What are the signs someone has a problem with meth? Well, if they’re doing meth, it’s most likely a problem.
To be fair, there are certain substances that present as addictions that are enjoyed by thousands of individuals who never develop a problem with them. Despite the numbers associated with alcohol — 88,000 people die annual from alcohol-related causes, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism  — more than 85 percent of Americans ages 18 and older report drinking alcohol at some point during their lifetime.
Weed is another substance that is consumed regularly by many individuals who never develop a problem with it. One in seven adults used marijuana in 2017, according to the news agency Reuters , but only 9 percent of those people develop a dependence on it .
But meth? Meth is a whole different substance. It’s been attributed to varying stages of the overall addiction epidemic in America, but it can be difficult to separate fact from hysteria, which is critical to understanding it. So if you’re looking for signs someone has a problem with meth, it’s important to understand what it is, where it comes from and how it can develop into an addiction.
What Is Meth?
Short for methamphetamine, meth, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) , “is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Crystal methamphetamine is a form of the drug that looks like glass fragments or shiny, bluish-white rocks. It is chemically similar to amphetamine, a drug used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, a sleep disorder. Other common names for methamphetamine include blue, crystal, ice, meth, and speed.”
It’s important to distinguish between meth, the drug sought by users and sold illegally on the street, and amphetamines, the chemicals from which it’s derived. “Amphetamines are derived from ephedra (Ephedra sinica), a plant native to China and Mongolia,” according to the science website Live Science . “The plant contains ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, which are natural alkaloids, or nitrogenous organic compounds that cause a physiological response in humans.”
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health  notes that while “people have used ephedra for centuries in China for colds, fever, flu, headaches, asthma, nasal congestion, and wheezing,” such holistic relief come from the natural properties of the ma huang herb, whose stimulant properties also contributed “to the herb’s effectiveness as an appetite suppressant, especially when combined with caffeine, aspirin or both” . By isolating those ephedrine properties, Romanian chemist Lazar Edeleanu first synthesized amphetamine in 1887 at the University of Berlin , and in 1893, Japanese scientist Nagayoshi Nagai used it to synthesize methamphetamine.
(An important note of distinction: Pseudoephedrine, which can be used interchangeably with ephedrine in the manufacture of meth and became a key ingredient in over-the-counter cold medicines like Sudafed, was first developed in 1889, also by German chemists. In many instances, American pharmaceutical companies used pseudoephedrine as the primary ingredient in many of their amphetamine-based and amphetamine-related products.)
According to the website History.com , “Methamphetamine was difficult to make until 1919, when another Japanese chemist — Akira Ogata — streamlined the process. He used phosphorus and iodine to reduce the ephedrine into a crystallized form, creating the world’s first crystal meth.” Ten years later, American biochemist Gordon Alles discovered the physiological effects of amphetamine, which led to the development of pharmaceutical medications for the treatment of congestion and asthma . “From 1933 to 1948, amphetamine was included in an over-the-counter nasal-congestion inhaler called Benzedrine,” the Live Science article notes. In addition, according to History.com , “Methamphetamine was used early on as a medical treatment for narcolepsy, asthma and as a weight-loss drug. During World War II, the Allies and Axis powers both used the drug to keep troops awake.”
Signs Someone Has a Problem With Meth: The Post-War Boom
The first meth crisis, according to the University of Arizona , took place following World War II in Japan, where “former Japanese military warehouses had an abundant amount of the drug in storage and as a result, large quantities of over-the-counter methamphetamine pills were produced for domestic consumption by Japanese pharmaceutical companies.” In the United States, amphetamines required a prescription, but by the 1950s, “the prevalence of amphetamine use was on the rise among civilians, including groups such as college students, truck drivers, athletes, housewives and individuals performing monotonous jobs.”
