A new type of methamphetamine is severely impacting meth users in Oregon, California, and elsewhere, putting great strain on hospitals and mental health facilities. The new meth is a synthetic and highly potent form of meth, that appears to induce severe psychosis in those who consume it, many of whom belong to the homeless community. Meth amphetamine recovery rehabs are observing a rise in admissions due to this and other changes in user behaviors.
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, methamphetamine was typically manufactured by small-scale, local operations, using readily available over-the-counter medication containing ephedrine.
Ephedrine is a naturally occurring component of the ephedra plant, traditionally used medicinally as a stimulant and to ease breathing disorders such as asthma. Meth labs used the decongestant Sudafed, which contains ephedrine, to produce their illegal street drug. However, the new meth is a different breed altogether.
In 2006, Congress imposed greater restrictions on sales of Sudafed, making business suddenly much harder for local meth manufacturers. Mexican cartels soon took over production. They used a liquid chemical called phenyl-2-propanone, or P2P, which can easily be made using combinations of substances like lye, sulfuric and hydrochloric acid, and mercury.
P2P methamphetamine is toxic, and so far removed from ephedrine-based meth that it is barely the same product. Users have described it as similar to “paint fumes.”
P2P Meth and Psychosis
Psychotic episodes in meth users are nothing new, and the link between the drug and psychosis has been the object of a number of studies, but it appears P2P meth causes psychotic symptoms more frequently, and in greater numbers of meth users.
Some effects of the new meth include delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia. These, however, are common characteristics of certain mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, so medical staff cannot immediately conclude they are meth-induced.
Other symptoms leave less room for doubt – when under the influence of P2P meth, people often imagine they are being pursued by something or someone. This not infrequently leads to aggressive, and sometimes violent, behavior.
It is a simple law of statistics that if meth causes psychosis, and more people begin to use meth, there will be more cases of people with meth-induced psychosis. Oregon is a good example of the new meth problem.
According to the latest Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2020, Oregon became the state with the highest rate of meth use in the country. This was the culmination of a steady rise over previous years.
As a direct result, Central City Concern closed the sobering center they were operating in Portland – the only one in the city. They were no longer able to manage the numbers of people turning up violent and unpredictable from use of meth and related drugs.
P2P meth is also wreaking havoc on criminal defendants awaiting court appearances. Data released by Oregon state indicate that the number of individuals declared unfit for th eir criminal defense has tripled over the last ten years. So many of these defendants use meth that those who do not are the exception, not the rule.
While for some, legal procedures are able to resume after two weeks or so, once the effects of psychosis wear off, for others the psychotic effects of the drug can last for months, or even not resolve at all.
The New Meth and Homelessness
The homeless community seems particularly affected both by meth use and its psychotic effects. In Oregon, the number of homeless people has more than doubled in recent years. They are a very vulnerable segment of the population. Living on the streets induces a state of hypervigilance in many people.
Sleeplessness and stress place strain on their minds and bodies, and their living conditions do not allow them to take good care of themselves. These preconditions in a person can make meth-induced psychosis far worse for them and longer lasting.
Homelessness appears also to be a part of a vicious cycle many meth users facing criminal charges go through. People are admitted to the hospital on the grounds of court competency and stay for up to a few months.
This is rarely long enough to establish a reliable health diagnosis. These patients leave without adequate treatment and often go back to being homeless.
They use meth again, suffer its psychotic effects once more, and are readmitted to the hospital, with their condition worse. Many repeat this cycle multiple times.
Is the New Meth a Direct Cause of the Rise in Homelessness?
It is certain that there are many users of meth, other drugs, and alcohol who have no fixed abode. It is also true that a serious substance use disorder (SUD) can result in a person becoming homeless. Nevertheless, a number of sources, such as the University of California, say it is misleading to consider that meth use is responsible for increased rates of homelessness.
Issues such as the affordability of housing are the main drivers behind homelessness. Where permanent accommodation is more affordable, homelessness rates are much lower – even when drug use is very prevalent. West Virginia, for example, has more drug overdose deaths than any other state in the US, but has low rates of homelessness because rent is cheap.
It remains true that many unhoused people also have SUD. While it can be hard to establish whether the SUD came first or if being on the streets caused the drug abuse, using meth or any other drug is a severe impediment to finding a proper home.
P2P meth does indeed seem to keep people stuck in whatever predicament they find themselves in if psychosis kicks in. People can be raging, agitated and violent, or on the contrary completely uncommunicative.
These are not good conditions for establishing a dialogue with sources of help, such as permanent supportive housing programs (PSH) that prioritize people requiring assistance – for mental health issues for example – for housing opportunities.
What is undeniable is that P2P meth abuse is escalating. Over the past three years, methamphetamine has played a part in more drug deaths than fentanyl and heroin. Effective countermeasures are urgently required.
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