In low, pharmaceutical-grade doses, methamphetamine may actually repair and protect the brain in certain circumstances. But the stigma against the drug could be harming patients and holding back research.
Ask your doctor about methamphetamine. It’s not a phrase you’ll ever hear on TV or the radio, but here’s a secret: Buy meth online is incredible medicine. Even the Drug Enforcement Administration admits it, and doctors are known to prescribe it for narcolepsy, obesity, and ADHD. Historically, meth has been used to reverse barbiturate overdoses and even raise blood pressure during surgery. Some preliminary research suggests that meth can be neuroprotective against stroke and traumatic brain injury, even stimulating the growth of brain cells.
Yet we’re constantly warned never to try meth—”not even once,” goes the refrain—or it will instantly cause addiction and ruin your life. Before fentanyl was the demon drug du jour, meth was seen as the worst, most destructive, most evil chemical you could find on the streets. Even of late, if you ask the New York Times or NBC, you’ll learn that meth, “the forgotten killer,” is back with a “vengeance.” Other outlets, from Rolling Stone to CNN to The Daily Beast, have raised the alarm about meth use in the context of the opioid overdose crisis.
Stimulant-related deaths are indeed on the rise in North America—in some regions, meth is even more prevalent than heroin. Surveying drug overdoses in America from 1979 through 2016, researchers wrote in Science in September of 2018 that “Methamphetamine deaths have increased most dramatically in the western and southwestern United States.”
Meth poisonings accounted for an estimated 14,845 hospitalizations in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and another 15,808 emergency room visits. In 2016, around 7,500 people died from overdosing on stimulants, including meth. If you ask most people, including policymakers, you’ll hear that meth is a scourge that can do no good.
But if you’ve ever used something like Vicks VapoInhaler, you’ve experienced the healing benefits of meth firsthand. That’s because the over-the-counter nasal decongestant contains levomethamphetamine, the levorotatory form—or “mirror image”—of the same stuff from Breaking Bad. Procter & Gamble tries to obscure this fact by spelling the active ingredient “levmetamfetamine.” Selegiline, a drug for treating Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, also metabolizes into levomethamphetamine.
There is a significant difference between these two opposing molecules. D-methamphetamine is what generally appears on the street—although it’s often cut with other chemicals—whereas l-meth provides less addictive, shorter-lived high that is less desirable among drug users. But people can and do use it recreationally. Abuse is rare, however, in part because the high is shitty, but also because d-meth is so widely available. It’s easier to buy a more powerful form of the drug on the street than it is to try to extract it from over-the-counter medications.
Other Americans are prescribed actual, pure meth by their doctors. It happens less frequently these days, but in ADHD, obesity, or narcolepsy cases where nothing else has worked, a drug called Desoxyn (methamphetamine hydrochloride) can sometimes help. It can even be prescribed to children as young as seven.
It’s important to make these distinctions. Meth didn’t make a “comeback”; it never left. It can’t return with a “vengeance” and it can’t be “evil” because we’re talking about a chemical compound here. It has no personality, no feelings, no intentions.
Thus it does a disservice to science and to medicine, as well as to the people who use these drugs responsibly, to treat a molecule with dualistic properties purely as a poison.