Leilanie began using the stimulant methamphetamine, also called crystal or ice, when she was 13. Sometimes she stayed awake for days at a time. Other times she became violent and convinced that everyone was out to get her. No matter what, Leilanie’s need for the drug’s rush increased to desperation. Eventually she dropped out of school and moved in with other addicts. Only when she became pregnant at age 19 did Leilanie finally get help for her addiction.
Sixteen-year-old Brett enjoyed raves–all-night parties with intense music and dancing. To keep going, Brett and his friends in Madison, Wisconsin, took drugs. On the morning after a rave last fall, Brett’s body was discovered at a state motorpool garage. Brett died from an overdose of the stimulant MDMA, or Ecstasy.
Neither of these teens started out thinking stimulants could hurt them. Each learned the hard way lust how destructive these drugs can be.
Going into Overdrive
Stimulants are chemicals that speed up, or stimulate, the body’s metabolism. A common and mild stimulant is caffeine, found in regular iced tea, coffee, chocolate, and some sodas. A little bit of this legal stimulant may help you feel more awake. Too much can make you jittery or cause insomnia (the inability to fall asleep).
Stimulants include amphetamines, methamphetamine, Ecstasy, and cocaine. (See chart.) It’s a mistake to think methamphetamine is any safer than cocaine or to assume that some illegal stimulants could be “OK.” All the illegal stimulants are dangerous, addictive drugs. They change a person’s brain chemistry and speed up the metabolism so much that the body literally goes into overdrive.
ILLEGAL STIMULANTS: FROM COKE TO SPEED
Common Forms and Names of Drugs
* “Coke” is often a white powder inhaled through the nose.
* “Crack” is a crystallized form of cocaine that is smoked.
* Both forms of cocaine are derived from the coca plant.
* Usually in pill form, amphetamines are sometimes called “pep pills” or “uppers.”
* “Meth” can be smoked, eaten, inhaled, or injected.
* Clear crystals that are over 90 percent pure are especially potent. They are called “ice,” “crystal,” or “glass.”
* A smokable powder form is called “crank.”
* Users are sometimes called “tweakers.” Other nicknames for meth include “speed,” “fire,” and “chalk.”
MDMA (3,4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine)
* Made from methamphetamine and the hallucinogenic drug DMA, MDMA is a common club drug at rave parties.
* Nicknames include “Ecstasy,” “Adam,” “X,” “XTC,” “clarity,” “essence,” and “love drug.”
Symptoms That May Be Experienced While Using Illegal Stimulants
* Impaired learning or memory
* Increased heart rate
* Increased body temperature
* Increased blood pressure
* Flushed skin
* Sustained hyperactivity
* Uncontrollable shaking
* Heart palpitations
* Hallucinations or paranoia
* Increased aggression
* Excess sweating
* Nausea and vomiting
* Abdominal cramps
* Sensitivity to light
* Chest pains
* Decreased appetite
Nerve cells inside the brain relay messages to each other by releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters. When neurotransmitters attach to receptors on other nerve cells, they excite and “fire” those nerve cells. Then, under normal conditions, the neurotransmitters are taken up again by the initial neurons. The brain’s approximately 50 known neurotransmitters include dopamine, serotonin, acetytcholine (ACTH), glutamate, norepinephrine, and endorphins.
Illegal stimulants interfere with the normal cycle of release and reuptake of various neurotransmitters, especially dopamine. Dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure and arousal. Another neurotransmitter affected by stimulants is norepinephrine, which increases alertness and readies the body for a “fight or flight” response. Stimulants can also interfere with serotonin levels, which affect a person’s mood.
Stimulants’ Toll on the Body
As neurotransmitter levels build up, users first experience sensations of intense pleasure and alertness. Users may take stimulants to get extra energy. Others crave stimulant’ “high.” Still other users enjoy feeling as if they’re invincible. Some users see stimulants as an easy way to lose weight. But whatever the reasons for use, stimulants take a toll on the body. Heart rate and respiratory rate speed up. Body temperature increases to as high as 108 [degrees] F. At the same time, appetite decreases.
