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Across the country, overdose deaths and also crimes related to methamphetamine are on the rise. In Colorado, fatal meth overdoses have surpassed heroin. Right now, there aren't any drugs approved to help people get off of meth, but as Colorado Public Radio's Andrea Dukakis reports, some practitioners say there is hope.
ANDREA DUKAKIS, BYLINE: A few years ago, methamphetamine became the only thing in the world Melinda McDowell (ph) cared about. McDowell had used drugs like coke for years. She'd smoked crack but no math until one night in 2017 when her mother died suddenly of a stroke.
MELINDA MCDOWELL: That night, I went over to a neighbor's house, and he had crystal meth. I was hooked from the first hit. It was the biggest high I'd ever experienced.
DUKAKIS: Then that big high got more and more elusive. McDowell smoked more. She went from 240 pounds to 110. Social services took her children away. She tried several times to stop but couldn't. McDowell started having hallucinations.
MCDOWELL: I used to think that there was this black web that was, like, covering my body kind of like a veil or a drape. And I would sit in the mirror and look at it, and I would take a knife and try to slice it off.
DUKAKIS: Then one day, Melinda McDowell found herself lying on her bathroom floor figuring she'd die or kill herself. She remembered she'd heard about a woman named Nancy Beste, a certified addiction counselor and physician's assistant. Beste had recently opened a recovery center in Steamboat Springs, Colo., close to where McDowell lived.
MCDOWELL: I called Nancy on her phone, and I begged her to help me.
NANCY BESTE: She thought she had goop coming out of her eyes and out of her fingers. And she was scratching herself, and she was like, I don't know what to do.
DUKAKIS: The call came at a good time. Beste had just returned from a convention where she'd heard about several studies.
BESTE: And the latest research indicates that the same medication that we use for alcohol use disorder, naltrexone, can help to stop the craving of methamphetamine.
DUKAKIS: Naltrexone is also used to reduce the cravings for opioids. Beste had McDowell come into the office and started her on the drug.
MCDOWELL: Within, like, three or four hours, I knew something was happening because it had been, like, 48 hours since I'd smoked anything, and the withdrawals started going away. The shakes started going away, the headaches. I wasn't panicking. I could feel some relief. And that evening, I took my second pill, and I knew that something was different.
DUKAKIS: A few cautionary notes here. Studies indicate naltrexone will only help some people with methamphetamine addiction, and it isn't federally approved for use with meth. In fact, no drug is yet. That means health care professionals have to prescribe it off label, which makes it harder to get insurance to pay for. But with meth abuse growing, scientists have stepped up their testing of several drugs already on the market to see if they or some combination of them are effective with methamphetamine. Other researchers are trying to develop new drugs.
LINDA DWOSKIN: My name is Linda Dwoskin, and my main research project is trying to discover a novel therapeutic for methamphetamine use disorders.
DUKAKIS: Dwoskin is at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
DWOSKIN: Methamphetamine releases dopamine, and dopamine is the chemical in your brain that makes you have a happy and rewarding effect. And what we're trying to do is make a new chemical that will block methamphetamine's affect.
DUKAKIS: Dwoskin has been testing the chemical with rodents trained to push a lever to get an IV infusion of methamphetamine. Once the animals are given the chemical, they stop pressing the lever.
DWOSKIN: They don't seem to be interested in doing that anymore when our novel compound has been administered.
DUKAKIS: Dwoskin says more research is needed. Back in Steamboat Springs, Melissa McDowell says getting off meth has been arduous, even with the medicine, which she still takes. And she continues to have fears the methamphetamine will lure her back.
MCDOWELL: Yeah. There's always a fear. I'm an addict. I mean, I'm always going to be an addict for the rest of my life.
DUKAKIS: Even so, McDowell credits the meds for helping her stay sober now for more than a year. For NPR News, I'm Andrea Dukakis in Denver.
(SOUNDBITE OF TACOMA NARROWS BRIDGE DISASTER'S "WAKE")
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