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The Real Truth - Drug Abuse—A Global Epidemic – Part 2: Scope of the Problem

Drug Abuse—A Global Epidemic

Part 2: Scope of the Problem

From marijuana to meth, the impact of drugs on society is becoming more severe. But the full picture is worse than most imagine.

Lighting up: A man smokes marijuana in Denver, Colorado (April 20, 2012).

Source: Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

Times have changed. The world has entered a new age of drugs. In just the last few years, drug abuse has morphed into something never seen before. The days of the pot-smoking neighbor sitting calmly in his basement have been replaced by the dangerous, psychotic meth user. Stronger forms of cocaine, marijuana and heroin are being joined by other drugs such as methamphetamine, “bath salts,” and krokodil.

More In This Series:

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Hard evidence: A detective holds two rocks of crystal meth with a street value of 83,000 New Zealand dollars alongside firearms that were confiscated in Auckland, New Zealand (Aug. 19, 2010).

Source: Phil Walter/Getty Images

Substance abuse is no longer just part of the seedy underbelly of society—it has exploded into the open streets, reaching nearly every corner of civilization. The once-silent killer is claiming more victims than ever before, and in horrific ways. Sadly, drug use continues to maintain a stranglehold on young people, stripping away their chance for stable, happy and productive lives.

Scientific knowledge combined with escapism, experimentation and sheer boredom has resulted in mankind inventing many poisonous substances and deadlier forms of drugs. These are then mixed to create even more lethal concoctions.

Part 1 of this article series revealed the scope of worldwide drug abuse through shocking statistics. Part 2 will dig deeper, examining the effect drugs have on users, as well as their toll on families, communities and countries.

Gateway Drug

Marijuana has long been described as the “gateway” drug, meaning it leads to stronger and more dangerous illicit substances. Made from the Cannabis sativa plant, marijuana is composed of more than 400 chemicals. At least 60 psychoactive ingredients have been identified in the plant, the strongest being THC, its primary mind-altering compound. Today’s marijuana is many times more potent than in previous decades, and is so widely used that it is now brewed in teas and even mixed with wine.

In the United States, marijuana lies at the center of a heated debate over decriminalizing drugs, with more voices calling for its legalization. Drug advocates claim it is harmless, and that it provides health advantages. This has led to medical marijuana being legalized in many states as long as a doctor prescribes it.

But does marijuana really help the infirm?

Marijuana use has numerous side effects, including respiratory infections, impaired memory and learning, anxiety, panic, increased heart rate, a suppressed immune system, impaired thoughts and emotions, infertility, decreased motivation and concentration, red eyes, fatigue, mood swings, aggressiveness, irritability, decreased coordination, sleepiness, increased appetite, faulty perception, and decreased performance in school or work.

Even treating marijuana as merely a way to manage pain has unintended consequences. For example, Los Angeles Times reported, “A 3-year-old boy was taken to a hospital after eating his grandmother’s cookies that were laced with marijuana…The child ate the ‘medical marijuana stash’…and was initially unresponsive when rescuers arrived…”

Marijuana also contains cancer-causing agents. Smoking three to five marijuana joints weekly is as harmful as smoking 16 cigarettes daily, and there are 50-100 times more cancer-causing chemicals in pot smoke than in tobacco smoke. Additionally, the lungs of marijuana smokers are highly susceptible to emphysema and bronchitis.

Yet this information is not reaching the minds of American teenagers: “A government survey shows more teens are now smoking pot than cigarettes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported…that 23 percent of high school students said they recently smoked marijuana, while 18 percent said they had puffed cigarettes…[2011] marked the first time marijuana use was clearly greater.

“An earlier survey by the University of Michigan also found that pot smoking was higher. A Michigan expert said teens today apparently see marijuana as less dangerous than cigarettes” (The Associated Press).

Study after study reveals that drug use is becoming much more acceptable and widespread. The voices and ad campaigns decrying marijuana abuse are being drowned out by an increasing acceptance of its use. For instance, a popular television show portrays a struggling mother of two who sells marijuana to make ends meet. The show minimizes marijuana’s negative effects and makes dealing it seem “normal.”

Casual use of “harmless” drugs such as marijuana has become the new normal.

Cocaine and Crack

Derived from the coca plant, cocaine is one of the most potent natural stimulants. In the U.S., cocaine was hailed as a “miracle drug” when it was introduced in the 1880s. Its sale was not initially restricted, and doctors used it as an anesthetic during surgeries, as well as a remedy for hay fever, seasickness and fatigue. But during the late 19th century, a wave of cocaine use hit the country, and its damaging effects became evident. In December 1914, President William Taft targeted cocaine as public enemy number one. Congress then passed the Harrison Act, which banned non-medical use of cocaine. This only forced cocaine use underground.

