Both methamphetamine and amphetamines are potent stimulants that affect the brain, leading to higher physical energy, greater sense of well-being, paranoia and anxiety, less need for sleep and food, and elevated mood, body temperature, and heart rate. Of the two drugs, methamphetamine has the worse reputation, largely due to the meth abuse crisis the United States has faced repeatedly over the years. More prescription medications, like Adderall, contain amphetamine.
These substances have many similarities. In fact, methamphetamine was derived from amphetamines in 1919. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) states that there are so many similarities between the two that, for monitoring purposes, they are often lumped into one term: amphetamines.
That being said, there are a few differences between the drugs, primarily in the physical and mental effects associated with long-term abuse.
The current rise in meth abuse in the United States is predominantly fueled by super labs in Mexico. Because of the proximity to this cheap and powerful drug, Americans who struggle with addiction to illicit drugs are more likely to choose meth over amphetamines. Due to some import difficulties with meth, amphetamine is more popular in Europe.
Usually, scientific and medical researchers consider amphetamine to be the name for a group of drugs that includes amphetamine, dextroamphetamine, levoamphetamine, and methamphetamine. The original molecule that started this group of drugs, amphetamine, was synthesized in 1887 in Germany, and the stimulant effects were immediately noticed and promoted as a prescription medication. The drug’s mental and respiratory effects were noted specifically in the 1930s, when the drug was developed into Benzedrine and marketed as an inhaler for respiratory ailments.
Amphetamine was recommended to treat a range of problems, including alcohol hangovers, narcolepsy, depression, weight loss, and hyperactivity in children. To this day, Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine) has an important place as a prescription drug that treats attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and it is sometimes prescribed off-label for narcolepsy.
Amphetamine has always been inexpensive, long-lasting, and easy to get. Throughout World War II, the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, and Japan all used amphetamine to keep troops alert, content, and persevering under stress. Although many people throughout the first century of amphetamine use almost certainly struggled with addiction to the drug, actual abuse was not noted until the 1960s.
It is now considered a very addictive stimulant, with exceptions in the case of people struggling with ADHD, who respond well to a combination of a controlled prescription dose of this substance and behavioral therapy. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) lists amphetamine as a Schedule II drug.
Although meth is also a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substances Act because it has a very limited medical application, it is more notorious than amphetamine as a dangerous substance of abuse. It falls into the family of amphetamines, but it is a distinct molecule separate from the original amphetamine molecule.
Meth was derived from the first synthetic amphetamine molecule in 1919 in Japan, and it was promoted as a nasal decongestant and bronchial inhaler, much like amphetamine was. It was also briefly promoted as a treatment for obesity, similar to amphetamine.
Meth entered the U.S. in the 1930s, after amphetamines, but like its predecessor, it soon became a drug of abuse in the 1950s and 1960s. After the drug began to be controlled tightly under federal law, illicit production and trafficking picked up. After the crack cocaine epidemic declined in the late 1980s, the first epidemic of meth abuse rose in the 1990s.
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Amphetamine’s effects last for several hours after it is ingested. They can begin either immediately if the drug is injected, within 3 to 5 minutes if smoked, or within 15 to 20 minutes if ingested orally.
Similarly, meth leads to higher energy and elevated mood, and the effects of the drug begin within minutes of ingestion, depending on how it is consumed. However, rather than sustained alertness or energy, meth leads to a short burst (a rush) that lasts 5 to 30 minutes. This is then followed by a less frenetic sense of well-being, greater energy, and lowered appetite that lasts for 6 to 12 hours.
Although people who abuse either amphetamine or methamphetamine may take several doses during the day to avoid comedown symptoms like fatigue and depression, meth causes a unique and harmful effect called tweaking. This is a condition of sleeplessness and manic energy that lasts between 3 and 15 days, during which the person may appear normal, excited, or irritable, paranoid, and violent.
It is difficult to achieve the initial high with consistent meth abuse, leading to more rapid cycling of doses until the person loses touch with reality. Signs of an episode of tweaking may be difficult to identify if the person has also taken a depressant, like alcohol.
Although someone who abuses amphetamine rather than meth can get into a similar spiral of abuse with the drug, there are few reports of this, and it is not associated with the drug.
Additionally, people who abuse meth reportedly crave sugary foods and drinks more than those who abuse amphetamine. This, along with teeth-grinding, leads to meth mouth, or severely cracked, rotten, and damaged teeth.
Some medical studies suggest that meth affects the brain differently than amphetamine does, but others show that the two drugs are so close in terms of intoxication, side effects, and comedown symptoms that they are essentially the same drug. Both drugs release dopamine surges into the brain, quickly elevating mood and energy. Both drugs also deplete dopamine neurons, making it harder for more dopamine to bind to the receptors, leading to depression when the drug wears off.
In an in-vitro lab test, meth was found to release five times more dopamine than amphetamine. A test in living organisms found that meth also prevented the reuptake of dopamine more effectively than amphetamine, so more dopamine remained in the brain. The study concluded that this might contribute to the greater addictiveness of meth compared to amphetamine. A later survey of several studies found there was very little difference between meth and amphetamine, except meth had a slightly higher impact on mood and cardiovascular health.
Abusing either stimulant is very risky and can lead to serious problems. Both can trigger acute issues like a heart attack, or chronic problems like addiction, mental illness, and brain damage. It is important to get help as soon as possible if you struggle with abuse of either substance.
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