Watch now: Meth Mountain - Day Two: “It’s not your grandmother’s meth anymore. It’s worse.”
KINGSPORT — Methamphetamine is a highly addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. On the street, it’s called “crank” or “ice” and it looks like plain, white rock candy that’s been crushed. In reality, meth is a synthetic drug originally made with ephedrine (a natural substance commonly found in decongestants). Today, the preferred chemical for making meth is a clear liquid called phenyl-2-propanone (P2P), which can be produced using a variety of cheap, accessible ingredients including fertilizer, acetone, red phosphorus and lithium. As a result of the P2P process, not only has meth become cheaper to make and purchase, but its potency has increased significantly as well.
“It’s not your grandmother’s meth anymore. It’s worse,” said Chad Duncan, the division director for Tennessee Adult Outpatient Addiction Services at Frontier Health. “The symptoms we see are way worse, the mental impairment is significantly worse and its effects last longer. It’s really concerning.”
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in September 2013 that meth alters the brain’s wiring by destroying dopamine receptors. This causes a range of health problems: from psychosis and other mental disorders, to cardiovascular and renal dysfunction, infectious disease transmission, overdose and death.
In short, the drug swiftly cripples users by making them dependent on meth- triggered, high levels of dopamine.
“There’s an empty place in their lives, in their soul ... and instead of filling it with the things that really bring peace and happiness and contentment, they’re looking for drugs. And there’s a group of people out there who are so ruthless that they are willing to prey on those people for money,” said Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus. “Until we get our values and our priorities correct and we look for what’s important, we’re going to continue having these problems.”
BRAIN DAMAGE AND WEIGHT LOSS
Lt. Micah Johnston, with the Kingsport Police Department’s Strategic Operations Division, said the most common symptoms of meth use are paranoia and weight loss.
“People just look sick, and some react to it differently. I’ve seen some show signs of excited delirium, and there’s a lot of hyperactivity and irritability,” Johnston said. “You can take every symptom of any type of illegal drug like heroin, fentanyl, crack, or cocaine ... meth users have a combination of all of them. They’re completely unpredictable.”
Prolonged meth use can lead to multiple physical problems including brain damage, dental problems, organ failure, skin problems, cardiovascular issues, renal failure, weight loss, vitamin deficiencies and decreased ability for self-care. A common and visible sign of long-term meth use is severe tooth decay, also known as “meth mouth.”
“They’ll constantly scratch at a place,” Johnston noted of a typical meth user. “They’re convinced something is on them, which is why they have the sores on their faces and pick them and it not have a chance to heal.”
In recent years, Frontier Health has seen in meth users a significant increase in hallucinations, paranoia, memory loss, manic episodes, disordered thoughts and speech, and other mental illnesses. Frontier Health provides a full continuum of care as it relates to mental health, substance abuse and disabilities.
“Unfortunately, these symptoms often persist even after a person has stopped using meth,” Duncan said. “We see many meth users cycle through extreme ranges of emotions. At times being more withdrawn, depressed, isolated, and distant and other times with high anxiety, mania, agitation, rage, hypervigilence and paranoia.”
People who use meth also have a higher risk of contracting and spreading HIV, hepatitis C and sexually transmitted diseases, Duncan adds. They are also more likely to become victims of violent crime.
THE AGING PROCESS OF METH
Michael Gillis, the director of Hunger First in downtown Kingsport, is on the front lines when it comes to dealing with people who struggle with addiction. Hunger First is a no-questions asked, free food pantry and clothing store that aims to educate and empower the low income, no income and the homeless.
Unfortunately, many homeless people struggle with addiction and mental issues.
“Their mental state is in a total state of anxiety and even more so when they’re homeless,” Gillis said. “I had one lady call the fire department to say we had a gas leak. We didn’t. I don’t know why she called the fire department to tell them, but in her head she thinks she owns the building.”
Researchers from the University of California, Irvine and the Italian Institute of Technology conducted experiments on rats that had been trained to give themselves methamphetamine. Their findings were published in May 2009 and noted that methamphetamine had a direct impact on the body’s cellular structure.
Essentially, the drug advanced the aging process of the cells, resulting in the user looking significantly different after ingesting methamphetamine to the point of addiction. This “aging process” can happen in less than a year.
“It’s almost like premature aging,” said Tom Patton, public information officer for the Kingsport Police Department. “A driver’s license photo or mug shot ... you look at it and it looks like a 50- to 60-year-old person, when they’re really only 20 or 30.”
Duncan said it has become difficult to treat people who use meth on a regular basis, since the drug has become so widely available and the psychosocial factors make it hard for users to pull themselves out of that life.
“When we do get people in treatment, we see that they do not always respond as well to standard mental health and substance use treatment approaches,” Duncan said. “This is likely due to the damage the meth has done to the brain.”