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Cleaning Up Meth

Methamphetamine is one of the most widely used narcotics in the world and one of the fastest growing illegal drug problems in America.

What is Meth?

Also known as “meth,” “speed” or “ice,” methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant that can be smoked, injected, snorted or ingested in tablet form. It can be homemade with locally available ingredients or bought on the street. The price of one gram of meth varies from $80 to 240, depending on the state.

Initially manufactured in Japan in 1919, methamphetamine was first used on a wide scale during World War II. Both the Allies and the Nazis distributed meth to their soldiers to boost alertness and fight off fatigue. In the 1950s, the United States saw a sharp increase in legal methamphetamine prescriptions to the public, mostly for depression and weight loss. Even though illegal production of methamphetamine was well under way in the 1960s and ’70s, meth addiction only began to spread across rural America in the mid-1980s.

The Invasion of Rural America

First appearing in Hawaii and California, meth use moved eastward to the midwest, especially Iowa, which has become a hub for methamphetamine distribution. Mexican drug traffickers have also helped spread meth by smuggling it across the U.S.-Mexico border to the southern and midwestern United States. Today, it is estimated that as many as three million Americans use it on a regular basis.

Psychologist Richard Rawson of the University of California at Los Angeles says the spread of meth in rural America is due in large measure to the dynamics of the illegal drug market. He adds,“As the large-scale meth traffickers decided to take the product and expand the market, they didn’t want to go up against the cocaine traffickers, who were different groups. They were different families, different cartels. So they went where there was no competing market, which were suburban and rural areas.”

The Arizona Hub

The southwestern state of Arizona has become a major transit point for smuggled Mexican methamphetamine as well as for homemade meth. Ramona Sanchez, of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Phoenix says the ease of “cooking” meth from ingredients found in off-the-shelf cold remedies and household chemicals has made it the number one drug threat in Arizona.

“Unlike heroine, unlike cocaine, unlike marijuana, unlike ecstasy, meth is easily manufactured and produced in anywhere from hotel rooms to taxis, to kitchens. And the products whereby to make methamphetamine are readily and cheaply available to any person."

When used for the first time, methamphetamine acts as a stimulant, producing a euphoria or what users call a “rush” that makes them more alert and productive. This sensation is what draws people in, turning them into addicts. What methamphetamine does is induce the brain to release higher levels of the stimulant dopamine. But when used for a long time, meth damages the cells that carry the chemical.

Short-term High, Long-term Damage

Charles Curie, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administrator at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, warns that long-term meth use can lead to serious health problems. He says,“The symptoms that can occur from this vary to a large degree. What happens is associated with serious health conditions over the term of use, such as memory loss, aggression, violence, and even psychotic behavior; people hallucinate from it. It causes hard neurological damage, hypertension and seizures.”

Some analysts argue that the damage inflicted by methamphetamine cannot be reversed. But others, including World Health Organization alcohol and substance abuse advisor Maristela Montiero, argue there is no evidence to support that. “We don’t know about that," says Montiero. "It seems that with abstinence, the damage can be reversed. The brain is very elastic, but there’s also not enough research to demonstrate that maybe in heavy users or chronic users the damage may not be reversible. But so far, most of the evidence shows that it can be reversed.”

The good news is that surveys done for the National Institutes of Health show that methamphetamine use in the United States has leveled-off. And the number of meth addicts checking into clinics for treatment has risen from roughly 400 in 1993 to more than $8,000 two years ago. In contrast, experts note that Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia have seen an escalation in meth use in recent years.

The Global View

According to the World Health Organization, more than 35-million people across the globe abuse meth on a regular basis, making it the most widely used illicit drug after marijuana. The World Health Organization’s Maristela Montiero says that although meth is not the number one illegal drug on the global scene, it should be addressed now.

“What’s worrisome is the trend that shows increased and widespread use. And when an epidemic seems to be coming, it’s good to invest resources and do what you can to avoid a larger increase.”

Fighting Back in the U.S.

In the United States, shutting down meth labs and passing legislation that makes some cold remedies available only by prescription have made it harder for meth producers and traffickers to function. Some analysts say this has driven producers to Mexico, where they can manufacture meth more cheaply and easily, and then smuggle it back into the United States. But others contend that this is a good thing, because it will be easier for U.S. authorities to fight methamphetamine smugglers with the same techniques they use against other drug rings, than to hunt for hundreds of local meth labs across rural America.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.