Meth Causes Most Overdoses In Western US, But Little Help Is Available

By Kelly Burch 10/30/19

Meth is the deadliest drug in four out of five regions west of the Mississippi.

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man living with meth addiction in the western US
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Fentanyl and synthetic opioids are killing more people than any other drug nationally, but in the Western United States, methamphetamine is the most common drug in fatal overdoses, and there’s little public health professionals have been able to do to stop it.

That’s according to data released Friday by the CDC, reported by The Salt Lake Tribune. Overdose data from 2017 showed that meth is the fourth deadliest drug nationally (after fentanyl, heroin and cocaine), but in all four out of five regions west of the Mississippi, it is the deadliest drug.

There's Not Enough Recovery Resources For Meth Addiction

That’s concerning, because most addiction and recovery resources are aimed at fighting opioid addiction, said Dr. Michael Landen, with New Mexico’s health department. 

He said, “I think we’re potentially going to be caught off guard with methamphetamine deaths, and we have to get our act together.”

Addiction specialist and researcher Dr. Josh Bamberger told The San Francisco Chronicle that unlike treatment for opioid use disorder, there is no effective medication-assisted treatment for meth, or drugs that can reverse a meth overdose.

“It’s a super frustrating place for a physician to be in,” he said. “The take-home lesson is that we have no effective medical treatment for amphetamine addiction. We’ve tried so many medications—antipsychotics, antidepressants, Adderall and more, but none of them has a long-term impact on the addiction. It is very hard to treat.”

Meth Is Devastating San Francisco's Homeless Population

In San Francisco, where meth use is an epidemic among the homeless, researchers and public health officials have even tried paying people to stay clean, increasing the amount each week. 

“It’s not great, but it seems to be the best way right now,” Bamberger said. 

Part of the challenge in treating meth addiction is that people who have been using meth experience brain changes that can last long after the drug has left their system.

Bamberger explained, “Some people continue to exhibit psychotic behavior for days, or even months. And that can involve not just paranoid delusions, but also formication (named after the formic acid ants exude), where you feel you have ants or worms under your skin. It’s awful.”

Those symptoms can last long-term, he said.

“It can ‘concretize’ existing mental conditions,” he explained. “In my 30 years of practice in San Francisco, there is no question that my least favorite drug is methamphetamine.”

Many people addicted to meth, like "Roche," a woman in her twenties, said they feel the hopelessness of their situation. 

“Kick meth? Are you kidding?” she said. “When it’s got you, it’s got you. I have about 10 friends who are dead from smoking this—and not just from fentanyl being in it—and someday that will probably be me.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.