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Methamphetamine - It’s Story

‘Meth’, ‘Crack’, ‘Crystal’, ‘Ice’ or ‘P’. Those are some of the nicknames we use to describe an illegal substance that has build quite a reputation for itself. Methamphetamine has been a popular drug in New Zealand for some time now.

We hear all the horror stories in the media, the before and after photographs of seemingly wholesome young lady who after using methamphetamine for just a little over two years, ends up looking at least a decade older, a hard and punishing decade at that.

Methamphetamine has become a part of the Kiwi landscape it appears now, no sign of it going away, despite numerous seizures and prosecutions by the police, supply and demand for meth continues to be stronger than ever. Drug using culture has always played a role in Kiwi society, so isn’t methamphetamine no better or worse than any other ‘hard” drugs such as heroin or cocaine? It appears that access to or prevalence plays an important role in the damage a drug will cause in communities.

Methamphetamine is easier to obtain than cannabis in a lot of cases and dealers are offering it in place of “weed” when supplies are scarce.  In fact, it appears that methamphetamine is on the verge of overtaking cannabis by becoming the number one offender in our court system. The ministry of Justice released figures showing that methamphetamine cases before the court were 6377 in the year to June 30, 2017 compared with 6899 cannabis cases.

What makes us stand up and pay attention is when leaders of gangs like the Mongrel Mob and Black Power make public appeals against methamphetamine use, we have not seen a stance like this from organizations implicated in drug trafficking in the past.

Social Cost

In 2016 the Ministry of Health released a publication that estimated the social cost of drug-related harm in New Zealand for the year/s 2014/15. The publication, Research Report: The New Zealand Drug Harm Index 2016 estimated the total cost to New Zealand as a nation from illicit drug use to be NZ1.8 billion for that period. The definition of social cost included drug-related harm and the cost of the interventions used to help ameliorate the problem.

The term ‘total cost’ of illicit drug use was considered to comprise of three components:

1) The cost of personal harm, consisting of physical health, psychological well-being and personal wealth.

2) Community harm, including the cost of drug-related crime, injury to others, harm done to family and friends and tax base lost as a resource for the community.  

3) The cost of interventions by all the various agencies involved in trying to address the associated harm caused by drug use.

The report is detailed and estimates the social cost of drug-related harm to be NZ$33,800 per year per dependent drug user and NZ$2,300 per year per casual user. For the first time the report was able to identify the legitimate pain and suffering endured by family and friends at $438 million. This cost is the single most significant cost identified by the New Zealand Drug Harm Index (DHI). The DHI estimates that our government is spending at least $230 million each year to address a 1.8 billion nation-wide problem.

Brief History

We may tend to think that methamphetamine is a relatively new drug because of the attention it has received over recent years. A paper published by the Ministry of Health in 2009 researched the attitudes of New Zealanders towards illegal drugs and how much they knew about them. Members of the general-public and experienced users were participants. Cannabis and methamphetamine were the most common drugs identified by those naïve to drug use and most thought methamphetamine was dangerous but had only been discovered in recent years.

Methamphetamine is not a new drug, although it has become more powerful in recent years because techniques to manufacture it have evolved. Amphetamine was first made in 1887 in Germany, methamphetamine being stronger and easier to make was developed in Japan in 1919.

Initially amphetamine was investigated as a possible cure or treatment from conditions ranging from depression to decongestion. America began manufacturing amphetamine in the 1930’s and marketed it as Benzedrine which was to be used in the form of an over-the-counter inhaler for nasal congestion (asthmatics, hay fever and colds). Before long, perhaps due to harsh realities of the depression and prohibition many began abusing it looking for a high. Although no legal category of prescription-only drugs existed in the 1930’s, the Benzedrine inhaler was advertised for over-the-counter sale upon its introduction in 1933 and 1934 and for the next 15 years.

Despite the abuse potential, Benzedrine became available in America in tablet form by prescription in 1937, it soon garnered the street name “Bennies” by those using them recreationally. Around this same period in America, a psychiatrist by the name of Abraham Myerson believed there was potential for treating depression with amphetamine. Because Myerson understood minor depression as anhedonia or suppression of natural drives to action, amphetamine represented the ideal mode of therapy to him. With advertising and marketing urging general practitioners to prescribe amphetamine to treat depression and at the same time promoting Myerson’s rationale, annual sales of Benzedrine tablets grew steadily to about $500000 in 1941.

During World War II, amphetamines were widely used by troops on both sides to fight fatigue and keep them fighting. During the Vietnam War, American soldiers used more amphetamines than the rest of the world combined during WWII. Immediately after WWII methamphetamine intravenous use reached epidemic proportions in Japan because supplies stored for military use became available to the public.

From abroad to New Zealand

The current methamphetamine epidemic, with all the struggling addicts, devastating impacts on families and wider communities, is often painted as a new phenomenon here in New Zealand, however use of the drug dates back more than half a century. Along with growth in amphetamine use as a treatment for depression, the war years also so an explosion of amphetamine consumption for weight loss in America and Britain. It was in 1949 that New Zealand drug companies like their counterparts in America and Britain began aggressively marketing amphetamine as a weight loss aid. It only took until the beginning of next decade in 1950 that amphetamine use became largely unchecked and unregulated in this country.