Stimulants’ short-term risks are very serious, warns Jack Stein at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Increased body temperature, or hyperthermia, can lead to seizures. Too much stress from increased heart rate and blood pressure can cause heart attacks or strokes. Stimulants’ suppression of normal appetite can cause serious weight loss and malnutrition within just a couple of weeks. The problems worsen with continued use of the drugs.
Chronic lack of sleep is another problem. Stimulant users may feel so wired that they stay awake for days at a time. Afterward, they may “crash” and sleep for several days straight. Keeping up with schoolwork or holding down a job in that situation becomes nearly impossible.
Highly Addictive Substances
Gregory Collins, a psychiatrist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, says stimulants are “some of the most addictive substances known.” Stimulants’ sensations of energy and alertness make most people feel good. “And they seemingly function better–at least they think they do–on the drugs,” notes Collins. “Stimulants are quite addicting and seductive in that way.”
Over time, the body craves the substance, and the user feels desperate without it. It also takes more and more of the illegal stimulant to achieve the same effect. “When a person is in fact addicted, his or her brain functioning has literally changed as a result of the drug use,” says Stein. “And what has resulted is a compulsive desire to use.”
What does it take to become addicted? No one knows exactly. “We’re all vulnerable to different things in various quantities and lengths of time,” says Stein. “Not to say that everyone who uses any type of drug ultimately becomes addicted, but we can’t really predict who will and who won’t. So that’s the risk somebody is always taking.”
Brain Injury and More
More and more evidence links stimulant abuse and addiction to long-term brain injury. A study funded by NIDA found that cocaine abuse impaired performance on learning and memory tests, especially if users also drank alcohol regularly. Another study showed that Ecstasy damages neurons that release serotonin. Still another study suggested that long-term methamphetamine (meth) users suffer damage to their brain’s frontal white matter.
“People who are long-term users really have very impaired memory,” notes Stein. Motor skills also become impaired. Some users experience hallucinations. “Crank bugs” are imaginary insects a meth user feels crawling under his or her skin. Such hallucinations caused Leilanie to pick at her skin for hours until it bled. Paranoia also plagues some stimulant users. They become convinced that everyone is out to get them and may act violently. Severe depression can follow stimulant abuse or addiction.
Stimulant users run higher risks of HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and other diseases. Some of the risk comes from injecting the drugs. Even if drugs are inhaled, eaten, drunk, or smoked, impaired judgment means a higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases. Results can be deadly.
A Personal Toll
Stimulant abuse and addiction can damage social and personal relationships, too. Users can become so involved in their addiction that personal relationships disintegrate. Friends fall away. Family members become alienated.
Paying for their habit drives many stimulant users into financial trouble. Many users turn to crime to pay for their addiction and get arrested. Some users have violent confrontations. Other stimulant users get into car crashes while under the drug’s influence. Still others flunk out of school or lose their jobs when they can’t focus enough to get their work done.
To the extent they notice the disintegration of their personal lives, most users don’t connect it to their illegal stimulant addiction. “They are in denial about the fact that the drug involvement is causing these problems,” notes Collins. Treatment involves not just getting users off the drug, but also changing their thinking about its effects on their lives.
It Takes a Friend’s Help
Since most people abusing stimulants don’t think they need help, it’s up to someone else–parents, teachers, co-workers, or friends–to speak up. “Generally the kids we see coming here for rehab have been spoken to by their friends, by their peers,” notes Collins.
What should you say? “Just be very straightforward about it,” suggests Collins. Say what you’re seeing in the other person’s behavior. Tell why it’s a turn-off or otherwise negative to you. Express your concern in a caring way. Tell the person where he or she can get help, and offer to call or go along with the person. (The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, at 1-800-729-6686, can give treatment referral information.)
A young person’s outlook for recovery is good with appropriate treatment. Exactly what treatment entails depends on the stimulant used, how involved the person’s abuse or addiction is, and other factors. However, recovery is still a lifelong process with many challenges.
If the other person won’t listen, consider telling a parent or other trusted adult before the user becomes another drug-death statistic. In any case, don’t let your behavior indirectly support or enable someone’s continued drug use. Don’t just threaten to leave an addicted boyfriend or girlfriend who won’t get help. Follow through before you yourself become a victim of drug-induced rage.
