As a whole, drug addiction rates in California fall below the national average, but in Orange County, drug and alcohol abuse have reached alarming proportions. With the opioid crisis continuing to worsen, it is not just opioids, but all manner of illicit drugs that are finding their way into the hands of substance abuse sufferers. And for Orange County residents, one substance has become the main illicit drug of concern - methamphetamine.
According to the Orange County Health Care Agency, meth addiction treatment programs accounted for a staggering 44% of treatment admissions in Orange county in 2022. The second most commonly used primary drug of those entering treatment programs, heroin, accounted for only 20% of admissions.
In spite of the beautiful weather and favorable living environment, mental health disorders of various kinds are severely impacting southern California, and significantly lowering the quality of life of many of its citizens.
Impact of Methamphetamine Use on Orange County and Southern California
What is Methamphetamine?
Methamphetamine, or meth for short, belongs to a class of drugs called stimulants. These drugs have a powerful effect on the central nervous system, which they 'stimulate', causing increased wakefulness, heightened alertness, and greater physical activity. These properties can be harnessed beneficially, and amphetamine (a chemically very similar compound to meth), is often used medically to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and the sleep disorder narcolepsy (excessive drowsiness).
Meth increases production of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine - 'feel good chemicals' - in the brain, activating its reward centers. It can induce intense states of euphoria, which is why meth also acts as a psycho-stimulant.
In spite of accepted medical uses, meth is classed as a Schedule II substance under the Controlled Substances Act, because of its high potential for abuse. Indeed, in its most commonly abused form - the glass-like fragments or off-white rocks known as crystal meth - methamphetamine is one of the most addictive drugs in circulation.
Negative Effects of Drug Abuse in California
The pandemic caused an increase in substance abuse across the nation. In California, various factors are contributing to the meth situation specifically.
First, availability - the Pacific region of the US has the largest meth addiction problem in the country. The latest Drug Threat Assessment released by the Drug Enforcement Administration reveals that 79% of law enforcement agencies in the area report meth being 'highly available'. But in fact, this trend began some years ago - from 2012 to 2016, meth seizures along the Southwest border increased by a spectacular 157%. Next, purchasing price - although this varies greatly, a person can purchase a 'hit' for as little as $20. Finally, the degree of purity - illicitly produced meth from Mexico is generally well beyond 90% pure, meaning the effect of the drug is much more powerful.
Behavioral health statistics for Orange County, California are telling. Over the past decade, hospitalization rates in Orange County for subjects experiencing the psychological side effects of alcohol or drugs have remained roughly stable, but still account for almost half of hospital visits. Of these, almost half again are accounted for by chronic alcohol abuse or drug addiction. While more than a third of Orange County adults report having used one or more illicit drugs at least once in their lifetime, the primary drugs commonly abused vary according to age group and ethnicity, but meth and heroin rank above alcohol or marijuana.
The impact of drugs is escalating in Orange County, following the general trend of a surge in drug use all over the nation - the continued effect of the current drug epidemic. Overdose deaths due to psycho-stimulants have risen by an enormous 92% since 2019, and are now almost neck and neck with fentanyl fatalities in California as a whole.
Meth is widely abused across all ethnic groups, but in terms of demographic, the drug appears to have the tightest grip on younger people. Almost 20% of users are below the age of 30, with the biggest group of users aged between 18 and 23. This couples with another worrying trend, which shows that mental health disorders have more than doubled over the past ten years among young adults, with teenagers and even children also affected.
Risks of Meth Abuse
As with all non-medical use of substances, be they prescription drugs or illegal ones, there are considerable risks involved with meth use. The first of these is developing substance abuse issues. This is particularly the case with crystal meth addiction, since this form of meth is one of the most dangerous drugs on the streets. And without timely addiction treatment, meth addiction can lead to serious health concerns and even be a threat to a person's life.
Overdose Deaths and Meth Seizures
It is possible to become addicted to meth very rapidly. Frequent use will lead to a degree of tolerance, meaning a person needs to take progressively more of the drug each time, to achieve the desired effect. Moreover, the dip in well-being once the drug wears off - the proverbial 'low' after a 'high' - can cause severe feelings of depression and confusion, meaning a meth user will feel the need for more to remedy these unpleasant feelings.
While many people struggling with meth addiction may have it as their primary drug, they frequently have a second drug of choice. They may also habitually consume more alcohol than is safe too.