Some fatalities related to amphetamine were reported at this time, but amphetamine use continued to grow despite this. During the year 1956, the annual conference of hospital matrons at Invercargill urged the Health Department to impose “some sort of control on the sale of slimming pills and that they be made available only on medical prescription”.

In was during the 1950’s that prescription methamphetamine (Methedrine) became available in New Zealand. Some post-war youth influenced by the portrayal of Benzedrine use in books such as On the Road by literary iconoclast Jack Kerouac, used Methedrine intravenously, considering it to be their drug of choice.

In 1969, a British medical professor visited New Zealand, he stated that “doctors prescribing amphetamine type drugs for patients wanting to lose weight are guilty of malpractice”. It was at this time that Health Department officials took notice. In 1971, amphetamine type drugs were regulated to hospital pharmacies leading to the restricted use and prescribing practice seen today.

What is methamphetamine.

Methamphetamine is a derivative of amphetamine, meaning amphetamine is the parent drug it is made from. Most of the methamphetamine in New Zealand is made from its precursor ephedrine. The word precursor has been defined as a person or thing that comes before another of the same kind; a forerunner. Ephedrine, amphetamine and methamphetamine are all stimulant type drugs meaning they are of the same variety, hence ephedrine can be altered to become methamphetamine. As mentioned earlier, methamphetamine is easier to make than amphetamine and is also stronger. Both amphetamine and methamphetamine are psycho stimulants meaning they increase a person’s ability to stay awake and even increase focus. Both drugs increase bioavailability of norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin in neuropathways of the brain, a person will feel a sense of euphoria and an increase in energy. Methamphetamine is chemically different from amphetamine and will work on the brain and body using another pathway. Methamphetamine is broken down into amphetamine in the body and then excreted through the urine.

Can methamphetamine be prescribed

Unlike amphetamine, methamphetamine is considered too dangerous to prescribe and is illegal throughout the world. This is because the effects of methamphetamine are much stronger, act quicker and therefore considered more addictive.

What is addiction like

Methamphetamine is considered very addictive, it is at least as three times as powerful as cocaine and causes the brain to produce ten times its normal level of dopamine, the brains pleasure chemical. Dopamine is produced during sex, eating a nice meal, watching pornography, thinking of somebody we love or anything else we assign pleasure to. Methamphetamine also produces a rush of norepinephrine, or adrenaline.

Dopamine effects the brains limbic system, the parts responsible for emotion, learning and memory. Initially the decision to use methamphetamine is made in the pre-frontal cortex, which initiates voluntary actions. After some time, research shows that the decision to take meth moves to the hind brain, which controls involuntary functions like breathing. Research conducted in neuroscience and human behavior reveals that methamphetamine changes the brain. What happens then is that after time the brain assigns the need for taking methamphetamine to be as important as breathing or any other function essential for life.

What is coming off methamphetamine like

Since methamphetamine produces such an intense euphoric high the comedown can be devastating, much like the feeling of deep depression with an absence of pleasure or motivation. Unlike alcohol though, withdrawal is usually not dangerous and there is no specific medication available to assist with methamphetamine withdrawal, sometimes a sedative will be used to help with sleep and/or agitation. Physical dependence is considered resolved in a few days although psychological dependence can persist with many.

Damage caused to the body

The before and after photographs taken of many users is confronting, many people will hardly resemble their former selves prior to using methamphetamine in just in a couple of years of using or shorter. Alterations in the brain from methamphetamine use are caused by how it effects the production of dopamine, apart from addiction as discussed earlier, dopamine also effects the motor control or movement parts of the central nervous system. This can lead a slowing down of movement of the body and the way brain learns new how co-ordinate movement. Damage to the heart muscle is common, arrhythmias can develop along with damage to blood vessels from high blood pressure and heart rate leading to strokes. Since the desire to use methamphetamine can out weigh the desire to take care of the body general appearance can suffer. Lack of blood supply to the skin from how methamphetamine constricts and destroys blood vessels means not enough blood can reach the skin to keep it healthy, leading to grey and leathery skin. Another problem with lack of blood flow to the skin means sores may not heal because the nutrients needed to heal are not available.

Methamphetamine takes away the feeling of hunger through stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, this can lead to excessive loss of muscle mass from the absence of adequate nutritional intake.

Psychological effects

Anxiety, agitation, depressed mood and psychosis are common problems related to methamphetamine use. Users who have not slept for days are frequently admitted into psychiatric institutions suffering from psychosis. Paranoia can be another common experience with those who have not slept for some time. Agitation and psychosis related to methamphetamine use has resulted in many violent acts of violence within the community.

Methamphetamine used in New Zealand

Every demographic is represented as far as methamphetamine use is concerned. It can be surprising how many different types of people are using or have used methamphetamine. Many people are speculating that methamphetamine is now easier to access than cannabis. Those being admitted to hospital due to methamphetamine use has risen steadily since 2012-increasing by 51 per cent between 2014 and 2015. As far as numbers go, a survey conducted in 2017 revealed 3.1 per cent of people had used meth in the past year, so at an estimation that percentile equates to 138,000 people have used methamphetamine, last year that we know of in New Zealand.

Addiction if left to run its progressive and destructive course ruins people’s lives, not only the individual suffering the Addiction, also those people who love and care for them.

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