One reason methamphetamine is wreaking havoc on our region is the highly addictive nature of the drug. Meth impacts the brain in ways other drugs don’t, making it much easier for users to become addicts, and much harder for addicts to give up the habit.
You don’t have to show Chris Thomason the latest research about the addictive nature of meth. He knows all too well from personal experience.
The 42-year-old from Glasgow started smoking meth seven years ago. Meth wasn’t Thomason’s first experience with drugs. Growing up, he used and abused alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, LSD, and valium. But Thomason says he’s never encountered anything that was as hard to give up as meth.
“To me, you just lose all reality in your mind, you have no thought process. Whatever pops to mind…it’s just instantaneous, and you go with it. And you just feel like you’re indestructible, really. Because your mind has put everything else out of the way. It’s blacked out everything, and all you think about is meth," said Thomason.
Thomason has been off of meth for two years, which makes him a member of a rare club—those who have successfully kicked meth addiction. Meth users almost universally report a euphoric rush and larger-than-life feeling unlike any other drug they’ve ever tried.
Dr. William Thornbury of Barren County says meth attacks and transforms the human brain in ways other drugs don’t. Thornbury—who has a background in family practice and pharmacy—says you should imagine the brain as a complex set of see-saws that balance chemicals that allow us to do the things we do every day, like thinking, talking, and reacting. Prolonged meth use destroys that intricate balancing act.
"Many drugs affect one transmitter. Unfortunately, methamphetamine and its metabolites affect three different transmitters," Dr. Thornbury said.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that deliver messages in the brain’s nerve cells. The first neurotransmitter meth targets is dopamine, a chemical highly involved in the brain’s system of reward-driven learning. The brain releases dopamine when it’s rewarded with food, sex, even something as ordinary as getting a pat on the back at work. Meth’s impact on dopamine is off the charts—beyond anything studied before.
“So when you push that to the extreme you’re going to have these super pleasurable experiences, and that alone is very addictive because the brain is going to ask for more," said Dr. Thornbury.
In this regard, meth is like the ultimate abusive lover. Taking the drug causes a massive—but temporary—spike in the users’ dopamine levels, filling them with a sense of euphoria. But it’s a short-lived sensation, and soon the users experience a crash that leaves them physically and mentally exhausted.
There’s only one thing that will get addicts back to the top of the euphoria mountain: more meth.
The second transmitter impacted is norepinephrine, which—among other things—helps regulate a person’s fight-or-flight response. And the third neurotransmitter attacked by the drug is serotonin, which helps regulate mood, appetite, and sleep.
So, just to recap: meth addicts are destroying their ability to experience pleasure, pay attention to anything other than getting more meth, act rationally, have normal moods, eat, and sleep.
“This is a drug that causes a lot of tolerance, and what we mean in pharmacology when we say 'tolerance' is that it’s going to take more of the drug to get the same response," said Dr. Thornbury. "Within a few months you can go from taking five milligrams of the drug to needing 1,000 milligrams of the drug to accomplish the same outcome.”
Chris Thomason, the former meth addict from Barren County, says he’s still feeling the effects of the drug, even though he’s been off it for two years. Thomason says to this day he faces a sense of exhaustion similar to how he felt when he would come crashing down from the top of a meth high.
“Just kicking the tiredness and the effects it had on my body itself…most people just won’t do it," said Thomason. "I mean, most people don’t want to go through the pain. They turn back.”
And with meth’s unprecedented impact on the brain and body, our region can expect to see countless other addicts turning back to this powerful drug.