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The Crisis of Meth

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By now everyone knows that our country is in the midst of a methamphetamine abuse epidemic. But what is often forgotten is that children are the epidemic's real victims. Children living where methamphetamine is used or made often suffer harmful health effects, from the drug, the chemicals used to make it, and from exposure to the lives and behaviors of those using it.

Methamphetamine is a highly addictive synthetic central nervous system stimulant, also known by its slang names: Meth, Crystal, Glass, Zip, Ice, Crank, and Quartz. Smoked, swallowed, snorted or injected, meth causes an intense rush of dopamine in the brain, which floods the user with feelings of high energy, euphoria, sexual arousal, and invincibility lasting up to 12 hours. During the high, users are volatile, impulsive, and have greatly impaired cognitive reasoning. During the high, children of users are essentially on their own.

Meth addiction is quick, and so is the destruction of the user's family and way of life. Drug tolerance to meth develops quickly, and the user often continues his impairment by abusing other drugs or alcohol, a process known as "tweaking", to ease the extremely unpleasant feeling at the end of a binge. The tweaker is often paranoid and experiences a period of delusions and hallucinations during which violent reactions to otherwise innocent stimuli are common. All too often, it is children who are in the way.

Addicts are chronic meth users completely focused on preventing the "crash", a period of low energy and deep depression that occurs after the user stops taking the drug. During the crash, the user often sleeps, even up to several days at a time, leaving children unsupervised.

Eighty percent of meth is believed imported from superlabs located in Mexico and the Southwestern U.S.; only twenty percent is believed manufactured in small, clandestine labs. Meth labs are extremely dangerous environments for children. Over thirty chemicals, ten of which are classified as "extremely hazardous", are known to be used in the production ("cooking") of meth. Children in the home may be injured by direct contact with caustic materials such as lye and hydrochloric acid, solvents such as acetone and ether, or toxic gases such as ammonia vapors and phosphine gas. Many of the chemicals are also highly volatile, potentially resulting in explosion and fire. Here in Oregon, 88 children were found living in 447 meth labs busted in 2004.

Methamphetamine abuse can be harmful to children in many ways. Pregnant women abusing meth increase the risk of pregnancy complications, and preterm birth. Many have inadequate prenatal care, or none at all. Neglect of good nutrition, essential to the growing fetus, is common. Meth abusers are more likely to be infected with Hepatitis B and C, Syphilis, and HIV, diseases each transmissible to the baby. Meth abuse also increases the risk of unwanted pregnancies and early termination.

Symptoms exhibited by infants and children exposed to meth in the womb may vary. Not all children exposed to meth will have problems. The effects depend upon the amount of drug used during the pregnancy, and how long it was used. And it is nearly impossible to fully know whether the symptoms exhibited in infants and children are related to exposure to the drug, or to the poor environment in which these children are living.

While researches on the effects of meth exposure are ongoing, we know some things. Infants whose mothers abused meth during pregnancy are more likely to be underdeveloped, or to have an unusually small head. If the meth abuse occurred late in pregnancy, newborns often experience withdrawal, with trouble eating, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, jitteriness, and either floppiness or muscle tightness. Infants are often irritable, crying excessively and sleeping poorly. Combined with the high parent lacking patience for such a difficult baby, the risk of abuse, neglect, and abandonment is significant.

Toddlers and preschoolers exposed to meth in the womb may exhibit short attention spans, mild to severe verbal language delays, aggressive outbursts, and poor anger management with excessive tantrums. Four in ten have some type of developmental delay. Some have aversions to cuddling and touching, and may even be confused as being autistic. Older children may exhibit ADHD, mild to severe delays in social skills, and intellectual delays or learning disabilities.

Children not exposed to meth in the womb, but living in substance abusing homes often suffer medical, nutritional, developmental and behavioral problems. The lack of a nurturing and emotionally stimulating environment may result in the development of attachment disorders and depression. The lack of boundaries and supervision puts children at increased risk for high-risk behaviors such as drug abuse, early sexual initiation, teen pregnancy, juvenile crime, and truancy. And the highly sexualized environment of a meth-abusing home, often including excessive exposure to pornography, puts children at risk of witnessing explicit and possibly violent sexual acts, or of being sexually abused.

Here in Oregon, in 2004 over 5400 children were placed in foster care - more than half due to parental meth abuse. Taken from moms and dads who were nurturing only their addiction, these meth orphans continue to suffer by way of separation trauma, with potential lifelong mental health consequences.

The methamphetamine abuse crisis is an enormous public health concern. With 1.5 million addicts in the U.S. alone and millions more around the world, the United Nations calls meth the most abused hard drug on earth. Yet this is not crisis beyond our control. We can each do something about this:

*Contact your legislator (www.house.gov, www.senate.gov) to urge support for the Methamphetamine Epidemic Elimination Act (H.R. 3889), the Clean, Learn, Educate, Abolish, Neutralize and Undermine Production (CLEAN-UP) Act (H.R. 13), and the Combat Meth Act (H.R. 314/S.103)

*Learn more about how to recognize signs of meth addiction at Methresources.gov. Meth addicts don't just live in the projects. They are our neighbors and sometimes our friends.
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Todd Huffman Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linkedin page url on login Profile not filled in       Instagram page url on login Profile not filled in

Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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