CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- At a recent task force meeting on the epidemic of methamphetamine use in Appalachia, Gov. Phil Bredesen winced when a federal prosecutor described the illegal drug as an aphrodisiac.
Doctors and government officials don't like to talk much about it, but there is an obvious reason people get hooked on methamphetamine: sex.
Meth eventually destroys the sex drive, but for a short while it can boost sexual appetite and performance more powerfully than drugs such as cocaine, doctors say.
"Who wouldn't want to use it? You lose weight and you have great sex," assistant U.S. attorney Paul Laymon said sarcastically at the meeting of the Tennessee task force.
For obvious reasons, government officials want to focus on the misery meth causes.
Use of the addictive drug can cause brain damage, violent behavior and hallucinations, and exposure to the potentially explosive vapors during the manufacture of meth can cause respiratory problems, headaches and nausea. In many gay clubs in New York City and elsewhere, meth is often injected, putting users and their partners at risk for HIV, hepatitis C and other sexually transmitted diseases.
As for why the drug has such a hold on people, Dr. Mary Holley, an obstetrician who runs a Mothers Against Methamphetamine ministry in Albertville, Ala., and has interviewed men and women addicted to meth, said sex is the No. 1 reason people use it.
"The effect of an IV hit of methamphetamine is the equivalent of 10 orgasms all on top of each other lasting for 30 minutes to an hour, with a feeling of arousal that lasts for another day and a half," she said.
The effect doesn't last long.
"After you have been using it about six months or so you can't have sex unless you are high," Holley said. "After you have been using it a little bit longer you can't have sex even when you're high. Nothing happens. It doesn't work."
Dr. John Standridge, an addiction specialist with the Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services in Chattanooga, said meth and other stimulants initially "rev up the dopamine nervous system in the brain. They rev it up and burn it out."
A National Institute on Drug Abuse survey on drug use and health in 2002 found that 12.4 million Americans at least 12 years old -- or about 5 percent of the population -- had tried meth at least once in their lifetimes. In a measure of how serious the problem is in Appalachia, a total of 1,083 clandestine methamphetamine labs were cleaned up in Tennessee in 2003 -- more than in any other state.
A meth task force appointed by Bredesen is recommending tougher penalties and expanded treatment for addicts.
Meth's reputation as a sex drug is not unique.
"All substance abuse is frequently marketed as enhancing sex life or making you more attractive or a better social companion," said John Walters, the drug czar for President Bush. But he added that buying meth as an aphrodisiac is "buying under false pretenses."
"Hair falls out. Teeth fall out," Walters said. "That's not sexy."
On the Net:
Mothers Against Methamphetamine: http://www.mamasite.net