Meth Use is Surging in the US…and No One Is Paying Attention
Opiate addiction isn’t the only problem facing Americans
Between 2011 and 2017, deaths due to methamphetamine overdose increased more than fourfold. Law enforcement officials in many cities have identified the drug as the biggest problem among their citizens. Yet, almost all public discussion of drug use is about the opioid epidemic. Federal and state funding has accordingly been focused primarily on measures to aid opiate users, at the expense of other categories of drugs.
If meth is threatening our public health, why haven’t public officials put together plans to aid users? Part of the reason may be that, despite the increase in meth use, opioids cause about four times as many deaths from overdose yearly. But, there are many other factors that have contributed to the silent rise of meth use.
Which is used more: meth or heroin?
Despite the heavy focus on increasing heroin use nationwide, the use of psychostimulants, a class of drugs that includes meth, has also increased between 1999 and 2016.
Heroin has a higher average overdose rate—but overdose is not the only way to quantify rates of drug use. In fact, any comparison between meth and heroin should take into account that meth users are much less likely to die of an overdose than are opioid users. While opiates carry similar dangers for all users, meth overdose occurs in lower levels among young adults, its most frequent users. It is telling that, in those cases where meth use is fatal, there’s often an unexpected culprit: contamination by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is also responsible for opiate overdoses.
Because of the disparity in overdose rates, examining rates of hospitalization due to drug use may provide a more complete picture of how drug use habits are changing. And, in fact, comparisons of meth and heroin are turned on their head when taking this information into account.
Between 2008 and 2015, meth-related hospitalizations increased by 245%. This timeframe saw only a 46% increase in opiate-related hospitalizations. In California, the disparity in popularity between meth and heroin has flipped national averages on their head, with deaths due to meth overdose increasing 127% between 2008 and 2013. In this same time period, overdose deaths attributed to opioids grew only 8%—despite the fact that opiate users are much more likely to fatally overdose.
A lack of national attention
Shocking numbers like these should draw national attention, but the national conversation is still centered mostly around opioid addiction. With so many overdose deaths due to heroin and its ilk, none can argue that this attention is unneeded. But, why has America failed to recognize the rapidly-rising meth use rates at the same time?
The answer may lie in regional differences in drug use, where heroin and meth have an inverse relationship. Overdose rates (deaths per 100,000) for meth hit their ceiling at 3.9 in the West, compared to a rate of only 0.5 in the Northeast. Heroin is the exact opposite, with rates reaching a high of 6.3 in the Northeast compared to a low 2.4 in the West.
The Northeast is the seat of our federal government, and plays host to many of our nations highly-respected media institutions. Every day, residents of DC and the surrounding areas see the effects of opioid addiction in their towns and cities; meth use, in comparison, is nearly invisible in these areas. Though this does not absolve the federal government and national media of their ignorance of rising meth use, it at least offers an explanation—and may provide a framework for groups in search of federal help.
Tackling meth addiction
While scientists are routinely finding new ways to treat opiate addiction, meth users do not have equivalent options for medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Despite administering several clinical trials, scientists have struck just as many dead ends. Part of the trouble in defining successful MAT approaches has to do with the effects of the drug; users may simply have trouble remembering to take their medications regularly. Another factor is the interaction between meth and the human body. While opioids affect humans by bonding with a single receptor, meth has no single point of exposure for medications to target.
Instead, meth users must detox without the help of medication, and afterward rely on therapy and group sessions to reinforce sobriety. Researchers are examining the effects of Mirtazapene, an anti-depressant, and Naltrexone, a drug used to help stem cravings for alcohol, but neither has been studied in a wide or longitudinal fashion. Specialized treatment programs including cognitive-behavioral therapy (also known as CBT) and contingency management may help meth users kick the habit, but long-term studies have shown that over 80% or meth users relapse within five years after leaving treatment.
Meth in Southern California
With meth considered “easily available” by a majority of survey respondents in both the Pacific and Southwest regions of the US, California is in the middle of a high-supply zone. Meth lab crackdowns have driven production out of the United States and into Mexico; rather than stop meth use, this has simply led to increased drug smuggling across the Southwestern border.
In fact, Riverside County is considered the largest distribution center for illegal drugs in the US, and despite the ongoing opioid epidemic, the vast majority of seizures are of meth rather than heroin. In the period from 2012 – 2014, the DEA estimates that Riverside County was home to nearly 25% of the meth confiscated by the agency.
Accordingly, of all Riverside County residents who attended a rehab program between 2000 and 2008, meth was the #1 cause cited. Statistics gathered in Orange County between 2011 and 2013 tell a similar story, with meth use was the leading cause of admissions. This data shows that meth use is more than twice as prevalent as heroin use, which only prompted 20% of admissions (as opposed to the 44% due to meth).
With meth use increasing in Southern California, successful rehab and sober living programs must be ready to deal with the realities of recovering from a meth addiction. We are committed to providing top-notch support to meth users in our care. Our team is always learning from the newest and best science around rehabilitation for former meth users, and our strong community gives the lasting support needed to maintain sobriety after a meth addiction.
Contact us today at (323) 942-9996 to learn more about how we can help meth users recover and begin a happy, sober chapter of their lives.
Author – Chris Howard
Chris Howard is the Founder and Director of Ethos Recovery. He has a B.A. in Psychology from UCLA and has served as a community advocate/mentor for men and women in recovery since 2010.