spiral of addiction, and unless these factors are dealt with, it may well be difficult to make positive progress in getting clean.
With medical professionals to help the physical effects of addiction recovery, as well as trained counsellors to assist with the psychological issues, recovery is certainly possible. However as with recovery from any addiction, it can only be achieved with the inclination and full determination of the addicted person. Considering that the withdrawal symptoms can last for months after stopping crystal meth, and the fact that an addict who is not fully recovered will always find a way to get a fix, it is important to take a holistic approach to recovery treatment, applying both medical treatment and therapy.