While opioids are in the limelight, researchers have found that meth has become more popular than heroin overall.
According to the Spokane Regional Health District, in 2017, more than five times the number of people were treated at Spokane hospitals as a result of amphetamine-related ailments compared to 2008. Last year, 1,108 people were hospitalized after consuming amphetamines. These numbers are higher than the national average of hospitalizations due to consumption of these drugs and illegal meth use is becoming just as prevelant as opioids.
In the seven-year span from 2008 to 2015, amphetamine admissions are up nationally by 245 percent, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In Spokane during that same time period, amphetamine-related hospitalizations rose by 280 percent.
“In our community and broadly across the West Coast, we’re seeing a real significant uptick in methamphetamine usage,” said Dr. Bob Lutz, health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District. “Methamphetamine is back in a big, big way that’s paralleling illicit opioid use.”
Meth use only accounts for part of the issue. Other, legal drugs have also led to hospitalizations. Prescription medication for attention deficit disorder, like Ritalin, are equally part of the problem.
In analyzing needle exchange rates, however, researchers have found that meth has become more popular than heroin overall. In 2012, 604 people exchanged needles for meth use and 808 exchanged needles for heroin use. In 2016, 1,027 people exchanged needles for meth use, outnumbering the 936 needles exchanged for heroin use.
Meth dipped in popularity in the early 2000s and took a second-seat to publicity surrounding the heroin epidemic, according to Lutz. But now that providers are pulling back on prescribing opioid painkillers like oxycodone, people are turning to meth again because it’s less expensive and they can actually afford to maintain their addiction.
In 2017, 44 people died from meth and 16 died from heroin, according to the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office. Thus, as addicts are turning more and more to meth rather than heroin, more overdoses are likely to occur.
Unlike opioids, amphetamines are “uppers,” which stimulate the nervous system, inducing a sudden surge of energy and commonly cause users to twitch, sputter while speaking, pace erratically, and act violently. In lower doses, the drug can elevate mood, increase alertness, concentration and energy in fatigued individuals, reduce appetite, and promote weight loss. But, in high doses, it can stimulate psychosis.
“When someone is tweaking out and walking around and speaking abnormally, it’s meth,” Lutz said. “It’s not opioids.”
Since methamphetamine is a stimulant, it can cause fatal overdoses by putting strain on their heart or circulatory system, often leading cardiac failure. Fatal overdoses on opioids are more common, because these drugs are depressants that can suppress breathing, leading to fatal respiratory failure. Users often mix uppers with opioid downers, however, an especially deadly cocktail.
Contrary to the belief of many users, one won’t cancel out the other. “When you do both at the same time you compound the effects of both drugs. One doesn’t counteract the other,” said Mike Lopez, medical services manager for the Spokane Fire Department.
And, statewide, it’s clear addicts are mixing the two. The Washington Department of Health collects data on fatal opioid overdoses, which lists every drug found on individual death certificates. Many times, when one overdoses, it’s from the combination of both.