Amphetamines are synthetic stimulant drugs, which means they speed up the workings of the brain. There are legal (prescribed by a doctor) and illegal amphetamines.
Long-term misuse of amphetamines can lead to serious problems, including changes to the brain, cardiovascular damage, malnutrition and anxiety and paranoia.
Common slang terms for amphetamines include ‘speed’, ‘goey’, ‘crank’ and ‘whiz’.
Amphetamine use in Australia
According to the 2019 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, meth/amphetamine use has significantly declined since 2001.
In 2019, 1.3% of Australians had used meth/amphetamine in the past 12 months.
Among people who use meth/amphetamines, ‘ice’ is the most used form (50% of people who use meth/amphetamine use ‘ice’).
Powder (speed) use continued to decline among people who use meth/amphetamine – from 51% in 2010 to 19.9% in 2019.
What are amphetamines?
Amphetamines are prescribed for the treatment of conditions such as narcolepsy (a sleep disorder) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). While these are legal forms of amphetamine, the misuse or recreational use of these medications is illegal.
Illegal amphetamines are made and sold illegally. In most cases, it is difficult to determine their quality and purity – they can be a mix of drugs, binding agents, caffeine and sugar.
Types of amphetamines
The most common amphetamine in Australia is methamphetamine, which comes in three forms:
- ice (crystal methamphetamine) – is a crystal or crystalline powder, and is a stronger form of methamphetamine. It is also known as ‘crystal meth’, ‘shabu’ shard or ‘glass’.
- speed – usually comes in the form of a powder.
- base – is an oily, sticky or waxy paste.
Amphetamines can be injected, snorted, smoked or swallowed.
It is illegal to make or sell amphetamines. It is also illegal to possess or use amphetamines, unless they have been prescribed by a doctor for medical reasons.
In recent years, a range of synthetic products, claiming to have similar effects to amphetamines, have also been available in Australia.
It is unclear what the active ingredient in these products is – they may contain various chemicals, such as methylenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV).
Taking these drugs is risky, they can have more unpredictable effects and are potentially more harmful than amphetamines.
Ecstasy (MDMA) is an empathogen
Ecstasy (MDMA) is classified as an empathogen drug that contains methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), a derivative of amphetamine.
Many pills sold as ecstasy contain only small amounts of MDMA, or sometimes none.
The effects of ecstasy can share some similarities with amphetamines – such as feeling energetic and euphoric, and having an increased heart rate.
How amphetamines work
Amphetamines prompt the brain to release hormones and other chemicals.
These changes include:
- Release of adrenalin and dopamine.
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure.
- Increased blood flow to the peripheral muscles (such as in the arms and legs).
- feeling alert, decreases fatigue – (this effect is often short lived).
How amphetamines affect the body
There is no safe level of drug use. The effects of amphetamines, and how long the effects last, depend on various factors such as:
- Amount and strength of the dose.
- The blend of chemicals.
- Whether other drugs are used at the same time (this includes prescription and over-the-counter medicines).
- A person’s physical make-up, overall health and wellbeing.
- Response to the drug (for example, someone who uses amphetamines for the first time may have a different experience to someone who has used before).
Depending on how you use amphetamines, effects can be felt:
- immediately (injecting or smoking)
- up to 30 minutes (snorting or swallowed).
Short-term effects of amphetamines
Some of the immediate effects of amphetamines include:
- a burst of energy – making the user talkative, restless and excited
- accelerated heart rate and breathing
- high-blood pressure
- dry mouth and jaw clenching
- dilated (large) pupils
- loss of appetite
- increased sex drive (libido)
- nosebleeds and damage to the nasal passage (from snorting).
Injecting amphetamines and sharing needles increases your risk of:
Amphetamine use can also impair judgement and contribute to accidents and injury ( such as motor vehicle crashes).
How long do amphetamine effects last?
Even if the effects of the amphetamines have worn off, there may still be amphetamines in your system.
As a rough guide, methamphetamines can be detected in the blood around 4 to 8 hours after use, and in the urine for around 2 to 5 days after use.
What is binge crashing?
