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Also known as “crystal meth” methamphetamine is part of the amphetamine family of stimulant drugs. Prevalence of methamphetamine use is low in the UK compared to the most common stimulants, 0.03% in the most recent Government survey in England and Wales.
In the UK, methamphetamine is considered a niche drug compared to almost every other substance. Government data shows that in 2018 / 2019 almost a million people took powder cocaine, while just 11,000 took methamphetamine. More than one in 10 adults have used cocaine, and only five in every 100 have ever used methamphetamine.
This survey states that Wales has the highest proportion of people in the UK starting treatment for amphetamine or methamphetamine use. In 2018, 5.8% of all people starting treatment in Wales reported primary use of amphetamine or methamphetamine, compared to 1.8% in England and 1.5% in Scotland.
In the period 2015–2019, methamphetamine accounted for 72% of the total quantity of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) seized globally, and globally the number of users of methamphetamine and amphetamine is 27 million people according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) World Drug Report 2021.
The UNODC reports that the manufacture of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) continues to be dominated by methamphetamine at the global level. In the period 2015–2019, close to 24,000 illegal laboratories used in the manufacture of ATS were reported to have been detected or dismantled worldwide (45 countries).
More than 95% of them had been manufacturing methamphetamine; 2% amphetamine; 1% “Ecstasy”; and the remainder other stimulants. Most detected methamphetamine laboratories were reported in North America, mainly in the United States, where 890 illegal methamphetamine laboratory incidents were reported in 2019, 56% of the global total, followed by Mexico, 43 illegal laboratories, and Canada, 18 illegal laboratories.
Europe accounted for 6% of all illegal methamphetamine laboratories dismantled worldwide over the period 2015–2019.
In the UK in 2021, operational activity by the National Crime Agency in collaboration with UK policing partners resulted in the seizure of over £220,000 in suspected criminal cash and bitcoin, and more than 50kg of cocaine, MDMA, cannabis, methamphetamine and ketamine.
A wider investigation has resulted in 150 alleged suspects being arrested, more than €26.7 million cash and virtual currency seized (that is approximately £23.47 million or US$31 million), 234kg of drugs and 45 firearms. The seized drugs include 152kg of amphetamine, 27kg of opioids and over 25,000 Ecstasy pills.
Damian Barrow, Senior NCA Manager in the Dark Web Intelligence Collection and Exploitation team, said: “The individuals we have targeted who are supplying drugs via the dark web are ultimately preying on the vulnerable and destroying communities”.
What is methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine is a strong form of amphetamine. It comes as powder, crystals or tablets and has a similar euphoric effect to cocaine but a much longer duration of action. Methamphetamine was first synthesised in Japan in the late 1800s from ephedrine, a drug commonly used to treat asthma.
Methamphetamine, or crystal meth, is a powerful psychoactive substance and one of a group of drugs known as stimulants which include cocaine and amphetamine (speed). Methamphetamine is one of the most powerful stimulant drugs available on the illicit market and works by super-stimulating the reward pathways in the brain, primarily through increasing the levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is associated with motor function, motivation, reward, and the brain’s pleasure centres.
Most methamphetamine is made illegally, and it may contain caffeine, talc and other toxic substances.
What are the different forms of methamphetamine?
There are several different forms of methamphetamine.
They are generally distinguished by their appearance and perceived purity, and include:
- Powder: A white or off-white powder generally known as ‘speed’. Powder is the least potent form of methamphetamine, and is often mixed with other substances such as glucose. It can be snorted, injected or swallowed. Powder is also sometimes pressed into pills.
- Base: A damp or oily substance with a white, yellow or brown colour. Base has a higher potency and purity than powder. It can vary greatly in appearance and is known by various terms, including ‘pure’, ‘paste’ and ‘wax’. Base is typically injected and sometimes swallowed.
- Crystal (‘ice’): A crystalline substance of translucent to white appearance. Crystal methamphetamine is the most potent form of methamphetamine, and is usually smoked or injected.
On the street, methamphetamine is known as:
- Crystal Meth.
The drug Ecstasy, medical name methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA, is sometimes included as a type of methamphetamine. However, while Ecstasy is a derivative of methamphetamine, it has a different chemical structure and effect.
Can methamphetamine be addictive?
For some people, methamphetamine use can lead to very strong psychological and physical dependence, especially if it is injected or smoked. The crystal form of methamphetamine, sometimes called crystal meth or ice, is extremely powerful and addictive.
