How the Opioid Epidemic Became a Meth Epidemic

How the Opioid Epidemic Became a Meth Epidemic

While all the news headlines were focused on the dramatic opioid epidemic, another drug crisis was slowly emerging. Today, methamphetamine is among the most abused illicit drugs in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), methamphetamine use has resurged,  rising to an annual use rate of 59.7 per 1,000 American adults. Overdose deaths involving methamphetamine started rising steeply in 2009, and numbers from the CDC show they increased 10-fold by 2019 — over 16,500 meth deaths annually.

Methamphetamine is a powerful, highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Also known as meth, blue, ice, and crystal, among other terms, it most commonly takes the form of glass-like crystals or a white, odorless, bitter-tasting powder. Meth can be snorted, injected, smoked in a pipe, or ingested in pill form.

Amphetamine-type stimulants, including methamphetamine, were used in the 1950s and 1960s to treat depression and obesity. These drugs cause increased activity and talkativeness, decreased appetite, and a pleasurable sense of well-being or euphoria. However, methamphetamine differs from amphetamine – a much greater amount of the drug gets into the brain, making it a more potent stimulant. Meth also has longer-lasting and more harmful effects on the central nervous system. These characteristics make it a drug with high potential for widespread misuse.

An increasing number of individuals use both opioids and methamphetamine together. The speedball – heroin with cocaine — is a classic combination for an intense high. For some people, methamphetamine is used in the morning to get to work and opioids are used at night to relax. The most commonly cited reasons for using these drugs together are:

  • Heroin can reduce the negative side effects of heavy crystal methamphetamine use, particularly during the ‘comedown’ phase;
  • Small quantities of crystal methamphetamine used with heroin can prolong the intoxication effect of heroin, and hence the time before opioid withdrawal; and
  • Co-injection of crystal methamphetamine and heroin produces a more desirable intoxication effect than using either substance on its own.


Combining meth with opioids produces a more potent effect than either drug alone. One of the major risks of taking a stimulant with an opiate is the potential that the stimulant masks the negative effects of the depressant, making it hard to tell when an overdose point has been reached. For example, while the opiate may slow breathing, the stimulant might accelerate it, making one feel like breathing is normal. This can make it harder to tell when the dose of heroin that is tolerated might have been exceeded, which can then lead to other overdose effects and result in death.

Separately, both opioids and meth represent an epidemic and a crisis. Together, they magnify the medical complications facing our communities.

Learn more about: What Addicts Say About Meth

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