SAN ANTONIO – A perceived low risk of using methamphetamine and a belief that methamphetamine helps with opioid addiction are both driving increasing levels of concurrent methamphetamine and opioid use in rural Oregon, according to recent qualitative research.
Use of methamphetamine by those who use opioids increased from 19% to 34% between 2011 and 2017,, research manager at HealthInsight Oregon, said at the annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence.
The highest prevalence of simultaneous use is in the western states, where 63% of opioid users also use methamphetamine, she said. Hospitalizations and overdoses related to methamphetamine have likewise increased, particularly in rural communities.
To better understand the motivations and implications of this trend, Ms. Leichtling and her colleagues conducted a survey from March 2018 to April 2019 of adults who had nonmedically used/injected opioids or methamphetamine in the past month. All participants lived in Lane or Douglas counties in southwestern Oregon, where half the land is controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and opioid overdose rates surpass that of the state average. Additional 60-minute semistructured qualitative interviews were conducted in summer 2018.
Among the 144 surveyed, 78% had used an opioid in the past month, nearly all of whom (96%) had also used methamphetamine in the past month. The interviewees included adults fairly evenly spread across ages, but most (94%) were white.
The main themes that emerged from the interviews involved the perceived benefits and consequences of those who used both opioids and methamphetamine, and the environmental circumstances that supported methamphetamine use, Ms. Leichtling explained.
Most people interviewed had their first experience with methamphetamine early in life, typically in early or mid-adolescence, she said. Two respondents, for example, first began using at 8 and 12 years old, the former learning from a preteen neighbor.
Methamphetamine’s wide availability and low cost also increased its use. In addition, methamphetamine use carries less stigma than heroin use, participants told the researchers. One person who noted the popularity of methamphetamine added: “You get treated really badly if you’re a heroin addict.”
In addition to less stigma, many of the perceived benefits of methamphetamine use related to opioids: Participants said methamphetamine “relieves opioid withdrawal, helps reduce opioid use, enhances functioning, and combines well with opioids” for a pleasurable effect, Ms. Leichtling said. Some also perceived methamphetamine as a way to reverse opioid overdose.
“I’m getting out of [the buprenorphine] program; they’re titrating me down rapidly, and so I’ve been sick for a week,” one respondent told researchers. “I’ve been doing so much more meth just to try to deflect the pain ... they’re too hard to come down from. It’s just you can’t do it without another drug ... especially if you have a job or responsibilities or kids,” they told researchers.
Another woman said she and her mother were able to come off heroin by using methamphetamine instead, and a yet another said she and her ex-boyfriend used methamphetamine to stop using opioids.
Several respondents also mentioned using methamphetamine to help them go to work, effectively put in long days, and then care for their families when they get home.
Ms. Leichtling described three main implications of the findings for interventions in rural areas. One was the need at the community level for greater access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) of opioid use disorder to reduce the use of methamphetamine to taper opioid use or withdrawal.
Next, clinicians need to provide tailored treatment for the co-use of opioids and methamphetamine, and educate patients on alternatives to being dropped from medication-assisted opioid use disorder treatment. Finally, individual users need education on overdose that addresses the misconceptions and risks related to methamphetamine risk, Ms. Leichtling said.
Since the survey and interviews came only from two rural Oregon counties, the findings might not be generalizable, Ms. Leichtling said, and their study did not explore social determinants of health that might be at work.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded the research. The authors had no conflicts of interest.