Cocaine makes one irritable, anxious and restless, and can lead to psychotic behavior. Yet many are hooked almost immediately because the drug causes a sudden rush of euphoria.

Many studies have documented the terrible results of cocaine use. When researchers allowed rats and monkeys to self-administer cocaine, they did little else but continuously take it. By the end of the month, the animals were dead.

Cocaine has a similar effect on people. Addicts are never satisfied, becoming drug-obsessed and forsaking everything to reach their next “high.” Drug use becomes their only reason for living.

In the 1980s, a new form of cocaine emerged—crack. One of the driving forces behind crack’s widespread use is its inexpensiveness and availability. Sodium bicarbonate (baking powder) is one of the ingredients used when cocaine is converted into rock crystals. (The name “crack” comes from the noises the substance makes when it is being created or smoked.)

Crack is highly addictive and more intense and damaging than cocaine. Some become addicts after their first use. One of the most unpredictable substances available, the drug affects the respiratory, cardiovascular and central nervous systems. Crack-related deaths stem from heart attacks, strokes, brain seizures, asphyxiation or suicide. Users experience chest congestion, paranoia, delusions, chronic coughs, severe depression, memory loss, violent behavior, and suicidal urges.

Pregnant women who use crack are more likely to have miscarriages and stillbirths. Many babies born to crack addicts are premature and sickly, with various birth defects and an “inherited” addiction to crack. They are three times less likely to survive than normal newborns. Crack can also be passed to babies through the addicted mother’s breast milk.

Yet beyond cocaine and crack, an even deadlier drug is growing in popularity.

Heroin

Extracted from poppy plants, heroin is one of the most abused opiates. Processed from morphine, it was first synthesized in 1874 for use by physicians who were unaware of its addictive nature. The 1914 Harrison Act also established strict control of this drug.

Pure heroin is rarely sold on the streets since it is expensive and difficult to obtain. Most is only about 5 percent pure, and is mixed with substances such as quinine, sugar, starch, strychnine and other drugs.

Heroin depresses the central nervous system, slows respiration, and retards mental functioning. Unconsciousness, drowsiness, nausea and vomiting can occur. Yet because of heroin’s anesthetic properties, many users are unaware of injury because their sense of touch is numbed. Heroin users may develop infections of the heart lining and valves, liver disease, suffer collapsed veins, pulmonary complications, convulsions, have shallow breathing, contract pneumonia, and go into a coma.

Studies show that by the end of five years of heroin use, one out of six addicts is dead. Due to contamination, overdose and spread of infectious disease (through needle-sharing), heroin is one of the riskiest illicit drugs.

Within hours after heroin use, withdrawal symptoms can begin, including restlessness, muscle and body pains, and vomiting. Symptoms peak between 48 to 72 hours after the last dose, and subside after a week.

Heroin addiction is one of the most difficult dependencies to overcome. One mother began a campaign to raise awareness of heroin abuse after she lost her son to the drug. In a report by the Wisconsin State Journal, Carol Buege described her son’s battle with heroin. When she found him lying on the bathroom floor, sick after taking heroin, she told him, “‘Craig, I have a really bad feeling: I think you’re going to die.’” He died six weeks later.

The article also stated, “The drug no longer carries the back-alley junkie stigma of the 1960s. Instead, heroin users are more often like Craig, a 2006 graduate of DeForest High School, where he played varsity football and was [part of his class’s] prom court. He’s described by family and friends as loving, shy, funny and fearless…”

“Buege started experimenting with OxyContin with friends in the fall of 2006. By May 2008, his parents learned he had made the switch to heroin. Within a year, he was dead at age 20, one of eight Dane County residents who died from a heroin overdose in 2009. That was almost three times the number of people who died or were suspected to have died from the drug four years ago…”

Detective James Pertzborn of the DeForest Police Department recounted, “‘He was a good kid caught in a horrible situation. He understood his addiction. He was afraid of it. He was afraid for his friends. Yet he couldn’t beat it.’”

While the above story is heartwrenching, accounts of heroin overdoses are endless. Yet, as with Craig, many often start with a simple addiction—to prescription drugs.

American Epidemic

Prescription drug abuse has taken a position next to marijuana as a type of gateway to heavier illicit substances. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that abusing prescription painkillers is a significant health threat.

