Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of articles on methamphetamines in Wallowa County. This article deals with the drug itself - what it is and does. Future articles will include law enforcement, user and social service perspectives.

Those whose lives have been affected by meth in any way are encouraged to contribute to this series by calling Angela Eckhardt at 426-4567 or e-mailing aeckhardt@wallowa.com.

Methamphetamines have been around for many years, but they became popular in Western states just over a decade ago and have since spread like wildfire across the country. Unlike heroin and cocaine, this highly addictive and devastating drug took hold in rural areas early on, including Wallowa County.

"Meth is such a fast-progressing addiction," said Maggie Hunt, a treatment counselor at the Wallowa Center for Wellness. "The destruction is very rapid. Not just physically, but in their work and family," Hunt said.

Over the past three years, 94 - or 33 percent - of the mental health center's 280 new drug and alcohol patients listed meth as a primary or secondary addiction. Hunt said meth addicts are very unlikely to seek, or stay in, treatment. "They have very poor insight into what's going on with them," she said.

Local medical and law enforcement professionals who deal with meth addicts on a regular basis are universally passionate about the subject.

"To me, it's like rat poison," said Judge Russell West.

"People just quit caring - they don't care about themselves, their family, their appearance..." said Bruce Womack, director of emergency medical services at the hospital. "It's probably the worst drug out there," Womack said.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, meth differs significantly from other white powder drugs. It is not derived from a plant, but is entirely man-made from chemicals.

In a special series on methamphetamines, NIDA explained, "In contrast to cocaine, which is quickly removed and almost completely metabolized in the body, methamphetamine has a much longer duration of action and a larger percentage of the drug remains unchanged in the body. This results in methamphetamine being present in the brain longer, with ultimately leads to prolonged stimulant effects."

The long-lasting high of meth (six to eight hours, compared to the 20 minute high of cocaine) means users often go many days, or even weeks, without sleep or food to speak of.

Dr. Zane Horowitz, medical director of the Oregon Poison Center, said meth addicts suffer from sleep deprivation and malnutrition. This results in paranoia, auditory and visual hallucinations, and fatigue.

Former users describe feeling like zombies - the walking dead - and in just a matter of months after beginning to use meth, they begin to look the part.

At first, the high of meth is like caffeine, though far stronger. The initial beneficial effects often fool students, athletes, professionals and others you wouldn't normally think of as drug users

tive on the drug, said Craig Campbell, a senior policy advisor to Governor Kulongoski and a member of the Governor's Methamphetamine Task Force.

But those initial benefits do not last. Former users describe feeling restless, uncomfortable, unable to sleep and depressed while "coming down" off a meth high. These withdrawal symptoms get dramatically worse with prolonged use.

The addictive qualities of meth results from its chemical effects on the brain. Dr. Rusty Woods explained, "The moods you feel are a result of the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. ... Methamphetamines cause your brain to dump out all the chemicals that make you feel good, so you just feel like a god - for as long as the drug lasts."

Once the drug stops working your brain is out of the chemicals that make you feel good, leaving only those that make you feel bad, anxious, afraid, and depressed, Woods said.

Horowitz explained that methamphetamines cause the neurotransmitter dopamine to be released, but they prevent dopamine from being reabsorbed, so nerve cells get continual stimulation until they get worn out. Cells stop responding to the same stimulation, making it harder for the user to experience pleasure.

"The whole body starts learning ways to keep the nerve cell saturated (with dopamine)," Horowitz said, including engaging in criminal activities or going to other extreme lengths to get the drug.

The lack of dopamine causes severe depression, which makes the user desperate, believing relief will only come from more of the drug. In this state a meth addict is willing to do things he or she would never normally do in order to obtain more of the drug. Acts that would normally make someone feel bad, like stealing from a relative, instead become rewards. In severe cases, the user's brain and moral structure effectively turn inside out.

Medical experts are currently studying whether meth permanently alters the brain's functions. Robert Mathias, a staff writer for NIDA wrote, "human brain imaging studies suggest that significant damage to nerve endings of dopamine-containing cells persists in the brain of chronic methamphetamine abusers for at least 3 years after they have stopped using the drug."

Basic meth facts

Names / varieties: speed, crank, crystal, ice and glass

Methods of ingestion: snorting, smoking, intravenous injection

Initial high: users feel energetic, positive, smart, sexually desirable, outgoing and talkative

Long term effects include: paranoia, fatigue, weight loss, depression, auditory and visual hallucinations, tooth and bone decay

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