Methamphetamine (meth) is a chemically synthesized stimulant drug that is a more potent form of the drug amphetamine. It comes in a variety of forms. The most commonly found form in Australia is crystalline methamphetamine, known as ice or shard. This is a purer, stronger and generally more addictive form than the powder form known as speed. The base form, a gluggy or oily paste, is less commonly available. All these different forms of meth contain the same drug, but in different strengths and purities.
Crystalline methamphetamine usually looks like small clear crystals, sometimes with a bluish, green or pink tinge. Powder methamphetamine is usually a white or brownish fine powder. Meth can be smoked, swallowed, snorted, or injected.
Short term effects
- feeling more alert, more awake and energetic, more confident
- sense of euphoria or pleasure
- repetitive activities- like scratching, jaw clenching, teeth grinding
- increased heart rate, breathing rate, temperature and sweating
- decreased appetite
- decreased need for sleep
- for some people: Anxiety or paranoia, agitation, aggressiveness or hostility, or violent behaviour. Whether this happens depends on a range of factors- for instance, how much of the drug is taken and how quickly, whether it is taken with other drugs, and the person’s general health and state of mind.
Long term effects
Regular use of meth can cause lasting effects on the brain. This can include problems with memory, thinking or concentration that can last for some time after stopping use of the drug. Some of these problems can get better over time, but it can take months to years to return to a usual way of feeling or thinking. Other effects include:
- a lack of motivation, and difficulty getting pleasure from activities
- depression or anxiety
- psychotic symptoms (such as hallucinations or paranoia), which may persist
- decreased appetite and weight loss
- problems sleeping.
If you use meth regularly, you are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms when the initial effects wear off and you're not using. The symptoms will vary in severity based on a number of factors - how much you use, how regularly you are using and your chosen method (injecting, smoking, etc).
Symptoms of meth withdrawal can include:
- feeling moody or flat, right through to being severely depressed
- lack of energy, lethargy, exhaustion
- getting no enjoyment or pleasure from usual activities
- having aches and pains
- sleep disturbance, insomnia
- problems with concentration and memory
- cravings to use meth.
Withdrawal can peak around day 2-3 after last use and generally begins to ease after a week to ten days. Low-grade symptoms including mood swings and agitation, cravings, and sleep disturbance can last for a further couple of weeks, while some people can feel depressed for a few days, weeks or even months.
Forms of meth
Common name: Ice / crystal meth
Street name: Ice, meth, crystal, shabu, yaabaa, glass
Appearance: Crystal or coarse crystalline powder
Colour: Translucent or white, may have green, blue or pink tinge
How it's used: Swallowed, smoked, snorted, injected
Comes from?: Imported from Asia and locally produced in labs
Availability: Widely available
Common name: Speed
Street names: Whiz, crank, louie, meth, velocity, zip
Appearance: Fine or coarse powder
Colour: White, pink, yellow, orange, brown
How it's used: Usually snorted or injected, swallowed
Comes from?: Made in illegal labs in Australia, some imported
Availability: Widely available in Australia
Common name: Base
Street names: Paste, point, pure, wax
Appearance: Sticky, gluggy, waxy or oily form of damp powder, paste, crystal
Colour: Often has a yellow or brown tinge
How it's used: Swallowed, smoked, snorted, injected
Comes from?: Most is produced in illegal labs in Australia
Availability: Varies between states and territories
Meth and the body
Meth causes the brain to release massive amounts of chemical messengers and keep them circulating in the brain for a long time. Most important are dopamine, which is responsible for memory, concentration, behaviour, and feelings of pleasure, and noradrenaline which prepares the body to fight or run away from a threat (‘fight or flight’ mode). Meth speeds up normal physical processes and a user will have little appetite, be wide awake, and feel energetic, confident, sociable, and euphoric.
Concerns: As only a certain amount of dopamine is stored at any one time, the supply is rapidly exhausted and no matter how much meth you use, you’ll never get the rush you’re after. This is also why people feel pretty bad when they come down from meth and tend to have poor concentration; feel flat, moody or down; are tired, irritable and restless; and have little motivation to do anything much at all. Long-term, heavy meth use can cause the brain to shut down many of the cells that release and take up dopamine, which can result in long-term damage to memory, concentration, and mood. The recovery period can take months or even years for some people.
Recovery tip: It takes time for the body to manufacture more dopamine, so lay off meth, rest, drink, and eat good food to minimise the risks of long-term harm.
Because the body is in ‘fight or flight’ mode and is prepared to react to a threat, meth dilates your pupils to increase available light and improve your vision.
Meth shrinks blood vessels, so the blood supply to teeth and gums will be reduced. Meth also reduces bacteria-fighting saliva in the mouth, and causes teeth grinding and jaw clenching.
Concerns: Tooth decay, gum problems, and infections. Grinding of the teeth can damage your tooth enamel.
Tip: Brush and floss regularly, drink plenty of water, and chew sugar-free gum to take pressure off your teeth and to get saliva flowing.
Because meth puts the body into an artificial ‘fight or flight’ state, air passages widen to increase oxygen levels and breathing rate increases.
Concerns: Smoking crystal can damage lung tissue and reduce the amount of oxygen that can be exchanged.
Meth increases blood pressure and heart rate and causes the heart to beat more strongly.
Concerns: Overdose! High blood pressure can lead to brain haemorrhage or stroke. Dangerous overheating, heart attack and fits can also occur.
Long-term use can cause the heart muscle to swell in size and to lose strength.
If you’re injecting, you can introduce bacteria into the lining of the heart (endocarditis) which can cause serious illness and heart failure.
Tip: If injecting, you should ALWAYS use safer injecting practices and don’t use alone. If you experience any chest pain of shortness of breath, get medical help straight away.
