SAN DIEGO – As the deadly opioid epidemic continues, a new study suggests that a fast-rising number of users are turning to another drug of abuse – methamphetamine. In some cases, a researcher says, their co-use is reminiscent of the fad for “speedball” mixtures of cocaine and heroin.
During 2011-2017, the percentage of surveyed opioid users seeking treatment who reported also using methamphetamine over the past month skyrocketed from 19% to 34%, researchers reported at the 2018 annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence.
Use of crystal meth specifically went up by 82% and the use of prescription stimulants rose by 15%. By contrast, use of marijuana went up by just 6%, while the use of muscle relaxants and prescription sleep drugs fell by more than half.
The findings matter, because the use of multiple illicit drugs is even more dangerous than one alone, said study coauthor and doctoral candidate, of Washington University in St. Louis, in an interview. “Illicit opioids carry their own serious risks such as unknown purity, not knowing if heroin is laced with fentanyl, or inexperience of users who are used to clearly marked prescription pills. Add in a secondary drug, also often used in non-oral ways, and your risk for overdose is going to significantly increase.”
The rising use of methamphetamine, which comes in such forms as crystal meth, has been overshadowed by news about the opioid epidemic. Still, as a 2018 Lancet report put it, “while the opioid crisis has exploded, the lull in the methamphetamine epidemic has quietly and swiftly reversed course, now accounting for 11% of the total number of overdose deaths.”
In regard to co-use of opioids and methamphetamines, the report said, “in states including Wisconsin and Oregon, new patterns suggest they are beginning to overlap as increasing numbers of people use both drugs” ().
Meanwhile, the New York Times published ain February 2018 headlined “Meth, the forgotten killer, is back. And it’s everywhere.” It noted that meth overdose deaths in Oregon outpace those from opioids and added: “At the United States border, agents are seizing 10-20 times the amounts they did a decade ago. Methamphetamine, experts say, has never been purer, cheaper, or more lethal.”
Overall, there’s little known about co-use of opioids and methamphetamines, said study lead author Mr. Ellis. “The reason for this is that opioid use patterns and populations of users have drastically changed in the past 20 years, and continue to do so,” he said. “Methamphetamine is becoming increasingly available at the same time that heroin and illicit fentanyl are as well. Reports suggest that the United States has shifted from a market of home-grown methamphetamine to that manufactured and sent from other countries, creating a broader market than previously seen.”
For the new study, Mr. Ellis and his colleagues examined statistics from a U.S. surveillance program of opioid users entering substance abuse programs. They focused on 13,521 participants in 47 states during 2011-2017.
Of 12 drug classes examined, only co-use of methamphetamine rose significantly over the 6-year period, Mr. Ellis said.
Among demographic and geographic groups, the researchers saw the largest increases in co-use of the two drugs in the West, Northeast, and Midwest regions, in rural and suburban areas, among groups aged 18-44 years, and among whites.
Why is co-use among opioid users increasing? “We have begun to do some qualitative work with a number of participants suggesting they use opioids and methamphetamine to balance each other out,” Mr. Ellis said. “So an addict can use opioids, but if they need to go to work, they can reinvigorate themselves with methamphetamine.”
Mr. Ellis said “this is not necessarily a new trend,” noting that the co-use of the drugs is akin to the “speedball” – a mixture of cocaine and heroin designed to blend their opposite modes of action.
However, Mr. Ellis said, “The increases in production and spread of illicit opioids and methamphetamine into an existing market of those previously using prescription opioids was a perfect storm for these two drugs to be a problem, both separately and together.”
He said researchers also are finding that “if methamphetamine is the only thing an opioid addict can find, they will use it to stave off withdrawals as well.”
Indeed, National Public Radioin June 2018 that “as opioids are becoming harder to obtain, more and more users are turning to cheap methamphetamine” in Ohio’s tiny Vinton County, near Columbus.
Moving forward, Mr. Ellis said, “we cannot treat substance use in a silo of a single drug. If we attempt to treat opioid abusers by simply treating their opioid abuse – and not other drugs – then we have less of a chance of success. More of a focus needs to be put on the fact that the vast majority of opioid abusers are polysubstance users.”
The study is funded by the RADARS (Researched Abuse, Diversion and Addiction-Related Surveillance) System, an independent, nonprofit postmarketing surveillance system supported by subscription fees from pharmaceutical manufacturers that use RADARS data to track medication use and meet regulatory obligations. The study authors report no relevant disclosures.