Deaths from methamphetamine overdoses in the United States nearly tripled between 2015 and 2019, health officials report in a new study.
While the number of methamphetamine users did not increase as steeply, researchers said frequent use of methamphetamine, and using other drugs at the same time, may have contributed to the increase in overdose deaths. Meth users have also become more diverse, according to the report.
"We are in the midst of an overdose crisis in the United States, and this tragic trajectory goes far beyond an opioid epidemic. In addition to heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine are becoming more dangerous due to contamination with highly potent fentanyl, and increases in higher risk use patterns such as multiple substance use and regular use," said researcher Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In 2020, more than 93,000 Americans died from drug overdoses, the largest one-year increase on record. The increase was largely driven by overdoses involving synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, but overdoses involving methamphetamine were also significant.
To assess trends in methamphetamine use, researchers analyzed cause of death files from the National Vital Statistics System and 2015-2019 data on adults 18 to 64 from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
From that time period, the investigators found the number of overdose deaths involving drugs other than cocaine, mostly methamphetamine, rose from more than 5,500 to nearly 15,500, a 180% increase. The number of people who reported using methamphetamine, however, increased by 43%.
Also, people who said they often used methamphetamine rose 66% between 2015 and 2019, and the number of people who used methamphetamine and cocaine together increased 60%.
Since 2017, more methamphetamine users reported higher-risk use patterns, such as having methamphetamine use disorder and/or injecting methamphetamine, which may be contributing to the uptick in meth overdose deaths, the researchers said.
Historically, methamphetamine has mostly been used by middle-aged white people, but now American Indians/Alaska Natives are the biggest users of the drug, according to the report.
"Public health approaches must be tailored to address methamphetamine use across the diverse communities at risk, and particularly for American Indian and Alaska Native communities, who have the highest risk for methamphetamine misuse and are too often underserved," Volkow said in an institute news release.
Also, the prevalence of methamphetamine use disorder among those who did not inject the drug increased 10 times among Black people from 2015 to 2019, a much steeper increase than among white or Hispanic people.
Methamphetamine use has been linked to HIV transmission through needle-sharing and engaging in unprotected sexual activity often associated with meth use. Researchers found the prevalence of methamphetamine injection was the highest among homosexual men. Methamphetamine use disorder without injection more than doubled among homosexual or bisexual men. And it more than tripled among heterosexual women and lesbian or bisexual women, and more than doubled among heterosexual men.
The analysis also found that methamphetamine use disorder without injection quadrupled in young adults ages 18 to 23.
"What makes these data even more devastating is that currently, there are no approved medications to treat methamphetamine use disorder," researcher Emily Einstein, chief of NIDA's Science Policy Branch, said in the release.
The report was published online Sept. 22 in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more on methamphetamine abuse.
SOURCE: U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, news release, Sept. 22, 2021