Opioids and Meth—the Crippling Nature of Two Life-Threatening Drug Addictions

Girl drug addict mirror reflection.

The misuse of any drug is going to have negative consequences. The consequences might vary depending on the drug being used and other circumstances, but the results are likely going to be the same no matter what drug you are using. And if he or she is using more than one drug, the risk factors connected with such use skyrocket.

In recent years, doctors have begun to reduce the number of opioids they are prescribing. Overall that’s a good thing, but it does have consequences of its own when we don’t address all of the aspects of drug addiction. When doctors make cutbacks in prescribing, this reduces the number of opioids available to the American people. That ultimately means addicts will have less access to those opioids.

When addicts don’t have easy access to opioid drugs, and when addicts are not being helped into treatment and are not being encouraged to seek help for their drug problem they will likely turn to a different drug that they can get. But they’ll still jump back to opioids, whenever they can. Now they’re going back and forth between two different drugs, effectively doubling their risk of an overdose, increasing the danger they face every day, and doubling their chances of getting into an accident, etc.

That is what happens when we don’t address all of the aspects and facets of the drug problem. We make strides towards curbing one side of the problem, but then another aspect of the problem becomes more severe.

U.S. News Has the Story

San Francisco

A June 2019 article in U.S. News by April Dembosky focused on the West Coast, namely San Francisco, and a resurgence of meth abuse that the region is currently experiencing. According to the article, the reason why meth use is on the rise in San Francisco and other parts of the nation is that opioid addicts are turning to meth when they can’t get opiates.

According to the U.S. News contributor, “Researchers who have tracked drug use for decades believe the new meth crisis got a kick-start from the opioid epidemic. Across the country, more and more opioid users say they now use meth as well, up from 19% in 2011 to 34% in 2017, according to a study published last year in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence. The greatest increases were in the western United States.”

Dembosky is citing research from a study published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence. The study is also accessible with no subscription needed at the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The research data offers a few concerning conclusions, but nothing as dire as their closing statement, quoted here:

“Our studies show that there has been a marked increase in the past month use of methamphetamine in individuals with a primary indication of opioid use disorder. Qualitative data indicated that methamphetamine served as an opioid substitute, provided a synergistic high, and balanced out the effects of opioids so one could function ’normally’. Our data suggest that, at least to some extent, efforts limiting access to prescription opioids may be associated with an increase in the use of methamphetamine.”

What Is the Lesson?

Buying Meth

The lesson here is clear enough. When an addict is barred access to his drug of choice, he’ll do everything he can to get something and any drug will do when the stakes are high. Even a heroin addict who has spent months consuming a downer drug every day will turn to meth (an upper) when he can’t get heroin.

So while it is the right course of action for doctors to curb opioid prescribing, there is much more that doctors need to do to address pain patients. Doctors need to offer alternative approaches to pain relief. Even more importantly, doctors need to treat the source of pain in patients as opposed to only treating the symptoms. If doctors curbed their prescribing trends, used nonaddictive pain relief, and treated the source of pain, fewer patients would become addicted to opiate pain medication every year.

Another valuable change would be for doctors to get training on when to spot addiction so that they can refer patients to residential treatment centers. There’s a fine line when a patient stops taking a prescription ethically and begins taking it to get high. Doctors need to be able to spot that line and act immediately to get such a patient help through residential treatment.

The rest of us (this isn’t just about the doctors) also have to help those who are addicted. The addiction epidemic will not go away until the millions of Americans who are actively addicted to drugs are helped through residential treatment centers.

When someone who struggles with drug addiction can get into a treatment center, he can finally focus on the range of issues and struggles that were causing him to turn to drugs as a supposed “solution” or coping mechanism. Residential rehabs help addicts address both the physical and the psychological sides of addiction, expertly guiding recovering addicts out of the addiction trap and into a better state of living. It is quite literally a life reversal, halting the dwindling spiral of a drug habit and placing the individual on the road to recovery.

As a side note, there is another lesson here. For years, some sectors of the addiction science community have tried to convince us that drug addiction is purely a physiological problem, a brain disease. They’ve been attempting to implicate chemical dependency as the leading factor in what drives and creates addiction.

But this turn of events on the west coast and in other parts of the country goes quite a ways towards disproving brain disease theory. If addiction indeed were a brain disease, a heroin addict would need heroin (or another opiate) to get by. He would not be able to switch so quickly from one drug to a completely different type of drug. If his addiction were purely physiological, purely based on chemical dependence on opiates and a brain-related reliance on opioid drugs, he would not be satisfied merely with taking meth.

Addicts can switch from one drug to the next, sometimes with apparent ease. That tells us that there is a lot more going on with addiction than just brain science. It tells us that addiction is a personal crisis more than anything else. It is a mental, spiritual, and physical affliction. And that’s why we have to help addicts get off of all of the drugs they are taking, and we have to help them through residential addiction treatment. If you know someone who is struggling with a drug habit of any kind, please do your best to get them help.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.