Methamphetamines have been a serious problem in the United States since at least the Post War era. In 2012, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health pegged the number of Americans that used methamphetamines in the past year at about 1.2 million, about a fifth of the number who reported the same for cocaine in all forms, making it the second most used illicit stimulant drug.
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However, methamphetamines have been slowly gaining popularity in the past generations. While they were once often mostly sought out as a cheap substitute for cocaine or opioids, methamphetamines have in recent times developed their own market.

Today, illicit methamphetamines are widely available in crystal, rock, or powder form, most of which are smoked, snorted, or injected for a quick, intense high. However, capsules and pills, the original forms in which methamphetamines were used, are still quite widely misused today.

While most of the rise in consumption over the past decade has been chiefly of crystal meth, methamphetamine in adulterated powder, capsule or pill form, often called “speed” is likewise enjoying a resurgence. While speed is often much less pure than crystal meth (10-20 percent purity compared to 80 percent or higher), speed can easily be consumed directly without the need for additional paraphernalia, which makes it convenient for some people.

We will explore, in this article, the use of speed in the United States and touch on some of its differences with other methamphetamines, which many speed users also tend to use. We will also discuss some of the signs of methamphetamine use disorder as well as its treatment.

A Brief History of Crystal Meth Use in the United States

While many of us look at methamphetamines as a “modern” drug, they have been around since the late 19th century when chemist Nagai Nagayoshi first synthesized it from ephedrine. Ephedrine is a stimulant that naturally occurs in many plants, including ephedra, for which the chemical compound is named.

Ephedra and other ephedrine-containing plants have been used for medicine for thousands of years, for much the same reason pure ephedrine is used in modern medicine. Today, ephedrine is still widely used as a component of nasal decongestants. Methamphetamines have similar effects to ephedrine but more pronounced and intense.

While methamphetamine was used in medicine shortly after it was first developed, it did not immediately become widespread until after the First World War, when Akira Ogata found a way to purify it further to methamphetamine hydrochloride, which is now known as ice, crystal, crystal meth, Tina, chalk, and other street names. This form is more stable and easier to turn into precise doses on a large scale.

By the 1920s, pills with methamphetamine were being used by everyday people as a regular “pick me up” as well as to help them get the energy to work through difficult shifts. It was also widely marketed for weight loss, to treat narcolepsy, and as asthma medicine, much like the natural ephedra that it’s synthesized out of.

World War II brought about the biggest boost to methamphetamine use. All the participating countries in the war issued methamphetamine and amphetamine pills to their soldiers in record numbers. The end of the war brought about a surplus of these drugs to the market which contributed to addiction problems all over the world, including in the United States.

In the years after World War II, methamphetamines found widespread use among students, truck drivers, athletes, and people in the emerging counterculture. It also became widely prescribed for depression during this period. It was during this era that methamphetamine pills started to get the street name “speed”, referring to the extreme stimulant effects of the drugs.

When most forms of methamphetamines were effectively banned in the 1970s, speed use became relatively niche. While cocaine exploded in popularity, speed and other methamphetamines were usually seen as less-desirable substitutes.

However, by the 80s and 90s, speed began to get a new market. The LGBT and club scenes adopted speed and other methamphetamines. Speed is a common component in many so-called designer drugs that are often consumed in the context of clubbing and private house parties. Speed also saw more use among white-collar workers during this period, which showed that the image of methamphetamines being a rural, low-income, blue-collar worker drug of choice was no longer accurate.

Today, the demand for speed and other methamphetamines is such that they are imported from abroad into the United States and are also synthesized in dangerous illegal laboratories. While most methamphetamines consumed in the US today are in the form of crystal meth, speed’s low prices, easy accessibility, and discreteness of use have gained it a steady and growing illicit market.

How Is Speed Used?

Speed is most often ingested in capsule or tablet form. However, it can also be smoked, snorted, or turned into a solution and injected. These latter methods are less discreet, but they allow the onset of the drug to come sooner and also have a potential for a more intense high.