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned amphetamine-based inhalers in 1959, but throughout the 1960s, the drug was touted as “therapeutic agents for health problems such as hyperactivity, obesity, narcolepsy, and depression,” and intravenous use by those who discovered its euphoric properties began to increase. At the time, amphetamines were diverted from pharmaceutical companies, and the drug found its way into popular culture alongside heroin as the tragic byproduct of coping with life as a member of the Beat generation.
However, federal efforts in the 1970s targeted those diversions (through the Controlled Substance Act of 1970), and in 1971, according to University of Arizona writers, “all forms of methamphetamine were classified as DEA Schedule II drugs in 1971.” Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, meth became an underground recreational drug, and the paper “The Methamphetamine Problem in the United States,” published in a 2010 edition of the Annual Review of Public Health , lays out a concise timeline of its evolution into the scourge of addiction we know today:
- By the late ’70s, meth was isolated “to a few circumscribed geographic areas in California and Oregon, where (it) continued to be manufactured illicitly mostly by motorcycle gangs. Their practice of carrying (meth) in the crankcases of their motorcycles, led to the slang term ‘crank.’”
- Gangs began to produce larger amounts in the 1980s and expand their customer base, although use was “fairly limited to Caucasian men, many of whom were truck drivers, construction workers and other blue collar workers.”
- Around the same time, a potent form of meth known as “ice” grew in popularity on the island of Oahu, where it was brought over from the Philippines and Southeast Asia: “This crystallized form of (meth) was heated and inhaled as a vapor and as users discovered the increased intensity of euphoria produced by the smoked drug, smoking became the dominant route of administration for (meth) in Hawaii and subsequently throughout the U.S.”
- In the 1990s, meth exploded in both homemade labs that began on the West Coast and spread east; during the same period, Mexican drug cartels set up “superlabs” in Southern California and Northern Mexico, from which meth “was distributed by Mexican drug trafficking groups to key distribution points in the West and Midwest, including Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City and Des Moines.”
- From 2000 to 2005, meth became increasingly available in the Southeast, and the government recognized it had a serious problem on its hands. States began passing laws targeting methamphetamine in 2004, and in 2005, the federal government passed the “Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act, which federally regulated the sale of products containing pseudoephedrine and further reduced its availability for use in (meth) manufacture.”
Signs Someone Has a Problem With Meth: What’s That Smell?
The determination to manufacture meth, even in the wake of harsher criminal penalties, is a testament to the all-consuming nature of addiction. Although the 2005 federal law, which was folded into the Patriot Act, drastically reduced meth manufacturing in the United States, it propagated an explosion of more “superlabs” south of the border. And because where there’s a will, there’s a way, amateur cooks have found plenty of loopholes, legal and criminal, that allow them to continue to brew meth in homemade labs.
It is not, to say the least, the safest of pursuits, and the website How Stuff Works  breaks down those risks:
- Almost 6 pounds of toxic material is produced for each pound of meth cooked.
- “Houses used as meth labs are often uninhabitable afterward, and cities and states involved in meth lab busts often don't bother with seizing the property, since nobody in their right mind would purchase it at an auction, even at a steep discount.”
- “Small meth labs can be found in suburban houses, motel rooms, car trunks, in campsites or in the woods. Outdoor operations often result in water contamination and a dying-off of nearby vegetation.”
- “Crystal methamphetamine (can) be produced by a number of different methods, including scary ‘shake-and-bake’ and ‘one-pot’ processes. All of them, though, involve ephedrine or pseudoephedrine. The entire process can involve as many as 32 different chemicals, but the formula varies by the ingenuity and intelligence of the ‘chemists.’”
- Some of those steps involve: Separating the ephedrine/pseudoephedrine from the medications containing it using some sort of solvent; mixing it with red phosphorus and hydriotic acid; filtering out the phosphorous and neutralizing the acid with lye; and ventilating the hydrogen chloride gas used to turn liquid meth into a crystalline salt.
Once a meth operation is busted, the problem is just beginning: A decade ago, counties around the Southeast faced budgetary shortfalls because they were spending so much money on meth lab cleanups, according to National Public Radio (NPR) : The state of Tennessee alone spent $4.5 million on the hiring of contractors to clean up and dispose of hazardous waste from meth sites in 2010.
