The opioid epidemic is far from over, but another drug epidemic is already taking hold in Maine.

It’s methamphetamine, or “crystal meth,” a longtime scourge of the West Coast, which is making its way into the Northeast, following the same criminal networks established by dealers of heroin and fentanyl.

At present it’s not as deadly as opioid use, which has taken hundreds of Mainers’ lives over the last five years. But in many ways it is more dangerous and harder to treat.

Meth is a powerful stimulant that lets users go without sleep as long as they keep using.

People high on meth can be subject to hallucinations and paranoid delusions and can become violent. At times, users present symptoms indistinguishable from those seen in schizophrenia. The spike in meth use is blamed for a 50 percent increase in the number of people barred from the city of Portland’s Oxford Street homeless shelter because of assault of a guest or staffer. It has also been linked to violent crimes, like an apparently motiveless home invasion and nearly fatal assault on a couple in Bridgton last summer.

Meth use can cause heart tissue and brain damage that won’t be cured with addiction treatment. No antidote can reverse a meth overdose the way naloxone rescues opioid users, and for people dependent on meth, there is no equivalent to methadone or suboxone, the treatment medications that allow opioid-dependent people to live full lives free of cravings.

It’s not that opioids are safer or less serious than meth. But having both epidemics striking at the same time requires public health and law enforcement to employ different strategies on parallel tracks. Progress against one scourge does not necessarily equate to progress against the other.

There are lessons we should learn from the mistakes made in the early days of the opioid epidemic that could keep the meth problem from getting worse. Tough love doesn’t work. Expecting people with substance-use disorders to respond logically to threats like long jail sentences or denial of health care is a waste of time.

What works is treatment, inpatient and outpatient, especially when it’s integrated with mental health treatment for the conditions that often led to disordered drug use in the first place. It also takes patience: Relapse is common for people trying to get free of meth, and it may take multiple attempts at treatment before it sticks.

And fighting the meth epidemic shouldn’t draw resources away from opioid treatment efforts that are starting to gain traction. Getting people into treatment and supporting them in recovery is the best way to keep these deadly epidemics from wrecking more lives.

 

 

 

 

 


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