With an unprecedented rate of busting meth labs in the U.S. over the past decade – in Oklahoma alone, one-pot lab busts went from over 900 in 2012 to about 150 in 2015 – the public may be sensing the issue of meth use has waned. After all, fewer meth labs means fewer fires, fewer contaminated or destroyed apartments and houses for innocent landlords to clean and repair. Fewer children are being exposed to meth chemicals and, perhaps more dangerous, to the lifestyle and police confrontations inextricably associated with domestic meth labs.
Should we be feeling good that we have “turned the corner” on this epidemic and that the ultimate destructive culprit – meth use – is waning because of the crackdown? Far from it.
As so often is the case in the illicit drug industry, where one void in the market appears, it is rapidly filled by illicit enterprises that have the infrastructure to offer logistics and supply. Now that domestic law enforcement has made it less viable for homegrown meth producers to supply “ice”, the cartels south of the border have recognized a market opportunity and begun ramping up their production of meth for the American market. Because of their relative business structure and existing networks in the U.S., they have the ability to move product throughout the States. The result? While the unsightly and dangerous meth labs have largely disappeared, meth use remains unabated thanks to supply veins from the south.
In Oklahoma, the Bureau of Narcotics still believes, despite the unprecedented crackdown, meth use is the number one drug problem in the state, just ahead of prescription drug abuse. In Australia, meth use is the biggest problem facing police.
When combating the challenges of illicit narcotics, dealing with the symptoms is frequently much easier than the causes. Easy access and an illicit drug culture in the United States, fueled by relative affluence within that culture, fund production. For meth in particular, its addictive qualities make it both particularly punishing to the user and (because of that) an attractive market for producers.
At least as addictive as heroin, methamphetamine triggers dependency faster than almost all other illegal drugs. It is three times as powerful as cocaine and it is among the hardest drugs to permanently quit. Inducing anxiety, paranoia and severely impaired motor skills, many users say they have become hooked after one or two uses. It is that powerful.
As a stimulant, methamphetamine powerfully affects the brain. It causes it to release 10 times its normal level of dopamine, the brain’s pleasure chemical. It also initiates a flood of norepinephrine, or adrenaline. This can alter rational decision-making as well as the body’s hunger for food and perceived need for sleep.
It also sets off intense pleasure and euphoria. “It’s like a super-high,” says Jim Peck, a clinical psychologist and researcher at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “And it’s like a deep, dark hole of depression when you come down.”
The first few times a meth user gets high, it’s a conscious choice. The decision to take meth is made in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which handles voluntary actions. After a few uses, the decision to take meth moves to an entirely different part of the brain, the hind brain, which controls involuntary functions such as breathing.
“Meth actually changes your brain,” Peck says. “The brain elevates your need for the drug to the same level as anything else you have to do to survive, like breathing. It starts sending signals saying, ‘You have got to get more of that stuff right now.’”
While stemming the supply and demand for meth is a societal issue, the good news for meth users is that treatment can be effective, no matter how strong the addictive hold. But, like many of the elements of meth use, there are harsh realities to treatment. After a meth user permanently quits the drug, it can take as long as two years for his brain to revert back to the way it was before.
Long-term success rates for addicts who attempt to quit meth are similar to other hard illegal drugs — roughly 50 percent. Some treatment centers have better results. If the treatment center has a strong aftercare program, success rates go up.
But it can take meth users far longer to recover than other addicts.  And unlike FDA-approved methadone for heroin addicts, there is no approved drug to help meth users battle their dependency. For them, a desire to get clean, coupled with a proven, quality treatment facility is their path to wellness.
Meth addiction masks the true person who is still inside, wanting to be healthy and happy. If you, or a loved one, are addicted to meth, contact a proven treatment facility to begin your path to recovery.
 Jim Peck, clinical psychologist and researcher at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior