As long as there have been drugs, there has been drug abuse. But in recent years, drugs have changed. One major shift: “Chemistry over agriculture,” said Steve Pasierb, president and CEO of The Partnership at Drugfree.org. “It used to be marijuana and all things that were grown. Now, it’s all things made with a chemistry set. It’s a completely new landscape.”
Examples include bath salts and other designer stimulants, ecstasy and related compounds, prescription drugs and random unidentifiable compounds often ordered online and sometimes mixed with sawdust, pieces of plastic and other nasty stuff. “It’s like going into a garage and taking a bunch of lawn chemicals,” Pasierb said. “It’s just insane.”
With near-universal access to the Internet, young people are able to find out about new ways to get high from people all over the world. As a result, dangerous trends can spread quickly.
One example: Smoking alcohol. A YouTube search turns up nearly 275,000 videos that explain how to vaporize alcohol by pressurizing it in a bottle with a bike pump or putting it over dry ice or a flame to separate the fumes from the liquid. By inhaling alcohol instead of drinking it, the substance bypasses the liver and goes directly to the brain, Pasierb said, adding that the practice is a quick-and-easy way to get a dangerous case of alcohol poisoning because inhaling alcohol doesn’t give the body the option of throwing up as a defense mechanism.
“It’s a great example of something that has been around at a very low level for 10 years,” he said, pointing out that the most popular instructional alcohol-smoking video on YouTube has nearly 3 million hits. “But now in the last year, its popularity has been driven hugely by the Internet.”
Another outcome of Internet accessibility: An easy market for buying illicit drugs and ingredients for making designer products, said child psychiatrist and addiction specialist Joseph Lee, medical director at Hazelden, an addiction treatment center in Plymouth, Minn. With recipes available online, he said, there is now a lot more home manufacturing of synthetic drugs that can cause big problems.
Eleven percent of high school seniors used synthetic marijuana in 2012, according to a Monitoring the Future survey, which was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “It’s incredibly dangerous,” Lee said. “You don’t know what you’re getting. There have been kids who died because they thought they ordered one thing but they ordered something else.”
It’s not just OxyContin, Vicodin and other powerful painkillers that are getting people hooked. Users are also turning to Ritalin and other stimulants, tranquilizers, sedatives, and antidepressants that can bring in big money on the street. “The prescription drug epidemic has been around,” Lee said. “But now in the past 10 years, it’s completely nuts. This is a far different era than when people were just alcoholics.”
Demographics are changing, too. According to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, middle-age women are the fastest growing group succumbing to overdose deaths, mostly with prescription painkillers. From 1999 and 2010, the CDC report found, the rate of overdose deaths among women in their mid-40s through mid-60s tripled.
In the '70s and '80s, most of the weed scored at college parties was full of seeds and generally low in THC, the substance that gives marijuana its psychoactive properties. Now, the kids of those college students are getting much more powerful stuff that has been bred to maximize THC content. With new marijuana laws, pot is also now easier to get in many states. “When those parents did smoke a joint once in a while, it was no big deal,” Passierb said. “Now there are really high levels of THC and some people can get addicted.”
Pot isn’t the only drug getting stronger. Heroin is also purer than it used to be, Lee said, as is ecstasy. One growing problem is a drug known as Molly, which is pure MDMA (short for 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine) -- the active ingredient in ecstasy. Similar to methamphetamine, according to NIDA, Mollies are man-made chemicals that can vary in ingredients with unknown, often unwelcome consequences.
In a recent incident, one person died and dozens fell ill after taking Mollies at a music festival in Washington State. “They don’t even know what they’re taking,” a hospital spokeswoman told the Associated Press. “They take a hit and 30 to 45 minutes later they take a second. So they get them maxing out one after another. ... We’re not talking about too much drinking or smoking a little marijuana.”
As drug use has become more medicalized, so too have treatments for addiction, Lee said. There is now a once-a-month, non-addictive injectable drug that blocks cravings for heroin. The same drug, called Vivitrol, is showing promise for treating alcoholism. Other medications block specific receptors, making it hard to get high from certain drugs. “Our understanding of addiction as a disease has become far more sophisticated,” Lee said. “We’re learning a lot more about how brains work and how people react behaviorally to all sorts of things.”