When a person takes more of a drug than the body can safely process in one go, they have overdosed. Many drugs can cause fatal overdose - but unlike opioids, for which drugs like naloxone can be administered in an emergency to reverse the effects, there is no such option for meth. The person's body has to deal with the overdose unaided.
A meth overdose can cause cause symptoms such as:
- arrhythmia, a spike or drop in blood pressure
- difficulty breathing, chest pain
- agitation, hallucination
Meth can also cause seizures, which could lead to stroke or cardiac arrest. Risk factors that increase the chances of overdose include associating meth with alcohol or other drugs. Orange county has 75% higher hospitalization rates than other counties for alcohol or substance use. Additionally, the death rate for drug related fatalities in the county stands at 15.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, also considerably higher than most other counties.
Another danger of meth abuse is the withdrawal symptoms it can cause. Anyone attempting to break a regular meth habit, and certainly any person trying to overcome a meth addiction, will experience withdrawal of varying degrees of severity.
During the acute phase, a person is likely to experience drug cravings, and a range of physical symptoms, such as fatigue, lack of energy, dehydration and disruption of sleep patterns. Mentally and emotionally they may feel anxiety, irritability, and a lack of mental clarity. But disruption to a person's normal state can continue for much longer - even weeks - if their use of meth has been intense and ongoing for a long time. Mood swings, inability to derive pleasure from things that were formerly pleasurable, and depression, are common. In more extreme cases, a person may develop suicidal thoughts.
Withdrawal from meth can be extremely challenging, and in order for someone to safely withdraw, a medical detox is always recommended. Indeed, it is generally the first stage of any treatment program.
Meth Addiction Treatment
Treatment for any kind of drug abuse, be it to illicit drugs or prescription drugs, needs to be comprehensive and holistic. Mental illness, behavioral health and drug use habits can all be linked to a greater or lesser degree. Therefore it is not possible to address an addiction with effective treatments unless these take into account a person's overall situation, their personal and medical history, and many other parameters.
In some cases, substance abuse treatment can be supported by the use of FDA-approved medication. This is possible with opioid use disorder for example, for which medications exist, such as methadone or buprenorphine. But there is currently no such medication for meth addiction.
However, there are a number of tried and tested therapeutic modalities that give excellent results, when continued for a sufficient duration, and paired with adequate support. The Mental Health Services Administration states that, "through evidence-based treatment and support, it is possible to live life free from meth."
Meth Addiction Treatment Options
Currently in Orange County, the number of people who seek treatment for drug and alcohol abuse and opt for outpatient treatment, still outnumbers treatment admissions at inpatient facilities. But for meth addiction, the first step is usually a medical detox, which must be done as part of a residential treatment program. It is very difficult for a person to detox from meth alone. And a person still has to rid themselves of the drugs within their system before they can begin further treatment. This means riding out the physical and mental discomfort of withdrawal.
Further inpatient treatment treatment is generally recommended for at least a month. This allows the provider to introduce the person to a number of approaches to recovery, and start them on counseling and therapy. It also keeps them in a safe environment, and ensures they are completely sheltered from illegal drugs.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely used approaches for almost all substance use disorders. Not only does it help people address their behaviors around drugs, by enabling them to acquire new behavioral habits, it helps improve their overall mental health too. CBT focuses on helping people reprogram negative response patterns (to life's stresses, their emotions, unexpected events) with more positive reactions that do not involve drugs.
For many people, participation in an outpatient program will be highly recommended after their residential treatment. This helps consolidate their newly acquired sobriety and abstinence habits, and is a crucial time for building a support network. Support groups such as 12-step fellowships can be an important part of this.
Overall, however, the picture of drug abuse and meth addiction in Orange County should not be seen as overly bleak. The rates of alcohol and substance abuse of Orange County residents are on a par with, or marginally lower than, state and national statistics. This, of course, does not mean that the current 5500 hospitalizations and 700 deaths each year related to substance abuse are a figure to be content with. Particularly as drug use and overdose deaths continue to rise nationwide.
The decision to seek help for a meth addiction, or any struggle with substance use that has become problematic, can, and should, be life-changing. Overcoming a substance use disorder is always challenging. But recovery is always possible when there is commitment, perseverance, belief - and the right help. At Cornerstone, we are that help. With a vastly experienced team of compassionate staff, and a single mission - to help people get well - we are here to support anyone who reaches out to us. If you or a close family member are suffering, and want to find freedom from drugs, take the first step and contact us.