Cape Town – Crystal methamphetamine use has exploded at an alarming rate over the last couple of years.
Known locally as tik, there are a number of reasons why it has become so widespread including that it is generational, cheap and widely available. With the precursors being available and the recipe accessible, lots of small operations are effortlessly able to produce it.
The impact of the drug depends on its interaction with the person using it. For example, with adolescents using tik, and adolescence being a time of great change, insecurity and lack of confidence – which is what this drug compensates for – it gives users a false sense of confidence and euphoria.
Methamphetamine is a white crystalline drug that people take by snorting it, smoking it using a straw in a lightbulb or injecting it.
All users develop a strong desire to continue using it because the drug creates a false sense of happiness and well-being – a rush of confidence, hyperactivity and energy.
These drug effects generally last from six to eight hours, but can last up to 24 hours. The first experience might involve some pleasure, but from the start, tik begins to destroy the user’s life. It has many other nicknames including meth, crank, chalk, speed, ice or glass.
Tik is used by individuals of all ages. It is a dangerous and powerful chemical and, as with all drugs, a toxin that first acts as a stimulant but then begins to systematically destroy the body.
It is associated with serious health conditions, including memory loss, aggression, psychotic behaviour and potential heart and brain damage.
The connection between tik, brain activity and behavioural effects has been established through compelling neuropsychology research. Once tik enters the bloodstream, the drug drastically alters normal function inside a part of the brain called the limbic system, which is a set of structures in the brain that deals with emotion and memory.
One result of tik-related change in the limbic system is a feeling of intense happiness, and tik addiction typically begins when users repeatedly seek this euphoric state.
However, use of the drug also alters normal function in a specific part of the limbic system that processes emotions such as anger and fear. As a result of this alteration, people using tik can easily develop paranoid, aggressive or violent states of mind.
The limbic system is a collection of brain structures that includes the hippocampus, hypothalamus and amygdala. It sits between the upper portion of the brain, called the cortex, and the lower part of the brain, called the brainstem.
The hippocampus plays a vital role in normal consciousness by converting unstable short-term memories into stable long-term memories.
In addition to a wide range of other functions, the hypothalamus acts as the origin point for a number of different emotions and sensations, including pleasure, thirst, hunger, anger, aggression and varying degrees of sexual satisfaction. The amygdala shares in tasks performed by the hippocampus and hypothalamus, including storage of long-term memories and the generation of pleasure, fear, anger and other emotional states.
Pleasure levels inside the limbic system are regulated by a chemical messenger (neurotransmitter) inside the brain called dopamine.
High levels of this chemical translate into an increased experience of pleasure. Like most other commonly abused drugs, tik triggers euphoria by boosting the limbic system’s dopamine levels.
However, while some drugs produce relatively modest dopamine increases (two to four times above normal), tik produces an extreme dopamine boost (12 to 13 times above normal). This extreme effect largely accounts for the highly addictive nature of the drug.
Normal function inside the amygdala is controlled by another portion of the brain, called the pre-frontal cortex (PFC).
Much of what we think of as our “selves” comes from activities inside this brain region, including specific expression of personality, the ability to make complex plans, the ability to make judgements or decisions, and the ability to act in accordance with established social norms for behaviour including human connection and empathy.
In effect, the links between the PFC and the amygdala form a bridge between rational thinking and emotional response.
When people habitually use tik, the UCLA Brain Research Institute explains, they destabilise normal function in the pre-frontal cortex.
In turn, this destabilisation disrupts the pre-frontal cortex’s control over the amygdala; it is this loss of control that triggers the erratic emotional states often found in chronic tik users.
Tik-related changes in amygdala function commonly produce an increased sense of paranoia in an affected person. Characteristics of this emotional state focuses on an untrue or exaggerated belief that “someone is out to get you.”
Specific threats that a paranoid person may mistakenly perceive include a belief that someone is spreading false rumors about them; a belief that someone intends to steal things from them; and a belief that someone intends to cause serious or fatal physical harm to them.
Together with decreased behavioural control inside the pre-frontal cortex, the presence of anxiety, fear, terror or panic set the stage for unpredictable episodes of aggression and violence in habitual tik users.
The potential for these behaviours is also tied to the onset of a disorder called methamphetamine-induced psychosis. People with this disorder develop psychotic symptoms that can include auditory (sound-based) or visual hallucinations, as well as various forms of delusional thinking. In some cases, this delusional thinking involves paranoid fixations, and people in the grips of psychosis have a clear capacity to turn aggressive or violent.
If Cape Town is riddled with tik addicted drug abusers and this very drug has this profoundly negative mind-altering effect on its users, are we not in the aftermath of a bomb that has already exploded with one of its most damaging effects being the violent rapes and killings of our women and young children?
This question may be important for us all to consider and urge us to do something drastic about the drug abuse problem, among many others, that we are facing today.
* Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at [email protected]
** This story was first published in Cape Community Newspapers.