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Ice age: who has used crystal meth – and why?

If you’ve listened to the news lately, you might think that Australia is overrun with uncontrollably violent people on crystal methamphetamine. This may be true of those in crisis, but the bigger picture…

After long periods of regular use, changes to the dopamine system can mean users appear flat and unmotivated. Shutterstock

If you’ve listened to the news lately, you might think that Australia is overrun with uncontrollably violent people on crystal methamphetamine. This may be true of those in crisis, but the bigger picture of meth use is much more varied.

Australia has one of the highest rates of illicit methamphetamine use in the world and the highest use among developed nations. Around 2.5% of Australians over 14 years (around half a million people) have used methamphetamine over the past year, compared with around 9% who have used cannabis and more than 4% who have used ecstasy.

Methamphetamine comes in a number of forms, mainly powder/pills (speed), crystal methamphetamine (crystal meth or ice) and a sticky paste (base).

The majority of users favour the lower-potency powder or pill form, which can be swallowed, snorted or injected; a smaller proportion use the crystalline form, which is usually injected or smoked. All forms of methamphetamine have a similar chemical makeup but crystal meth is much more potent.

Who uses meth?

Users of methamphetamine come from across the spectrum of society but a number of groups have higher than average rates of use. Very few people under the age of 20 use the drug, but those aged between 20 and 29 years have the highest rates of use at around 6%, though this actually decreased from 7.3% between 2007 and 2010.

As with most illicit drugs, men tend to use at higher rates than women and those in paid employment tend to use at higher rates than those not in paid employment. This may surprise some people, because of the unhelpful stereotypes that are perpetuated of the “down and out” illicit drug user.

However, the majority of people who use illicit drugs do not use regularly or in large quantities. A relatively small proportion (for methamphetamine, around 10-15%) of users go on to become dependent and need treatment.

Around 2.5% of Australian’s over 14 years have used methamphetamine in the last 12 months. Shutterstock

Some industry groups have higher than average use as well. These include hospitality (6.1%), construction (5.5%), media and telecommunications (5%), mining (4.4%) and finance (4.0%). Gay men and men who have sex with men are also reported to have a higher-than-average rate of use, as are sex workers.

There have been recent reports of increases in use of crystal methamphetamine, but it is unclear whether existing users are switching to the more potent form or new users are taking up the drug.

Short-term highs

Methamphetamine dramatically increases the level of dopamine, which regulates many systems in the brain, including feeling pleasure, motor control and cognitive processes such as attention and working memory.

Dopamine is released any time we do something that feels good, but methamphetamine makes the brain release up to 1,000 times the normal level of dopamine. Very little else, including other drugs, releases so much dopamine, and over such a long period of time, as methamphetamine.

With short term use, the brain’s dopamine reserves are emptied, and users of methamphetamine may feel tired and irritable for a few days while the stores build up again.

Long-term lows

After regular use, the brain’s dopamine system effectively wears out, and over time the brain stops being able to produce enough dopamine on its own.

When a person stops after a long period of use, they may feel depressed and lack motivation because they are unable to produce any more dopamine – at least for a while. They may also have strong cravings for sugary or starchy food because they are unable to get pleasure from anything else.

Meth changes the brain and, consequently, behaviour.

Methamphetamine also releases high doses of another brain chemical, noradrenaline, activating the “fight or flight” system. People using high doses can be anxious, jumpy and hypervigilant (flight) or suspicious and aggressive (fight).

Other effects occur in the frontal area of the brain that controls thinking, planning and decision-making, personality and appropriate social behaviour. The prefrontal cortex takes the information from the emotional centre of the brain and decides whether to act on it or not.

By disrupting dopamine activity, methamphetamine reduces the influence of the thinking parts of the brain, enabling the emotional parts of the brain to go unchecked.

Road to recovery

As a result of the effect of these chemicals on the brain when intoxicated on methamphetamine, users can be anxious, hypervigilant, aggressive and show signs of psychosis.

