The Hidden Dangers of the Meth Epidemic

By Caitlyn Bowman, OMS-4
May 1, 2022

Methamphetamine is one of the most abused substances in the U.S. According to the National Institute of Health, almost 1% of the U.S. population reported using meth in 2020. In 2022, that number is expected to grow even higher, with some of the highest rates of use being in Southeastern Oklahoma. The number of meth-associated hospitalizations and deaths is also increasing each year, but the origin of these tragedies may not be due to meth alone.

Meth is increasingly found to be laced with other substances, often without the user’s knowledge. Forensic testing of meth intercepted by law enforcement has shown meth to be laced with opioids (like Fentanyl), ecstasy, benzodiazepines (like Xanax) and THC in very high concentrations. These drugs by themselves carry risks of seizures, stroke, heart attack, arrest of breathing, and psychosis, among others. Even more alarming is the fact that when these drugs are combined with meth, a synergistic effect occurs in which less of each drug is required to encounter these life-threatening side effects. Thus, users of laced meth are more likely to suffer these side effects, which often lead to hospitalization and death. Although some people who use meth feel confident that their dealer would never give them anything other than pure meth, the fact remains that about 90% of methamphetamine in the US is produced in southern California, the ingredients of which are supplied by Mexican cartels – meaning that there is not a verifiable way for the average local meth dealer to know the exact purity of the meth they are selling. Even the small portion of meth in the US produced by local meth labs may be laced with these substances.

The logic behind lacing meth with other substances is purely fiscal but at the price of human lives. Meth itself is not physiologically as addictive as other substances, such as opioids and benzodiazepines. Individuals who make meth use this to their advantage by lacing meth with these highly physiologically addictive substances. Sudden cessation of the use of benzodiazepines and opioids after prolonged and repeated use (such as when it is unknowingly used by someone who binges laced meth) causes intense withdrawals. To quiet these distressing withdrawal symptoms, meth users return to their dealer for more laced meth. Over a short amount of time, the individual will need increasing amounts of the substance to mitigate their withdrawal symptoms, which pads their dealer’s pocketbook and increases the demand for their product. This also drives the prices higher and increases profits garnered by the meth producers over time. Unfortunately, opioid and benzodiazepine overdoses frequently occur due to this method of covert drugging and contribute to the 28.5% yearly increase in opioid-related deaths in the US. This phenomenon has been dubbed “the twin epidemic” in reference to the opioid epidemic sweeping the U.S. in the past several years. In addition, individuals using meth laced with benzodiazepines are at high risk of death during withdrawal.

Other drugs laced with methamphetamines, such as ecstasy and THC, are used primarily to increase the euphoria during the high. This causes an individual to become “addicted” to the intense high that purer forms of meth will not provide, ensuring that the user will continue to source their meth from the dealer who supplied the laced product. Again, this ensures that the pocketbooks of the dealers and producers of meth will only grow larger, irrespective of whether using meth in combination with ecstasy and THC increases the individual’s risk of heart attack, stroke, and psychosis.

The fact that using laced meth increases its addictive potential makes treatment and achieving remission more difficult. Results from studies have postulated that meth use can still have a negative effect on mood and psychotic symptoms for at least a year after becoming abstinent. The use of other psychotropic substances, even alcohol, while abstaining from meth can cause a continuation of depression, hallucinations and delusions due to the longstanding inflammation and damage in the brain that occurs from even one-time meth use. Although there are currently no FDA-approved medical treatment options for those addicted to meth, counseling and therapy have been shown to be effective. It may be difficult for those who abuse meth to institute these treatments willingly, but family members and friends of people suspected to abuse meth can be the biggest supporters of their loved one’s road to remission. The most helpful – but probably the most difficult – action family members and friends can take is identifying and stopping enabling behaviors. Having open, non-accusatory conversations with the loved one can also help motivate future change over time. Family members and friends may also seek counseling themselves to help navigate the stressors and uncertainties that this problem brings.

This column was written by a guest contributor from the Choctaw Nation Health Services Authority.