Many people become addicted to methamphetamine because of the way it increases the ability to function short term. People can become addicted to methamphetamine after their first exposure to the drug. The flood of dopamine is responsible for the rush people feel, and the sensation is hard to stop wanting to replicate.
The more a person uses methamphetamine, the less common the euphoric effects become. They may use higher and higher doses to relive the first experience. Tolerance is building during this time, and the brain and body are tolerating higher and higher levels of dopamine and methamphetamine.
The after-effects of taking methamphetamine tend to lead people to want more. When the substance wears off, the feelings of euphoria, excitement and well-being fade to less-desirable emotions.
To not feel paranoia and depression, the person has to use more to feel better and avoid an increasingly painful reality, leading to a cycle of use and abuse. Addiction sets in when the brain and body crave more of the substance to feel the same effects and keep the good feelings.
In withdrawal, a methamphetamine addict may not suffer as many physical withdrawal symptoms as drugs such as opioids
However, many of the physical symptoms such as the following may cause stress on the body during withdrawal:
- Lack of feeling pleasure.
- Lack of motivation.
These symptoms may last anywhere from a week to several months.
What is methamphetamine used for?
The sale of methamphetamine products from retail pharmacists was banned in the UK in 1968. However, in the US the drug is available in a pharmaceutical form for the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy. In the past it was marketed as a slimming pill for the treatment of obesity.
Like amphetamine, the drug methamphetamine causes talkativeness and increased activity, euphoria, a pleasurable sense of well-being and decreased appetite.
Some people often take methamphetamines because it can cause rapid weight loss; however, this is short term as the body builds up a tolerance to the drug so weight loss tapers off and stops within weeks after taking the drug. Using the drug also results in very powerful euphoric feelings, increased energy and a heightened sexual appetite that can last for hours.
How is methamphetamine abused?
Typically sold as a crystalline powder, methamphetamine is usually snorted, smoked or injected, often in binges lasting several days. Smoking methamphetamine has been acknowledged as the route most likely to lead to addiction. Smoking methamphetamine gives the user the biggest rush, producing the effects in seconds, hence its popularity among abusers.
Social norms that accept drug use make it easier for an individual to try using methamphetamine in the first place. Peer pressure may cause an individual to start abusing the psychoactive drug for recreational purposes, and people experiencing stress in their lives may abuse stimulants such as methamphetamine as a means of escape.
There are three categories of methamphetamine abuse:
- Low-intensity methamphetamine abuse – Low-intensity abusers snort or swallow methamphetamine to get extra energy that enables them to stay awake and alert to accomplish a task. Low-intensity abusers may also use the drug to suppress appetite as a way to lose weight.
- Binge methamphetamine abuse – This involves abusers who inject methamphetamine with a needle or smoke it to get a powerful rush that is psychologically addictive. They are on the verge of moving into high-intensity abuse.
- High-intensity methamphetamine abuse – This is usually common in individuals who are addicted to the drug and take it to prevent painful withdrawal symptoms. To achieve the desired rush from the drug, they must take more and more of it.
How does methamphetamine affect the body?
Methamphetamine is undoubtedly one of the most harmful psychoactive drugs on the illicit market. Its use stimulates the brain and central nervous system, and can result in a variety of adverse outcomes. The effect that methamphetamine has on an individual depends on a number of factors.
- How much methamphetamine is taken.
- The method of use.
- The form and purity of the methamphetamine.
- The height and weight of the user.
- The user’s current physical and mental health status.
- The user’s previous experience with methamphetamine – new user or frequent user.
- Whether other substances such as alcohol, tobacco, medications or other illicit drugs are used at the same time as methamphetamine.
Immediate effects of methamphetamine use on the body can include:
- Increased energy and talkativeness.
- Increased attention and alertness.
- A sense of euphoria and well-being.
- Increased heart rate, body temperature and sweating.
- Increased sex drive.
- Decreased appetite.
- Jaw clenching and teeth grinding.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Dilated pupils.
- Dry mouth.
- Nervousness, anxiety and paranoia.
In the days following methamphetamine use, other effects may include:
- Restless sleep and exhaustion.
- Dizziness and blurred vision.
- Paranoia, hallucinations and confusion.
- Irritability, mood swings and depression.
What are the risks of methamphetamine?
There are a variety of physical health risks associated with methamphetamine use. Many of these risks are very serious and can result in severe short- and long-term consequences for the user; these are described below.
