The history of the use of methamphetamine is intertwined with the history of its chemical cousin amphetamine. Their chemical structures are similar, although the effect of methamphetamine on the central nervous system is more pronounced.
Amphetamine was first synthesized in 1887, and methamphetamine was discovered in 1919. By 1943, both drugs were widely available to treat a range of disorders, including narcolepsy, depression, obesity, alcoholism and the behavioral syndrome called minimal brain dysfunction, known today as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Following World War II, during which amphetamine was widely used to keep combat duty soldiers alert, both amphetamine (Adderall, Benzedrine, Dexidrine) and methamphetamine (Methedrine, Desoxyn) became more available to the public.
In 1971, Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which classified amphetamine and methamphetamine as Schedule II drugs, the most restricted category for prescription drugs. In response to an ever-increasing demand for black market stimulants, their illegal production, especially that of methamphetamine, increased dramatically.
Methamphetamine can be swallowed, snorted, smoked and injected by users. The effects usually last from four to eight hours or more, depending on dosage.
Like amphetamine, methamphetamine increases activity, decreases appetite and causes a general sense of well-being. Amphetamine has been used for weight control, for athletic performance and endurance, for treating mild depression, and to help truckers complete their long hauls without falling asleep. Methamphetamine has been widely marketed to women for weight loss and to treat depression.
Increased or prolonged use of methamphetamine can cause sleeplessness, loss of appetite, increased blood pressure, paranoia, psychosis, aggression, disordered thinking, extreme mood swings and sometimes hallucinations. Many users become physically rundown, which leaves them susceptible to illness. The discontinued use of methamphetamine by heavy users will create withdrawal symptoms, including severe depression, lethargy, anxiety and fearfulness. Such effects are less pronounced with oral use and in lower dosages.
Methamphetamine production is a relatively simple process, especially when compared to many other recreational drugs. It is frequently reported on in the media when home meth-producing labs are busted.
Pharmaceutical methamphetamine is still available legally under the brand name Desoxyn, but only infrequently prescribed to treat severe obesity, narcolepsy and ADHD. Pharmaceutical amphetamine is available by prescription under a number of brand names (most notably Adderall), while other amphetamine-like stimulant medications are also widely prescribed (such as Ritalin), and are commonly prescribed to treat narcolepsy, ADHD, fatigue and depression. Although ostensibly not available to enhance productivity or wakefulness, amphetamine is commonly used that way. This has created a divide between those with health insurance who are able to obtain stimulants through legal means, and those who seek out black-market stimulants and face arrest.
Contrary to a common misperception, methamphetamine is not “instantly addictive” for most people who use it. Most people who use methamphetamine do not develop an addiction. For those individuals who do develop an addiction, treatment for methamphetamine addiction is similar to that for cocaine and other stimulants and just as likely to succeed.
Nationally, methamphetamine use is not on the rise, though there are regional differences. The number of Americans who report binge drinking in the last month – an indicator heavily associated with crime, violence and family dissolution – is more than 90 times the number who report using methamphetamine in the same period.
The proportion of Americans who use methamphetamine on a monthly basis has hovered in the range of 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent since 1999. Almost 11 million Americans have tried methamphetamine at least once – far fewer than those who have tried inhalants (23 million), psychedelics (34 million), cocaine (34 million), or marijuana (100 million). Of those 10.3 million, only 1.3 million used methamphetamine in the last year; and only 512,000 used it within the last 30 days. The estimated number of semi-regular methamphetamine users in the U.S. (those who use once a month or more) equals less than one quarter of one percent of the population (0.2 percent).
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