At least as addictive as heroin, methamphetamine triggers dependency faster than almost all other illegal drugs. Its three times as powerful as cocaine and it is among the hardest drugs to permanently quit.
We often see people whove become addicted after one or two uses, says Jim Peck, a clinical psychologist and researcher at UCLAs Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, who has worked for years with meth addicts. Its that powerful.
Methamphetamine is a stimulant that profoundly affects the brain. It causes the body to release 10 times its normal level of dopamine, the brains pleasure chemical. It also prompts a rush of norepinephrine, or adrenaline.
All that boosts a users heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. It erases rational decision-making as well as the bodys cravings for food and sleep.
It also sets off intense pleasure and euphoria. Its like a super-high, Peck says. And its like a deep, dark hole of depression when you come down.
A fix of a quarter-gram or less can keep its user high for as long as 12 hours, compared with cocaines two hours.
Heres how meth users become addicted:
Dopamine affects the brains limbic system, the parts responsible for emotion, learning and memory. The first few times a meth user gets high, its a conscious choice. The decision to take meth is made in the brains prefrontal cortex, which handles voluntary actions.
By the third use or so, research shows, 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.
After a meth user permanently quits the drug, it can take as long as two years for his brain to go back to the way it was before.
Longterm success rates for addicts who attempt to quit meth are about the same as most other hard illegal drugs roughly 50 percent.
But it usually takes meth users far longer to recover than other addicts, Peck says, and it usually involves several more treatment attempts.
Ive seen meth addicts whove been clean 10 years get pulled back in, says Ray Framstad, an agent with the Merced Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force. The smallest thing can trigger it and take you right back. Its just that powerful.
Unlike methadone for heroin addicts, there is no FDA-approved drug to help meth users end their dependency.
Instead, it's all up to them.