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But most experts say methamphetamine is one of the most psychologically addictive drugs around: A 1992 study rated only nicotine and crack cocaine with more addictive potential than meth. Meth was deemed more addictive than heroin, powdered cocaine, alcohol and marijuana.
Scientists have discovered that chronic methamphetamine use burns up the brain's supply of dopamine--the all-important natural mood elevator that meth stimulates the body to overproduce.
Recently publicized studies suggest that once a meth freak does quit using, the dopamine doesn't replenish itself for a few years. The lack of dopamine can send the addict reeling emotionally.
"They go into a deep, black hole of depression," Charles Shaw says, "and they know that just one hit of meth will bring them out. That's the challenge."
Mercifully, this first stage of withdrawal also is characterized by long periods of heavy sleep.
Many recovering meth addicts report that, once they stop using, they've felt sluggish and mildly depressed for months. Many have vivid nightmares about using meth.
Almost all heroin addicts eventually relapse, Shaw says, but he estimates a meth addict's chances at about 50-50 once they endure the first few days. That's why he argues for inpatient treatment for newly recovering meth addicts. But most insurance companies won't cover that expense, Shaw adds, since meth withdrawal specifically requires no medical attention.
Shaw says some of the hardest meth addicts to treat successfully have been those using the drug for hyperactivity--just as Ritalin (an amphetamine) is prescribed to hyperactive children: "Those people, they try crystal and, for the first time in their life, they feel normal, so they keep using."
Laurie Gossard, the director of New Horizons--a Phoenix-based outpatient treatment center--says about 25 percent of the meth addicts she sees began using the drug for depression.
"If they pay close attention to controlling their [meth] dosage," she says, "it works for a while. But it's a tightrope walk without a net, and, eventually, they fall into addiction."
Like her peers, Gossard says her clinic treats more meth addicts than any other drug:
"The typical profile for someone seeking treatment is . . . they've been a user for about two, two and a half years. The first year was recreational, with occasional use leading to binges. Sometime in the second year, they sink into daily use, and go hard-core for about a year, during which time they try to quit by themselves several times and fail. By the time they come to us, they're really sick of themselves. They're tortured, and they're still using."
Gossard says her meth clients span all walks of life.
"I work with a lot of attorneys on meth, and a lot of nurses," she says. "We get a lot of blue collar, too, but executives have walked through our door. Meth makes no class distinction."
Rich is a 33-year-old luxury-car salesman for a Valley dealership with money to burn. He looks like a pro volleyball player, a tall, sturdy blond who wears choice threads.
The Scottsdale native and college graduate says he's been selling cars for more than five years, and loves his job.
He loves meth, too, and says he works and plays better when he's on it.
Rich's relationship with meth started, by his account, in early 1996.
"It gave me everything coke had . . . for less money, and no trips to the men's room every 30 minutes."
On the night he first tried meth, he hit the Scottsdale clubs, then went home and played chess on his computer for hours. The next morning, he asked a girlfriend for some Valium so he could sleep.
"Things started to get a little jagged when the sun came up, but I'd suffered through much worse crashes from coke. When I woke up the next day, I'd pretty much decided the stuff was way, way better than coke."
He did more meth the following weekend, buying "clean" white meth from a trusted source. He says his sole brush with bad meth came earlier this year.
"When the rush started to wear off, I felt like someone had removed my brain from my skull, stuck it in a boiling vat of glowing, green goo, then put it back. That scared me off the stuff for a few weeks."
Until several months ago, Rich says, he was a sporadic user. Then, last spring, he decided to snort some meth before work.
"It was totally spontaneous. I just woke up one Friday morning and, instead of eating breakfast, taking a shower and going to work, I dug out the bindle, cut up a line, snorted it, took a shower, then went to work. I just decided to have meth for breakfast instead of Cheerios."
Rich says he sold two cars that day and hooked a third customer.
"I was on point. I was absolutely at the top of my game. It didn't even really feel like I was on anything. I just felt really sharp, really confident, smooth, everything I needed to be."
Rich says he works under the influence at least one day per week: "Not all of my best [selling] days are meth days, but more are than not."