Recipe for Disaster
Bob was 15 when he first used meth. He mixed it up himself using products from his dad’s drugstore. For 20 years he was addicted to alcohol, stimulants, and various other drugs. Only after he lost his job, lost his wife, and lost custody of their child did Bob finally hit bottom and get help.
While getting help was hard for Bob, making meth wasn’t. Illegal meth labs have sprung up across the country. Sadly, some meth labs explode because of combustible materials used in making the drug. Other meth labs dump or abandon toxic waste.
Meth “recipes” include such poisonous ingredients as lye, rat poison, battery acid, drain cleaner, and antifreeze. Aside from the drug’s own side effects, these or other toxic ingredients can cause severe illness.
Meth and other illegal stimulants come without any “quality” guarantee. They can be either weak or extremely potent. They can contain toxic contaminants. They might not even be what the dealer claims they are. Drug dealers are already breaking the law by selling illegal stimulants. They’re certainly not going to worry about warranties or truth-in-advertising claims.
“You can never be sure exactly what you’re getting when you’re buying this stuff,” warns Collins. “You can never be sure what it is you’re putting in your body. And you can never be sure exactly what’s going to happen to you when you do.”
Think about the many risks of stimulants. Then think about all the ways you can enjoy yourself without altering your consciousness or risking your future. You’ve got too much to live for to risk it all with stimulants.
Herbal Ecstasy can kill
“Herbal Ecstasy” is sometimes sold as a “natural” alternative to Ecstasy. It contains varying amounts of ephedrine. While it can be legally sold in some states, Herbal Ecstasy is still a powerful stimulant. It has been linked to hundreds of adverse reactions, including heart attacks and death. A “natural” high from Herbal Ecstasy can still kill.
what would you do?
With a partner, prepare a skit acting out one of the following scenarios. Try to portray how you realistically think you would act in the situation. Be prepared to discuss your solutions in class.
1 You find yourself at a party where other people are using drugs. You want to leave. Your friend tries to persuade you to stay.
2 You find yourself at a rave party, and someone offers you Ecstasy. What do you do?
3 Your term paper is due tomorrow, and it’s not even halfway finished. A friend offers you pep pills. What do you say?
4 Your friend insists you’ll love the high provided by cocaine or methamphetamine. How do you say no?
5 Your brother has been acting very strange lately. While looking for a pen to borrow, you find a pipe for smoking crack or crank in his room. What do you do?
Most teens don’t use illegal stimulants. In the 2000 Monitoring the Future study, which was released last fall, only about 6 percent of 12th graders reported using cocaine and Ecstasy in the past year. About 10 percent reported using amphetamines, and roughly 5 percent reported using methamphetamine.
Those figures are nevertheless far too high, especially for the young people whose lives are ruined by their drug abuse. Nonetheless, an overwhelming majority of teens choose to stay away from all illegal stimulants. Here’s what a few of these teens have to say:
College is even more demanding for 18-year-old Victoria Petryshyn. “Schoolwork takes up the majority of my time,” says the University of Southern California freshman. “Each hour of class means roughly three hours of study and preparation out of school.” School activities take up another 7 to 10 hours each week.
“I find that taking a break to have some fun with friends breaks up tension and stress,” says Victoria. She enjoys beach volleyball and dancing. She emphatically urges other teens to stay away from stimulants.
“It’s hard to type a coherent paper while your hands are shaking and your mind is racing,” says Victoria. “More than that, stimulants screw with the body’s natural processes. If you are tired, you should sleep. Taking caffeine pills or speed is not the answer to drowsiness.”
“Not only are they dangerous and addicting, but they do not provide your body with good energy,” says 17-year-old Bernadette Safrath of Merrick, New York. Bernadette’s demanding schedule keeps her at school most weekdays from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. At home she’s responsible for chores. Monday and Tuesday evenings and every Saturday she works at her part-time job. Where does Bernadette find the energy to keep going? “The biggest thing is to get enough sleep,” she says. “Also, a healthy diet and exercise provide me with a lot of extra energy.”