Meth narrows blood vessels in many organs including the stomach.
Concerns: Your appetite will be decreased, and some people experience nausea or stomach pain. Others might become constipated. Regular users can lose too much weight, and nutrition can suffer. People often forget to drink enough water.
Recovery Tip: Weigh yourself regularly; remember to eat frequent small meals even if you’re not hungry, or try milk shakes or smoothies. Remember to drink water regularly.
The kidneys are the body’s filtration system. Meth constricts blood vessels in the kidneys which decreases the amount of urine produced.
Concerns: Kidney problems such as infections and kidney stones can occur due to constricted blood vessels. Bladder infections can also occur. This is made worse because meth users often forget to drink.
Tip: Drink water regularly. Keep a water bottle handy and take frequent sips even if you’re not thirsty. This will keep your kidneys working well.
Meth can increase a person’s sex drive.
Concerns: Meth users can neglect safer sexual practices due to overconfidence or altered judgment. This puts people at high risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections, including gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV.
Tip: Make sure that you carry condoms at all times and commit to using them EVERY time.
Meth can cause skin irritations or the feeling that ‘bugs’ are crawling under the skin.
Concerns: People may pick and scratch the skin particularly on the face and arms which can cause sores or lesions. Users are also vulnerable to skin and other infections due to picking, injecting, or being generally run down. The skin can also become dry due to dehydration.
Tip: Drink water regularly to stay hydrated. If injecting, you should ALWAYS use safer injecting practices. If you feel that ‘bugs’ or other things are in your skin, it's a strong sign to seriously consider a break and get some help
Meth overdose - what to look for
Meth overdose, like all stimulant overdose, is a medical emergency and if untreated can lead to heart attack, stroke, and dangerous overheating. Signs of possible overdose include:
- Hot, flushed or very sweaty skin which can mean very high fever
- Severe headache
- Chest pain
- Difficulty breathing
- Mental confusion
- Unsteady walking
- Severe agitation or panic
- Rigid muscles, tremors, fierce jerking movements of the limbs
Remember signs of overdose as the 4 H's:
- Have a fit.
First aid for meth overdose
DIAL 000 AND CALL AN AMBULANCE IMMEDIATELY
- Reduce stimulation - Move the person to a quiet, safe place away from people, noise, light and heat.
- Cool the body
- If unconscious - place the person on his or her side to make sure that breathing is not obstructed.
- If muscle spasms or fits occur - remove anything from around the person that could cause injury. Don't sit on the person or restrain in any way.
- Reassure - stay with the person until the ambulance arrives, keep calm, and give lots of reassurance.
Mixing meth with other drugs
Possible risks of mixing meth with other drugs
There's lots to think about when people use drugs. Consider the physical and psychological effects of the drug, how much you take, what it's made from, what it's cut with, where you use it, how you use it, who you use it with, where it's sourced from, and your physical and mental health. Combine two or more drugs and it's clear that mixing meth with other drugs is a very risky practice.
There's clear evidence about the effects of combining some drugs with meth, but for other drugs the evidence is less clear and the effect is unknown. But remember, a lack of evidence doesn't mean it's safe.
Medications for psychotic disorders (antipsychotics)
Medications used to treat psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia can stop working when people use meth as blood levels of these medications are often reduced. Without an adequate level of the medication in the blood, psychotic symptoms can return. Risk of seizures (fits) is also increased.
Regular doses of HIV medications are crucial for HIV positive people, but medications are often forgotten when a person is bingeing on meth.
Mixing meth and HIV medications can also cause meth toxicity (overdose) so it's very important to discuss the risks with your prescribing doctor.
When combined with meth, alcohol can increase blood pressure and heart rate more than meth alone, which places a greater burden on the heart. Meth can also stop you from feeling drunk even when your blood alcohol levels are high so never drive a car even if you think you're ok or feel sober.
Meth users sometimes take more benzos than they intend. Like alcohol, even if you don't feel tired or relaxed, benzos will still affect you and your coordination.
Reduce your risk of accidents and becoming dependent on benzos by keeping track of how many pills you take and how often.
Avoid taking more than prescribed by your doctor. If they haven't been prescribed for you, take regular breaks and watch out for withdrawal symptoms when you cut down or stop (e.g. anxiety, difficulty concentrating, sleeping problems, headaches, sensitivity to loud noises/light/touch, feelings of unreality, numbness, metallic taste in the mouth, pain, stiffness and muscular spasms).
Benzo withdrawal is life threatening and can result in uncontrolled fits if untreated. If you've been taking benzos regularly and think you might be dependent, you need professional support to wean off it slowly and safely.
Some people use cannabis to soften the edges when coming down from meth. Smoking cannabis can make some people feel more paranoid though, and for those people who already have a mental illness such as schizophrenia, or who are vulnerable to psychosis, cannabis can make symptoms worse.
Opioids (heroin, methadone, codeine etc)
Mixing meth with opioids can increase the risk of overdose. Because meth can delay the 'rush' from heroin, people can end up using much more than they're used to. It's also been suggested that the heart might be affected by the combination of these two drugs as meth stimulates heart rate, while opioids slow heart rate and breathing.
Psychostimulants (ecstasy, cocaine)
Other psychostimulants such as ecstasy and cocaine can interact with methamphetamine to increase a user’s risk of heart attack, stroke and psychosis.
Medications for depression (antidepressants)
Some medications that stop excess serotonin from being recycled (called SSRIs), tricyclic antidepressants, and particularly monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), when taken within the same two weeks as meth, can cause dangerously high blood pressure, overheating, fits, heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure. Always discuss the risks with your doctor, and always be honest about your meth use. If you need to take medication for depression you really need to take a break from using meth.