Some people experience a pattern of ‘binge crash’ after amphetamine use. This happens when amphetamines are used continuously for several days without sleep.
When this period ends, the person ‘crashes’, and experiences a period of heavy sleeping.
‘Coming down’ from amphetamines
Coming down from amphetamines can take a few days. You may experience:
- sleep difficulties, extreme exhaustion
- headaches, muscle twitching and aches
- irritability, mood swings and depression
- paranoia, hallucinations, confusion
- change in body temperature.
Using other drugs (such as alcohol, benzodiazepines, cannabis and opioids) to cope with the ‘come down’ may lead to a cycle of dependence (where someone becomes reliant on all drugs used).
Mixing amphetamine with other drugs can be dangerous
Overdose is often due to taking amphetamines with other drugs – including ‘legal’ over-the counter and prescription medications:
- benzodiazepines (including sleeping pills)
- some antidepressants
- cannabis (marijuana)
- opiates (such as heroin).
Symptoms of amphetamine overdose
Amphetamine overdose may occur if you:
- take a strong batch
- use a large amount
- mix amphetamines with other drugs – including over-the-counter and prescription medicines.
A drug overdose is a medical emergency. You can still be in danger even if not all overdose symptoms are present.
Symptoms of amphetamine overdose may include:
- breathing difficulties
- seizures (including fits and uncontrolled jerking)
- chest pain or racing heartbeat
- chills or fever
- no urine output
- extreme agitation – can lead to hostility, aggression and violence
- paranoia, hallucinations or delusions.
Overdose can lead to stroke, heart attack and death. Fast action could save someone’s life.
If you suspect an overdose, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance immediately.
Long-term effects of amphetamines
Using amphetamines on a regular basis can lead to significant health and lifestyle problems such as:
- ‘Amphetamine psychosis’ (including hallucinations and paranoia).
- Extreme weight loss and malnutrition.
- Dry mouth and dental problems.
- Regular infections (such as colds and flu) – due to reduced immunity.
- Mood swings, panic attacks, anxiety, depression.
- Drug dependence – this may include an increase in use or relying on other drugs (such as sedatives) to balance the effects.
- Out of character behaviour – aggression and violence.
- Heart and kidney problems.
- Increased risk of stroke.
- Increased risk of contracting sexually transmissible infections (STIs) due to unprotected sex.
- Financial, work, study, legal and relationship problems – including trouble concentrating and reduced performance.
Amphetamine dependence, tolerance and withdrawal
It is possible to build up a tolerance to amphetamines, which means the person using the drug needs to take larger doses to achieve the same effect.
Over time, the body may come to depend on amphetamines just to function normally. The person craves the drug and their psychological dependence can make someone anxious if access is denied, even temporarily.
If you have been using amphetamines for a long time, giving up can be a challenge. Your body and mind will need to adjust to functioning without the drug.
If you decide to stop or cut down, you may experience withdrawal symptoms.
These usually occur at the start and settle down after a week. Most withdrawal symptoms disappear after a month.
Withdrawal symptoms include:
- anxiety, depression and paranoia
- confusion and crankiness
- extreme hunger
- aches and pains
- sleep problems and nightmares.
Some people can experience quite intense symptoms (also known as ‘speed crash’). This can cause nausea, extreme exhaustion, irritability and feeling depressed.
Treatment for amphetamine misuse
Treatment options for drug use include:
- individual counselling
- group therapy.
Peer support – or talking to someone who has been in the same situation – can also be helpful.
See your doctor for information and referral, or contact an alcohol and drug service.
Amphetamines and the law
Amphetamine use is restricted in Australia and can only be prescribed by a medical doctor for certain health conditions.
Penalties apply for amphetamines under federal and state laws for anyone who:
- Uses or keeps amphetamines in their possession.
- Makes, supplies or sells amphetamines to another person (this includes without their consent – such as drink spiking).
- Drives under the influence of amphetamines.
- Forges, alters or falsely obtains a prescription for amphetamines.
- Sells or possesses ice pipes (applies in some states and territories, including Victoria).
Where to get help