Meth: The other drug on the streets, and how it’s becoming more dangerous
Nov 19, 2023, 4:23 PM | Updated: Nov 20, 2023, 11:28 am
(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)
More than half of the overdose deaths in King County this year involve not only fentanyl, but methamphetamine.
While the fentanyl epidemic in Washington receives a lot of attention because it’s so deadly, experts are warning the meth on the streets today is more dangerous than the meth that circulated decades ago.
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“The stuff these days isn’t that stuff from back in the day,” D.J. Ziegler insisted. “It is different meth.”
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Ziegler stated he used meth from the age of 16 to 21 before practicing sobriety. When he spoke to KIRO Newsradio, Ziegler had been sober for 90 days after relapsing from a decade of sobriety.
“The very last relapse I have had was very intense,” Ziegler added. “I had visual hallucinations, auditory hallucinations. I was looking at the wall and I was watching the door grow, like gaining feet upon feet, but then it would go back to normal. I’ve never had that experience in my life.”
Neuropsychologist James Mahoney said psychosis isn’t uncommon in heavy meth users, but 15 years after he began studying the drug in the early 2000s, he noticed a change.
“It seems like they’re getting these psychotic symptoms much more rapidly,” Mahoney told KIRO Newsradio, believing modern meth is much stronger and more dangerous than before.
“Much more potent,” Mahoney continued. “The amount of methamphetamine that it takes to induce psychosis is a much smaller amount than what was previously needed.”
Though he said more studies are needed to confirm, modern meth may be speeding up the drug’s devastating long-term effects on the brain and spinal cord.
One theory behind the drug’s recent increased potency was the production of meth changed following a crackdown on backyard labs that cooked meth using over-the-counter cold medicine.
“There’s very little of that these days,” Special Agent David Reames with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) said referring to the lack of over-the-counter cold medicine in meth. “That’s because our programs to control the precursor chemicals in the United States, being pseudoephedrine, have been very effective.”
With domestic labs shut down, drug cartels have swept in. Reames, who’s been a DEA agent for 25 years, said cartels are manufacturing meth in Mexico with new recipes using precursor chemicals from China and then dumping a very pure product into the U.S. that’s “dramatically more potent these days.”
“It’s common, in fact, it’s almost routine to see methamphetamine that’s 100% pure or definitely in the high 90s,” Reames added. “I’ve been in many pseudoephedrine labs and a good lab would produce methamphetamine that was 30% pure. [Now] it’s at least triple that.”
Modern methamphetamine is also cheap and seemingly everywhere.
“There’s more meth in the street now than at any time in my career,” Reames said.
Overdose deaths from meth alone aren’t common, but there’s a deadly twist in the drug epidemic: Users are combining meth with the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl that is also coming from the Cartels. The combination is blamed for nearly 60% of the overdose deaths in King County this year.
“Fentanyl or any opioid makes you very sleepy,” Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, a behavioral sciences researcher at the University of Washington (UW), told KIRO Newsradio. “Well, a way to stay more awake and sort of counteract that is to take a stimulant.”
But adding meth to the mix can make it more difficult to stop using illicit drugs altogether.
“The treatments we have for methamphetamine are not as good as the ones we have for opioid use disorder,” Banta-Green said. “We have very effective treatment medications for opioid use disorder particularly buprenorphine — also known as Suboxone — and methadone.”
He said there is no maintenance drug that can reduce withdrawals, cravings and ensuing chaos for meth users, who suffer from stimulant use disorder, making treatment more complex.
“Getting their opioid use disorder treated and maintained with medications generally will reduce methamphetamine use over the longer term,” Banta-Green said, claiming it reduces the risk of a deadly overdose and can connect patients with services to help resolve the reasons why heavy drug users are turning to narcotics.
“The motivations for using methamphetamine, which may have to do with depression or poverty or homelessness, those things take months to deal with,” Banta said. “You don’t remove the methamphetamine to treat them, you actually address those issues. You address the poverty and the mental health issues and the homelessness, and then, after you get them in a more stable place, then you can work to reduce the methamphetamine use.”
It’s hotly debated whether difficult life circumstances, including mental and behavioral health problems, lead to drug use or if it’s the other way around. Both may be true.
“If you’re on meth, it’s sometimes hard to communicate with people or organize your life, especially the meth these days,” Ziegler said. “Back in the day, it wasn’t like that. These days it’s so psychologically damaging at times it totally can ravage your ability to take care of yourself.”
He also claimed it preoccupies most of your time.
“You don’t have time for work,” Ziegler said. “Food is not as important now. Showering is not as important. The only thing that’s important is getting the drug.”
When asked if he thought meth was pervasive in homeless camps, Ziegler replied, “I think that it’s probably present in most of them.”
In fact, Ziegler said he lived in a homeless camp and was eventually coaxed into treatment by the charity We Heart Seattle.
More on We Heart Seattle: Volunteer group says it has cleared 1 million pounds of trash in Seattle camps
He said he needed 60 days of in-patient treatment to start recovery.
“Because when you have psychosis or you’re delirious, it takes about that long of a time frame just for your brain to start to get back to normal,” Ziegler added.
Then, Ziegler claimed he went immediately into outpatient care with supportive housing, which he also believes is crucial.
“Go to a recovery house or a clean and sober house where there are other guys there with you that know what’s going on and you can talk to about things,” Ziegler said. “That’s a healthy environment.”
Ziegler now has a job and housing. He’s hopeful he can maintain sobriety giving up meth once and for all.
“My body and my mind want to go and use it, but then I got to remember the stuff these days isn’t that stuff from back in the day,” Ziegler said.
For Ziegler and many people like him, methamphetamine is an old temptation on the streets, but it’s a temptation that carries a very new risk today.