If someone is intoxicated on methamphetamine, telling them to calm down, or trying to restrain them is not a good idea – they may be scared and paranoid because of the drug effects. Try to calmly get them to a quiet place with reduced stimuli, but don’t put yourself in danger.

After long periods of regular use, changes to the dopamine system can mean users appear flat, unmotivated, and have such strong cravings that relapse is hard to avoid.

Understanding that the recovery process may be long and difficult because of these brain changes can assist long-term users to stick to their treatment program and can assist their family and friends to be patient.

Although the brain eventually recovers, these brain changes can last for months or years after stopping use, which is one of the reasons that recovery can take a long time, with many relapses along the way. It can take 12 months or more for a methamphetamine user to start to feel “normal” again.

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24 Comments sorted by

  1. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    The heading promises an answer to the "why" question that the article doesn't address.

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    1. Nicole Lee

      Associate Professor at the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University

      In reply to John Crest

      Thanks John. A fair enough point. I could have made that more obvious. The short answer is the release of dopamine 1000% greater than just about anything else we know of. Use is then maintained by the changes that dopamine and other brain chemicals make to the structure and chemistry of the brain. Most people start using meth for the same reasons they use any other drugs - they think it will be fun, interesting or useful to them. Possibly why industries that have long hours and shift work tend to have the highest rates of use - although we don't know for sure.

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    2. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Nicole Lee

      Nicole, I still think there is a "why" to be delved into.

      Has any study been done as to user demographics - "class", mental state, are tobacco users or were, education etc?

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    3. Steve Phillips

      Nurse Practitioner

      In reply to John Crest

      I thought it was obvious but here goes: Because humans like pleasure. Meth gives pleasure, fast! That quickly creates an addiction.
      It is relatively straight forward. You don't have to get too wrapped up in the psychology of it. The users that I've met have been mostly from the lower socioeconomic sector. With one maybe two exceptions. They wanted a cheap, quick high and didn't have the willpower or nouce to use something less dangerous or addictive.
      We all have choices like this at sometime in…

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    4. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Nicole Lee

      They might think it will be "fun, interesting or useful", but of course, it can also be pretty much the exact opposite. Do people think they won't be addicted / harmed, that somehow they're "special"?

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    5. Rory Cunningham

      Test Analyst

      In reply to John Crest

      Considering only 15% of meth users addicted it seems like yes, alot of people go on the assumption that they won't get addicted

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    6. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Nicole Lee

      Is there any thought that the drug might be useful for people with dopamine deficient diseases - like Parkinson's, for example?

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    7. Nicole Lee

      Associate Professor at the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University

      In reply to Rory Cunningham

      Yes, indeed! 85% never become dependent so there is some truth in that. The problem is that we don't really know *who* will go on to develop dependence or other problems, so it is a lottery if you decide to take drugs of any sort (including alcohol and tobacco).

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    8. Nicole Lee

      Associate Professor at the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University

      In reply to John Crest

      That's a really interesting thought. And on the flip side I have also been wondering why drugs used to treat Parkinson's haven't been trialled for meth users. It's definitely a good question for a psychopharmacologist or pharmacist! One that I can't answer at the moment, I'm afraid! But I will look into it!

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    9. Nicole Lee

      Associate Professor at the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University

      In reply to John Crest

      Amphetamines have such a complex action in the brain. One day we may know the answer to all these interesting questions!

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    10. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Nicole Lee

      It does seem odd that a drug that causes the (over?) production of dopamine also leads to its eventual shortage.

      Perhaps we all have a finite supply? Meth users just use all theirs up earlier?

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    11. Nicole Lee

      Associate Professor at the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University

      In reply to John Crest

      That is certainly true in the short term. The dopamine runs out. The brain just can't keep up the production and eventually the system gets damaged. The available research suggests that dopamine levels are around 80% at about 18 months after stopping, and the structures seem to repair themselves over time, but there may be residual effects after that, in addition to the mystery of what happens in those 18 months. The dopamine system affects so many parts of the brain.

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    12. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to Nicole Lee

      It would be interesting to understand the system of repair / replenishment - that would seem to be exactly what Parkinson's people could benefit from.

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    13. C Allan

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Nicole Lee

      There are currently several therapeutic uses for speed. One example - Ritalin has recently been trialled as a medication, used in combination with an antidepressant, to treat severe melancholic depression. The doses, however, were relatively low, but I believe the results were promising.

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  2. Tantri Orr

    Senior Trainer AOD and Mental Health

    I question the stats on the forms of meth most commonly used. In Victoria we have widespread reports of crystal meth being used most commonly and indeed a shortage of powder or pill forms. As well the age of initial use is often among younger people, below the age of 20. Ecstasy use is down and some users appear to be taking Ice rather than cannabis for recreational purposes believing it is just another recreational drug but more fun and with longer lasting effects. Reports indicate that domestic production of crystal meth has led to this increase since 2011.

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    1. Nicole Lee

      Associate Professor at the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University

      In reply to Tantri Orr

      Thanks Tantri. I am based in Victoria. I think 'reports' from the field are important pieces of data to consider, but they often give a one-sided view of prevalence and other issues - for example, if you work in the alcohol and drug treatment field as I do, 80% of the people you see will be using crystal meth, but that is because those who use crystal are more likely to be dependent and come in contact with treatment services. Crystal use is possibly on the rise - but we only have indicator data…

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  3. Anthony W Collins

    Lawyer

    I had a client who said to me that "Satan gave him the first rush". He went onto say that he spent the next fifteen years trying to catch that rush again. There doubtless the instant effect which makes the drug attractive in recreational settings such as nightclubs. Anecdotally it seems to be the drug of choice of workers. A number of employers in North Queensland have introduced drug screening policies to combat its use on worksites. I suspect that for many people working long hours the chemical assistance is necessary to keep working. The mixture of amphetamine and steroids (or other muscle growth substances) is something which needs to be looked at. I was very interested in your comments on fight or flight....naturally in my line of work I see more of the fight than flight.

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    1. Nicole Lee

      Associate Professor at the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction at Flinders University

      In reply to Anthony W Collins

      They are all very good points, Anthony. There are certainly safety issues for some worksites that they need to deal with somehow. My colleagues at NCETA have written extensively on the issue of drug testing in the workplace. An example here: http://nceta.flinders.edu.au/files/3313/2200/4798/Workplace%20Drug%20Brochure%20sml.pdf

      I imagine most of the people you would see, who are in contact with the justice system, would be at the more severe end of the using spectrum. All of the expert witness reports I have done for court have been related to violent incidents, most as a direct consequence of being heavily intoxicated.

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  4. Stephen S Holden

    Associate Professor, Marketing at Bond University

    Thanks Nicole, fascinating to get some background into all the elements your uncovered. Much appreciated.

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  5. Hannah Ayn

    logged in via Facebook

    Why did you link to research saying that gay men and MSM have a 'higher than average' rate of use but not bother to do the same for sex workers? Reinforcing negative stereotypes without evidence to a vulnerable group is negligent from an academic like yourself, please link to valid research (ie not from a rescue or abolitionist organization) proving that sex workers have a 'higher than average' rate of use than the general population or strike that line from your article please.

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  6. Ryan Brown

    logged in via Facebook

    I started abusing my adhd meds (dexamphet) and then started taking high purity methamphet orally to supplement it. It makes you a god productivity-wise, at least at first. Then you start to believe you can't do anything without amphetamines. Almost as bad is the delusions of grandeur you get, which lets you put off stuff you need to do for later because you have amphet and can just skip sleep and do it any time; you start putting stuff off indefinitely and you get nothing done.

    Meth and amphet are incredibly useful tools but i doubt very many people could use them responsibly; at least people of my temperament.

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