Methamphetamine and Teens: The Deadliest Drug You've Never Heard Of
Drug Siege in the Suburbs
The anguish experienced by the Knutsons is being played out all over the country in what has quietly become a suburban youth drug epidemic. Also known as "crystal," "ice," or "crank," methamphetamine is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that is widely available in pills or powder form; the latter can be snorted, smoked, swallowed, or injected. Cheaply sold on the street for as little as $5 a hit, it's also therefore affordable for most teens. Originally popular among California biker gangs in the 1980s, meth has made its way east, infecting rural, suburban, and urban communities alike. While there are no nationwide statistics on meth use strictly among teens, a 2004 federal government survey found that 6.2 percent of 12th graders have used meth -- a figure that experts say is vastly underreported.
What makes meth so dangerous is its addictiveness: It can be virtually impossible for someone to try it just once. "With meth, there's no such thing as a casual user," says Joseph Frascella, PhD, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in Bethesda, Maryland. "The younger someone starts using meth, the worse the outcome." And because it can be easier to get hold of than beer or cigarettes, meth is often becoming the first drug that teenagers use. Because meth stimulates the central nervous system and causes the brain to release pleasure-inducing dopamine, it leaves kids feeling euphoric, brilliant, and in control -- qualities normally in scarce supply during adolescence. And the high from a single dose can last 14 hours.
Over time and with ever-larger doses (as with most addictive drugs, a habitual user needs bigger doses to get the same high) these effects deteriorate into less-desirable ones: irritability, insomnia, anxiety, aggressiveness, tremors, and paranoia. With prolonged use, meth disrupts neurotransmitters in the brain, slowing cognitive and motor functions. "It's a powerful stimulant that blasts the brain. To put it bluntly, it makes you slower and stupider over time," says Dr. Frascella. Researchers do not yet know whether these effects are permanent. But they do know that sustained, high doses can cause a rise in heart rate, resulting in strokes and convulsions that can be fatal. Experts also say that geographic areas with high meth use have a greater incidence of psychotic episodes among teenagers, which, in rare cases, may have led to suicide.