Why is Meth Different?

When I first went back to school, it was to take classes towards the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor Certification Program offered by Santa Barbara City College. I was volunteering in the Santa Barbara Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse’s social model Detox at Project Recovery, and wanted to turn that into a paid position. I was hired on after just a few months, in Dec. of 2001, and in February of 2002, I transferred into the evening program as a full time employee. I was hired as the drug tester for the program, began facilitating groups, and doing intake interviews immediately. I found that I loved school and so I decided to change my major to sociology and work towards my transfer credits.

An important part of every intake interview is administering the addiction severity index (ASI) standardized survey to each new client. I began my survey research on substance abusers of various types at the same time I began taking sociology classes; and so the counseling job and my college course work complimented each other. I began to keep track of trends in our clients, and to apply social theory in my work. During this time, I also took The Pharmacology of Drugs of Abuse, from Dr. Bruce Read. Dr. Read is head of Pharmacy Services for Cottage Healthcare Systems, who run both inpatient and outpatient substance abuse treatment facilities, as well as Cottage Hospital. He began his career as the pharmacist for Pinecrest Hospital, a drug treatment center, in the seventies, and so has specialized in drugs of abuse for more than twenty years.

Part of the title of this article asks, why is Meth different? The answer to that question, and the implications for society of this difference, are both important. My conclusions are the result of my continued association with Dr. Read, my two and a half years administering ASI surveys, hundreds of individual interviews, and even more group counseling sessions conducted during the same period. This data has been supplemented with extensive research on my part into the history, and trends, in drugs of abuse; as well as patterns of enforcement, incarceration, treatment and rehabilitation of substance abusers.

In the fifties and sixties both over-prescription of amphetamine class drugs, and a booming underground economy led to trouble, in 1965 Federal drug laws were amended to help control the black market, and in 1970 amphetamines were put on the controlled substances list for Schedule II drugs. For more than a decade, it seemed that these measures, and the increasing availability and popularity of cocaine, had helped to control the amphetamine problem.

Then, in the early eighties, Meth came back strong, in a potent new smokable form known as Crystal, Glass, or Ice. At first, the epidemic was mostly confined to Southern California and Hawaii; but in the Nineties, Meth began to spread across the country, and by the end of the decade had become the fastest growing segment of the illegal drug market. Though arrests and referrals to treatment are down a bit from their high point in 1998, we would be foolish to think that the problem is under control.

Dr. Read is one of the best Instructors it has been my pleasure to learn from, he made complex neurochemistry understandable to the layman, this class is where I began to take a special interest in the Amphetamine Class drugs, particularly Methamphetamine.
According to Dr. Read, the amphetamine class drugs are nearly unique (with the exception of heroin among other drugs of abuse), in that instead of causing the brain to go into overproduction of certain neurotransmitters (primarily Dopamine in this case), the amphetamines act as false neurotransmitters. This means that the brain thinks that amphetamine is dopamine; it fits the receptor sites, and triggers the neurons, as if it were dopamine.

This makes Amphetamines incredibly dangerous. The other major stimulant, Cocaine, is a dopamine agonist, which means that it causes the brain to go into overproduction of dopamine. A heavy user might stay up for three or four days at a stretch; but, eventually the body’s ability to produce dopamine is exhausted, the drug stops working, and the user passes out. This is known as the crash, and a cocaine addict might sleep for forty-eight, hours, before waking up ravenous. After sleeping and eating, replenishing their storehouse of dopamine, they can get high again.

Amphetamines do not have this built in limit, because they replace dopamine, there is no theoretical limit to how long someone can stay up. Lack of sleep causes psychotic symptoms in and of itself. When coupled with the sense of invincibility and heightened aggression characteristic of the Methamphetamine high, confusion of the pleasure/pain circuitry, and the paranoia of engaging in illegal activity, the chronic Methamphetamine user is by their very nature a danger to themselves and others.

All of my survey research, and interviewing of Methamphetamine addicts supports this contention, I have spoken to dozens of individuals who state that they would go two or more weeks without sleeping, hallucinating after the first few days, becoming increasingly paranoid and delusional. One client, a convicted manufacturer of Methamphetamine, told me that he had gone on a seventy-three day run at one point. I believed him.

I have listened to a young Hispanic man tell me how he left home at eighteen, and moved two hundred miles away, after the Devil almost talked him into shot gunning his sleeping mother while he was under the influence of Methamphetamine. He did not quit using; he just stayed far away from his family, and became a runner (drug delivery person) for Methamphetamine manufacturers operating out of Riverside County. This young man readily admits to carrying two loaded guns at all times while not sleeping for up to two weeks, he was arrested for carrying concealed weapons, and possession with the intent to distribute Methamphetamine while going over 120mph on his motorcycle.
The problem has reached epidemic proportions in across the Nation, in Contra Costa County, CA, police reported as early as 1996, that nearly ninety percent of domestic dispute cases investigated are Meth related. In Iowa, eighty percent of Domestic Violence cases are Methamphetamine related (Drug Enforcement Agency). Nearly thirty-six percent of arrestees in Hawaii test positive for Methamphetamine (National Drug Intelligence Service, 2002).Throughout the U.S., street gangs have been recruited as manufacturers and distributors of Methamphetamine, they also have begun to use heavily and violence is on the rise across the country. Homicide in general is down, but gang and drug related homicide is up.

Closer to home, in a special report by McClatchy Company’s Newspaper’s (Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee, and Modesto Bee), it was reported in 2000 that, “In the Central Valley, more than 20,000 children are living in foster care: more than 6,000 in Sacramento County, 733 in Stanislaus County and more than 3,000 in Fresno County. The vast majority of them are from drug homes, and most have parents who are addicted to meth.”

The biggest issue with Methamphetamine, from the prospective of a sociologist, is that it is being used by an unusually broad demographic, and that Meth users tend to be clannish, secretive, and violent, making them an interesting and dangerous deviant subculture. We must begin to ask ourselves if there is a better way to deal with drug use in this country, prohibition did not work the first time, and it is not working this time.

The drug laws are a part of the problem in dealing with any addiction, particularly that of Methamphetamine. The fact that the drug mimics acute paranoid schizophrenia in its effects upon chronic users is magnified by the fact that the police are actually looking for them, and may increase the likelihood of psychotic episodes of violence.

Perhaps it is time to legalize, tax, and regulate the drug trade. This would remove the drug gangs from the equation by cutting off their profits, thereby reducing violence. Furthermore, it would be easier to get people to participate as research subjects, as they would not have to worry about being arrested, and the tax moneys could provide an enormous source of funding for education, treatment, and rehabilitation, with enough left over for other socially responsible projects.


U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. Methamphetamine Situation in the United States, March 1996
http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/pubs/intel.htm downloaded 3/3/05

U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center. Hawaii Drug Threat Assessment
May 2002 http://www.usdoj.gov/ndic/pubs07/998/meth.htm downloaded 3/3/05

http://www.methamphetamineaddiction.com/methamphetamine_hist.html#dangerous Methamphetamine History, 1992. downloaded 3/3/05

A Madness Called Meth, Special Report by the McClatchy

Company’s California Newspapers October 8, 2000 http://www.valleymeth.com/chapter_1.html

Lecture Notes, Pharmacology of addiction, Dr. Bruce Read, Cottage Health Systems.

Lecture Notes, Group Counseling, Brief Interventions, et al.

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse – Interventionist Training

Survey and interview research, 2002-2004, Counsel On Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, Project Recovery, Santa Barbara, CA.

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