And that, incidentally, is another sign that someone has a problem with meth: the detritus involved in and left over from production. Things to keep an eye out for, according to the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors :
- Equipment used to cook meth: “pressure cookers, jugs, blenders, aluminum foil, pH test strips, turkey basting wands, rubber gloves, thermometers, funnels, strainers and duct tape”;
- The smell: “Odors associated with meth labs often smell sweet or bitter, and some people have described it as burning popcorn. An ammonia smell, similar to that of pet urine, may also be present.”
- Chemical stains on walls and floors, particular yellow (iodine) and red (phosphorous);
- Outdoor burn pits, stained soil or dead vegetation where chemicals may have been disposed of;
- Rust on hinges, knobs and light fixtures, evidence of corrosive gases given off in the cooking process; and
- Unusual venting or plumbing.
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Signs Someone Has a Problem With Meth: What Does It Do to the Brain?
According to the NIDA , meth is consumed by users who smoke it, swallow it (in pill form), snort it or inject it — all signs, obviously, that someone has a problem with meth. But what does meth do once it enters the brain? According to a 2008 article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal , “Methamphetamine causes the release of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin and activates the cardiovascular and central nervous systems.” In much the same way that heroin does, methamphetamine binds to receptors in the brain that control the release of the natural neurotransmitter dopamine, which “involved in body movement, motivation, and reinforcement of rewarding behaviors,” according to the NIDA . “The drug’s ability to rapidly release high levels of dopamine in reward areas of the brain strongly reinforces drug-taking behavior, making the user want to repeat the experience.”
So how, exactly, does it work? A 2008 article in the scientific Permanente Journal  puts it this way: Natural rewards — sex and food, for example — elevate dopamine output by 150 to 300 percent above baseline. Other stimulants do so as well — greater than 300 percent for cocaine and greater than 200 percent for nicotine. Methamphetamine, however, “increases dopamine release to (greater than) 1000% above (baseline) levels within the first hour of taking the drug, with levels returning to basal after three hours.”
On paper, that sounds fantastic, but the article also highlights a number of areas where meth can have catastrophic consequences:
- “Both crack cocaine and methamphetamine prevent the reuptake of dopamine, which allows it to collect and thus prolongs and increases its effects. Although crack cocaine works only at the synapse level, methamphetamine can also penetrate the neuron, and thus cause permanent cell damage.”
- “Brain-imaging studies in both animals and humans show profound, long-lasting alterations of brain chemistry after relatively brief exposures to (crystal meth).”
- “At three months and six months after stopping use of the drug, word recall and recognition continued to worsen.”
The short-term effects of meth mimic those of other chemical stimulants : “Heart rate increases, as do blood pressure, pupil size, respiratory activity, sensory acuity, and energy levels. Reaction time, the need for sleep, and appetite decrease. Acute psychological effects are increased confidence and alertness, elevations of mood and sex drive, and increased energy level and talkativeness and a decreased sense of boredom, loneliness, and timidity, all effects that make the drug desirable.”
Long-term use, however, can lead to dry mouth; tremors; weakness; anorexia and diarrhea leading to extreme weight loss; increased risk of respiratory infections; and “chronic psychologic effects include confusion, decreased concentration, irritability, and panic reactions.” One of the most well-known symptoms of meth addiction is the hallucination or sensation that meth addicts “have bugs under their skin, leading to picking. This tendency contributes to ongoing and pronounced skin and soft tissue infections.” In addition, the hyperactivity caused by meth use leads to teeth grinding, which when combined with dry mouth “and toxic effects of the drug itself cause pronounced degradation of the teeth and ‘crystal meth mouth syndrome.’”
But How Do Users Get Addicted, and What Are the Long-Term Risks?