As with caffeine, ephedrine, cocaine, and other stimulant drugs, methamphetamines are widely misused by people who want to be able to perform beyond their current physical or mental capacity. As a stimulant, speed excites the whole central nervous system, which leads to more wakefulness, alertness, confidence, and other effects commonly associated with these kinds of drugs. They also heighten sensation, which is the reason they are also used widely to enhance the pleasure of loud music or sexual intercourse. In many cases, speed is also used as a component of designer drugs, which can bring unpredictable drug interactions and effects.

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How Does Speed Work in the Human Body?

Like other methamphetamines, speed works by boosting the levels of the hormone dopamine in the body. It does this by interacting directly with receptors in the brain to trigger more dopamine production. Dopamine is a “messenger molecule” that allows different nerve cells to communicate with each other. It has a direct impact on motion, attention span, pleasure, confidence, and mood.

While our brains normally produce dopamine, a lot of this is immediately absorbed by the body. When a person takes methamphetamines, the production of dopamine is boosted well above the rate that the body could absorb it, which excites the central nervous system (CNS), including the brain. This causes the jittering, racing thoughts, and other experiences commonly associated with taking speed.

Because speed is typically ingested, it takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour for the user to feel the effects, in contrast with snorting, smoking, or injections, as the drug has to pass through the digestive system. The other popular methods, particularly intravenous injections and smoking, allow for more methamphetamines to flood the body faster.

Can Speed Use Lead to Methamphetamine Use Disorder?

Chronically using methamphetamines, including speed, can easily lead to a methamphetamine use disorder. A methamphetamine use disorder is a type of substance use disorder as described in the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) by the American Psychiatric Association. If you or someone you know has been taking speed regularly or misusing it, contact a psychiatrist or qualified clinician immediately for a thorough diagnostic exam.

Signs of Methamphetamine Misuse 

Meth use outside of a carefully controlled context is unhealthy and potentially lethal, even when small amounts of speed are concerned. People misusing speed and those with a potential methamphetamine use disorder will show many the following signs:

  • Tooth grinding/tooth loss
  • Paranoia
  • Hyper-excitability
  • Unusually high libido
  • Dilated pupils/light sensitivity
  • Loss of appetite/weight loss
  • Fever
  • Disturbed sleeping or frequent all-nighters
  • Erratic behavior
  • Violent acts

If the patient has also been smoking, snorting, or injecting methamphetamines as well, they may also have burns and tissue damage in their mouth, nasal passages, and injection sites on the arms and legs. Please note that only a doctor is qualified to make a diagnosis of methamphetamine use disorder.

Treatment of Methamphetamine Use Disorders

It is extremely difficult to kick a serious methamphetamine use disorder. While withdrawal symptoms are typically not lethal, as is the case with other commonly-misused drugs like alcohol, opioids, and benzodiazepines, they can be incredibly uncomfortable and can strongly compel a patient to take more methamphetamines. For this reason, some patients with a methamphetamine use disorder will need to undergo medically-supervised withdrawal management. This will often be in a hospital or a rehab center where the patient can be closely monitored and given proper care.

As for long-term treatment, cognitive therapy and incentive-based approaches such as Motivational Incentives for Enhancing Drug Abuse Recovery (MIEDAR) have been found to be the most effective at creating better outcomes for patients hooked on speed. Most science-based recovery programs targeted at methamphetamine use will typically lean on these two techniques but will also attempt other methods to get at the root cause of the drug-seeking behavior. To this end, group and individual counseling, professional training, as well as periodic drug testing may be included in a meth-focused recovery program.

It’s important to note that unlike alcohol and opioids, there are no drugs that can definitely help methamphetamine withdrawals or increase the odds of positive patient outcomes. This makes therapy as well as support from family and friends crucial for most patients.


Speed kills. Not only that, speed and other methamphetamines are projected to have a likely resurgence in popularity in the coming years. No longer seen as merely a substitute for cocaine or heroin, its reach has gone beyond blue-collar workers, students, or people in clubbing subcultures. Because of its widespread availability, virtually any person you know that is struggling to get by is at risk of trying speed and getting hooked on it. If you feel that you or someone you know is having problems with speed or other methamphetamines, get in touch with a qualified clinician immediately.

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