Is Meth as Safe to Consume as Adderall?

February 14th 2016

Quick drug quiz: Which is more addictive, methamphetamine or Adderall?

The answer may shock you: Meth and Adderall are roughly equal when it comes to risks and levels of addiction. That's the conclusion of Carl Hart, a respected psychology and psychiatry professor at Columbia University and one of the biggest critics of the War on Drugs.

Hart wrote in VICE that many people think meth is far more addictive and more dangerous than commonly used amphetamines such as Adderall. But people are wrong about that, and that's only one of many misconceptions about methamphetamine, he said.

Hart explained in a TED talk and many interviews that he used to believe many of these kinds of tropes about drugs, which gave rise to the War on Drugs. (He used to sell drugs at a young age and saw the impact they had on communities.)

But he came to realize how many of these ideas were false, and he now writes about the reality of drugs. Hart's website currently features a story titled "The War on Drugs Is Also a War on Pregnant Women and Mothers." There are other posts questioning stereotypes related to illicit drugs.

ATTN: spoke with Hart about the subject. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ATTN: Can you tell me a little about what you thought about drugs like meth when you started researching illicit substances?

Hart: Yeah. I guess my first major grant was to study methamphetamine, and at the time, the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy told me I was the first person that was given a grant to study methamphetamine in humans. So they were excited, and I was excited.

We were all excited in part because we thought this information we would obtain from the research would help with treatment. We all thought that methamphetamine was more addictive and more potent [than it was], and we didn't think about it, or at least I wasn't thinking about it as a typical amphetamine.

ATTN: What was the turning point for you?

Hart: Looking at the data [laughs]. I started publishing these papers and looking at the data and talking to the research participants. I was seeing what was actually happening in the study. For example, ... the first study I published was in 2001 on oral methamphetamines with relatively low doses, and the drug was behaving just like any other amphetamine.

That was low oral doses. And I was like, "OK. That could be expected." Then I increased the dose and started studying intranasal methamphetamine, and I was thinking we'd surely see some difference here. This is where it will separate, based on this route of administration. It didn't separate. It was still looking just like a regular amphetamine. That just made me step back further, and the role I've played in fanning of flames of hysteria.

ATTN: How so?

Hart: When I look at my papers, and I look at the introduction, and I talk about this drug being addictive and all these things. I look at the grants I wrote, and at the beginning of the grants I'm talking about the dangers of this drug. I had to say, "Whoa, I'm contributing. I'm participating in this."

ATTN: You seem like someone who isn't a huge fan of the War on Drugs, but it sounds like it kind of got into your head a little bit?

Hart: I think it gets into the heads of every scientist, because it's how we get paid. There are huge incentives. One of the reasons the country is putting a lot of money into, say, research in this area, is because of the hysteria. We don't usually think of ourselves as being a participant, but we are.

ATTN: But you're not saying people should be OK with doing methamphetamine recreationally. You're saying it's not as dangerous as people say, and there are false stigmas around it, and that it's on level with drugs like Adderall.

Hart: I'm hoping that people understand, particularly people who are taking Adderall, and it's beneficial, and they have responsible physicians: I was hoping those people will understand that, "Hey, wait a second, I need to look at what they're saying about methamphetamine differently, because I'm taking this drug, and I'm fine. I'm going to work. I'm taking care of my family. I'm paying taxes. I'm doing all of these responsible things, and no one is saying that I have 'Adderall mouth.'"

You see these pictures of meth mouth. I hope it just helps those people start questioning what is being said about methamphetamine. My piece was not a commentary on the over-prescription of Adderall, because I am a believer in people getting the medications that they need and that are helpful to them. If they're responsible, and it's working for them, then that's great.

ATTN: People tend to draw the wrong conclusion from the things you say?

Hart: There are a number of wrong conclusions that people have drawn from what I've said. People say things like, "Are you saying street meth is the same as Adderall?" No one is saying that. I just think those people are stupid. It's hard to have a conversation with people like that.

Bottle of Adderall pillsFlickr/Tony Webster -

We know street drugs, in general, are less than pure. When it comes to purity of the street drug, methamphetamine is probably one of the most pure, but no one is saying street methamphetamine is the same as pharmaceutical grade methamphetamine because of the adulterants that some people put in the street drug.

But we punish and we vilify drugs based on the parent of the original compound, methamphetamine, not on the adulterants. No one knows about the adulterants. If we are concerned about the adulterants, that's what we should focus on.

ATTN: And it sounds like your main message around this is to just have empathy for people who have used the street drug?

Hart: Yes.

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