Some users may opt to administer methamphetamine intravenously to experience a swift rush. This may carry a high risk of blood-borne infections such as HIV and hepatitis B due to sharing needles.
Studies suggest that methamphetamine use may lead to structural and functional changes in the brain associated with emotion and memory, and that some of these may be irreversible. Methamphetamine is neurotoxic and can damage dopamine and serotonin neurons in the brain.
Methamphetamine use is linked to higher frequencies of unprotected sexual intercourse and violent behaviour. Misuse of methamphetamine can be hazardous and even life threatening.
Short-term and long-term effects of methamphetamine
The effects of methamphetamine are the same regardless of which form is used, for example powder, base or crystal. However, crystal methamphetamine (ice) tends to be more potent and purer than other forms. As a result, the effects of ice are both more likely to occur and likely to be more intense than when other forms of methamphetamine are used.
The short-term effects of methamphetamine can last anywhere from 8 to 24 hours. In most cases, methamphetamine users have been known to stay awake for days when they engage in abuse.
During this time, the person may experience some or all of the following side effects:
- Increased energy or activity.
- Decreased appetite.
- Breathing more or faster.
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat.
- Disturbed sleep patterns.
- Delusions of power.
- Increased aggressiveness.
Toxicity increases when methamphetamine is used with alcohol, cocaine or opiates.
Methamphetamine has long-lasting effects, and some tests can detect it in the user for up to 3 months following use.
Long-term effects of methamphetamine use can lead to:
- Severe dental problems.
- Significant weight loss.
- Skin sores and infections.
- Sleep disorders.
- Cognitive deficits, including memory loss.
- Problems in thinking ability.
- Problems with motor control.
- Addiction and tolerance.
- Aggressive or violent behaviour.
- Erratic mood fluctuations.
- Damaged blood vessels.
- Regular colds and flu.
- Poor dental health.
- Increased heart rate.
- High blood pressure.
- Muscle stiffness.
- Irregular heartbeat.
- Liver, kidney and lung damage.
- Diseases generally found in older people, such as coronary atherosclerosis and pulmonary fibrosis.
- Possible death due to cardiovascular collapse.
Teenage users of methamphetamine are likely to end up with extreme anorexia, stroke, heart attack, tremors and convulsions, as well as lung, liver and kidney damage.
Methamphetamine is an extremely addictive drug, and just using it twice is enough to make the user’s body dependent on the influx of chemicals. Once the body becomes dependent, a person has to keep taking the drug to prevent drug withdrawal. The withdrawal symptoms surface once a person begins the detoxification process.
Methamphetamine withdrawal and detoxification is a painful experience and is the reason why most people fail to quit methamphetamine on their own. The experience is not only uncomfortable but, in some circumstances, can also be dangerous to a person’s health. In most cases, these symptoms are extremely intense, lasting for days or even weeks.
Methamphetamine withdrawal symptoms are essentially emotional and psychological with several associated physical symptoms. The drug withdrawal process is not consistently severe, compared to withdrawal from alcohol or opioid drugs.
These withdrawal symptoms include:
- Muscle weakness.
- Decreased appetite.
- Lack of motivation.
- Insomnia despite exhaustion.
- Headache from dehydration.
- Muscle pain, especially in the jaw from clenching.
Behavioural therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and contingency management interventions have been described as the most effective drug rehabilitation treatments for methamphetamine addiction.
Methamphetamine and the law
A drug or other substance is tightly controlled by the UK Government because it may be abused or cause addiction. The Misuse of Drugs Act (MDA) 1971 established the system by which illicit drugs or controlled substances are classified.
Its fundamental purpose is to provide a regulatory framework which controls the availability of, and access to, certain substances. Within this Act, criminal penalties are set with reference to the risk or to the harm caused by a drug and the type of illegal activity undertaken, for example, possession or supply / trafficking.
There are three categories of drugs: Class A, Class B and Class C; methamphetamine is classified as a Class A drug. Possessing methamphetamine leads to a maximum sentence of 7 years and/or a fine. Possession with intent to supply, supplying and production all have a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and/or a fine.
People who are on methamphetamine tend to exhibit certain specific physical signs that are not common in users abusing other drugs.
- Lots of excessive movement.
- Abnormally high amounts of energy.
- High body temperature.
- Lack of appetite.
- Changes in physical appearance such as premature ageing.
Anyone who is concerned about drugs and methamphetamine in particular, whether this is your own use of substances, or you feel under pressure to take drugs, or if you are worried about a friend or family member taking drugs.
There is confidential help and advice available from: