Surge in Meth Use Sweeps Across the US

By Paul Gaita 05/22/17

Meth-related drug overdose deaths have increased 30% since 2014. 

Hand holding a baggie of meth.

As law enforcement and health officials continue to battle the epidemic of opioid use in the United States, state agencies have also reported a jump in overdose deaths due to methamphetamine.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that in 2015 (the most recent year for which federal data is available) more than 4,500 individuals died from drug overdoses involving methamphetamine—which represents an increase of 30% over 2014 figures, which cited 3,700 deaths from the stimulant. Nationwide use of the drug took a small but significant leap between 2010 and 2015, rising from 3 to 4%, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Heroin use, by comparison, only rose from 1 to 2% during this same time period.

Meth has become prevalent in significant portions of the Midwest and South; in Oklahoma alone, meth was involved in more than 300 overdose deaths in 2016 and surpassed combined death rates for both oxycodone and hydrocodone.

The primary source of the drug is no longer the homegrown lab (à la Breaking Bad) that epitomized the drug's production in the 1990s. This is due largely to the passage of the Combat Methamphetamine Act of 2005, which restricted the sale of the over-the-counter cold medication pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient in the manufacturing of the drug. 

Now, the majority of meth enters the U.S. from Mexico through the southwestern border, according to the DEA. "A lot of people thought that if meth labs are down, meth use is down," said Mark Woodward, spokesman for the Oklahoma Narcotics Bureau. "But so much is coming in from Mexico, and it's just as good as the domestic cooked product. Why risk leaving a paper trail at a pharmacy when you have a buddy coming up from El Paso tonight with a cheap supply?"

The increase in use has also spurred greater demand in treatment for meth addiction. In Minnesota—an epicenter for the meth boom of the early 2000s—more than 11,000 patients were admitted for treatment in 2015, which is nearly double the number that sought help for meth addiction a decade prior. The drug has also skyrocketed the demand for treatment in areas which have previously gone untouched by meth use, like New Orleans, Louisiana.

"What we're seeing is that the use of methamphetamine has recently moved out of trailer parks and into inner cities," said Ken Roy, medical director of Addiction Recovery Resources in the Crescent City. "It used to be [that] the only way we got meth patients was when they came to the hospital from rural areas."

While health care officials say they are prepared to help patients in need from this new expansion of meth use, Kimberly Johnson, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at SAMHSA, says that the current need may far outweigh the available resources. There is still no federally approved medication to help treat meth addiction, as opposed to drugs like Suboxone or methadone, which assist in overcoming addiction to opioids. The primary means of treating meth addiction remains outpatient therapy and/or a stay at a rehab facility, which could tax centers already struggling to maintain levels of help to opioid addicts.

"I don't think what we've done to scale up access to treatment for opioid disorders is going to be that helpful for methamphetamine," said Johnson.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.