As if the over physical symptoms weren’t bad enough, the signs someone has a problem with meth can take the shape of profound and catastrophic psychological changes. According to the NIDA , “s is the case with many drugs, tolerance to methamphetamine’s pleasurable effects develops when it is taken repeatedly. Abusers often need to take higher doses of the drug, take it more frequently, or change how they take it in an effort to get the desired effect. Chronic methamphetamine abusers may develop difficulty feeling any pleasure other than that provided by the drug, fueling further abuse.”
To put it another way, think of the receptors in the brain that release naturally occurring dopamine as dams holding back the water of a river. During normal operations, floodgates open periodically to let an acceptable amount of water — or dopamine, in this case — through. Meth is one of those Hollywood special effects detonations that blow the dam wide open, and the result flood of dopamine feel great … until the water on the back side of the dam is so reduced that there’s nothing left.
At that point, users have to do more and more meth to achieve any effects at all, and while their increased use may provide little to no pleasure, it does serve two purposes: It prevents the onset of withdrawal (which “occurs when a chronic abuser stops taking the drug; symptoms of withdrawal include depression, anxiety, fatigue, and an intense craving for the drug” ), and it continues to have alarmingly catastrophic effects on the brain, including:
- “Psychotic symptoms (that) can sometimes last for months or years after a person has quit using methamphetamine,” symptoms than can spontaneously reoccur because of stress. (The term “meth psychosis” is applicable in these situations.)
- “Neuroimaging studies have demonstrated alterations in the activity of the dopamine system that are associated with reduced motor speed and impaired verbal learning.”
- “Studies in chronic methamphetamine users have also revealed severe structural and functional changes in areas of the brain associated with emotion and memory, which may account for many of the emotional and cognitive problems observed in these individuals.”
- “Methamphetamine misuse also has been shown to have negative effects on non-neural brain cells called microglia. These cells support brain health by defending the brain against infectious agents and removing damaged neurons.”
- “Research in primate models has found that methamphetamine alters brain structures involved in decision-making and impairs the ability to suppress habitual behaviors that have become useless or counterproductive.”
In other words, the addicted individual’s ability to make healthy decisions — as well as the ability to get clean from meth and stay clean — are compromised. That alone can make meth addiction a complicated illness to treat.
Signs Someone Has a Problem With Meth: What to Do?
There is some good news, according to the NIDA : “Some of the neurobiological effects of chronic methamphetamine misuse appear to be, at least, partially reversible.” Of course, for those effects to be reversed, the addicted individual needs help to stop using and stay stopped, which makes it imperative that if there are signs someone has a problem with meth, steps are taken to get them help as quickly as possible.
Your best course of action is to educate yourself about the drug and its effects on the individual, as well as the difficulty so many meth addicts have in getting clean and staying that way. Writing for the recovery website The Fix, May Wilkerson writes , “Relapse rates for meth addicts are high, but recovery is possible. Treatment involves detox followed by behavioral and psychological treatment … studies have found that 12-step recovery groups, individual and group therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy have all been effective in helping meth addicts maintain long-term abstinence.”
Granted, not every individual with a drug and/or alcohol problem wants help, and that’s where an intervention may be necessary to force the issue. There are online guides on how to stage an intervention, but before getting to that point, it’s a wise idea to find out everything you can about treatment options in the area. A reputable drug and alcohol treatment center will offer a full continuum of care, from safe, medically supervised detox from meth to inpatient treatment that includes traditional models and evidence-based psychotherapeutic tools.
The road back from any addiction isn’t easy, but meth can be a weighty cross to bear because of the profound changes in and damage to the brain caused by the drug. Meth addiction isn’t a life sentence, however, and it’s certainly doesn’t have to be a death sentence … although, tragically, both are possibilities where that drug is concerned.
If there are obvious signs someone has a problem with meth in your life, it’s important to know this above all else: There is help available. A quality drug rehab can make all the difference in helping a person stop using, lose the desire to use meth and find a new way to live that allows them to rebuild minds and bodies that have been ravaged by this deadly drug.