Teen methamphetamine use is rising — especially among young people in the Midwestern and Eastern states — and could even be replacing marijuana as the drug of choice in some regions of the country, according to an Associated Press report released last week.
Statistics show methamphetamine use among teens has been level for the last few years, but experts told the AP that the numbers can be deceiving since the drug spreads in "pockets," leaving some populations untouched, while others will be completely ravaged by its effects.
Meth, also known as "speed," "crystal" and "chalk," is one of the most addictive illegal substances, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Called "the poor man's cocaine," it is cheaper to produce than coke and creates a high that can last up to eight hours. The drug, which releases high levels of dopamine into the brain, acts as a mood enhancer and provides the user with a false sense of ecstasy and control.
"I've talked to kids who've said it makes them feel like Superman," said Carol Falkowski, a researcher for the Hazelden Foundation in Minnesota who tracks the state's drug trends for NIDA. Last year, a fifth of addicts who entered drug treatment for meth were under the age of 18. "So many people are innocently seduced by this drug, and we need to get the word out that it is very dangerous and can very well be life-long damaging."
Dr. Mary F. Holly, founder of Mothers Against Methamphetamine (MAMA), has made it her life's mission to educate teens about the dangers of methamphetamine. In 2000, her brother took his own life after a two-year battle with the drug. Her faith-based education program in Alabama focuses on three core teachings: prevention, outreach and support.
"The methamphetamine epidemic is growing exponentially, and teens need to know this isn't just some cool party drug," she said. "When kids first start using it, it makes them feel so powerful that they can't see anything wrong with that, but this drug has the potential to ruin your life."
Prolonged meth use can have neurotoxic effects on the brain resulting in irreversible, cognitive brain damage, NIDA said. Even small amounts of the drug can result in irritability, insomnia, anxiety, paranoia and aggressiveness — and in extreme cases, respiratory problems, strokes or even death.
Once a user becomes addicted, treatment for the drug is virtually ineffective, Holly said. Less than 6 percent of those who enter rehabilitation centers for 28 days or less stay clean, while many addicts end up in jail, on the streets or in a mental institution.
According to a 2002 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 12.4 million adolescents age 12 years and older have tried meth at least once in their lifetime. And methamphetamine use has become a growing trend among teen girls, who use the drug as an appetite suppressant and weight-loss aid. "People need to get out of their misconceptions that meth is being used in trailer parks out in the country, because clearly it's happening in urban areas among adolescents as well," Falkowski said.
Lawmakers in Oklahoma and Illinois have already passed laws to ban the purchase of large quantities of over-the-counter cold medication, like Sudafed, which contains pseudoephedrine, one of the main ingredients in meth, the AP reports. Many teens have access to the drug from friends and neighbors who have their own homemade methamphetamine labs. Over the past five years, meth-lab seizures have increased at an alarming rate. In 2000, the state of Colorado averaged close to 20 seizures a year. Today, it averages nearly 1,000 a month. In her home county in Alabama, Holly said 250 meth labs have been seized so far this year, compared to five labs in 2000.
"I think in order to address the meth problem, we have to quit fooling ourselves that we can continue doing business as usual," Falkowski said. "We really need to throw a lot of resources at this problem to keep it from spreading all over the country. Because once it becomes entrenched in an area, it never really goes away."