Partially as a result of the nation’s overmedicated condition, access to these drugs has never been easier. Doctors are overprescribing powerful painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin that are easy for users to abuse. Many are given prescription drugs for legitimate reasons, but end up addicted to them. And since these drugs are legal with a prescription, they desensitize people to other drugs, clearing the way for experimentation with more substances.

Every year since 2008, prescription drug abuse has risen by around 10 percent. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, from 1991 to 2010, painkiller prescriptions skyrocketed from 75.5 million to 209.5 million. This increase has had deadly consequences. Reuters reported the following from the CDC: “From 1999 to 2009, the number of deaths from narcotic pain pills nearly quadrupled to 15,597, more than those from heroin and cocaine combined.”

Supply of these drugs is flooding in from what are called “pill mills,” fake clinics where prescriptions are easily obtained. Internet pharmacies also contribute to the supply chain.

Floyd Baker, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said, “It’s a lot easier to get than buying your street drugs. If a doctor gives you an 800mg hydrocodone tablet it is safe, but when you start diluting it, mixing it with other drugs that’s where the problem comes in” (WLBT). And since the drugs are legal with a prescription, government agencies are having a hard time stopping the abuse without also limiting access to those who actually need the medication.

The most tragic aspect of the surge in prescription drugs is its effect on babies. One report stated, “The number of babies born addicted to the class of drugs that includes prescription painkillers has nearly tripled in the past decade, according to the first national study of its kind. About 3.4 of every 1,000 infants born in a hospital in 2009 suffered from a type of drug withdrawal commonly seen in the babies of pregnant women who abuse narcotic pain medications…” (USA Today). The article also revealed that this equates to one drug-addicted baby born per hour, with treatment costing $720 million in 2009.

Yet the above statistics are just one result of prescription drug abuse. Thousands more stories could be told.

New Monsters

Even more lethal drugs continue to be developed and are quickly gaining popularity. In Colombia, the drug scopolamine, labeled “the Devil’s Breath,” is being used by criminals to drug victims into a trance. It reportedly can eliminate a user’s free will and wipe his memory. One drug dealer described that if it is blown in someone’s face, they can be guided to do whatever a perpetrator wants as it makes them childlike.

Bath salts (no connection to the legitimate products used to scent bath water) have also garnered media attention in the United States. The substance (MDPV) used to make the drug is currently undergoing a process of becoming illegal in Miami, as well as Canada. Physical effects of the drug include “erratic, aggressive and violent behavior, elevated heart rate, seizures, delusions, reduced appetite, and suicidal thoughts” (Northern Life).

In Minnesota, Hennepin’s Regional Poison Center saw an increase from five instances of bath-salt abuse in 2010 to 144 in 2011.

Additionally, a new drug called krokodil, or crocodile, is destroying hundreds of thousands of lives across Russia. Three times cheaper than heroin, the drug can be made in one’s home. Although it may be less expensive than heroin, it is far deadlier. The average heroin addict lives up to six or seven years, yet krokodil users can only expect to live two to three years.

Krokodil causes an addict’s skin to turn green and become scaly like a crocodile. After frequent use, the skin and muscle mass actually rot away until the bone is exposed. Amputations commonly occur once an addict is hospitalized.

Officials estimate that up to one million people across Russia in 2010 used the drug. So far it has only spread throughout Russia, but one German news agency reported that it had also been discovered in Bochum, Germany.

Time magazine provided this tragic account from one addict’s bout with the dangerous drug: “There is no good medical explanation for why Pavlova survived her addiction…Pavlova says she injected the drug nearly every day for six years, having learned to cook it in her brother’s kitchen…But the addiction still left some of its trademark scars. She developed a speech impediment, and her pale blue eyes have something of a lobotomy patient’s vacant gaze…”

“Besides her, Pavlova says there were about a dozen krokodil addicts she hung around with, including her brother. ‘Practically all of them are dead now,’ she says. ‘For some it led to pneumonia, some got blood poisoning, some had an artery burst in their heart, some got meningitis, others simply rot.’”

This drug is a clear example that mankind is toying with increasingly worse types of destructive substances.

Meth

Another powerful drug that wreaks havoc on the lives of whomever it touches is methamphetamine, known on the street as meth. One of the most addictive drugs known to man, the high from meth lasts 12 times longer than cocaine, and over 90 percent of addicts relapse after treatment. The United Nations estimates that around 26 million people consume methamphetamine-type stimulants globally. The 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that the number of Americans 12 years and older who stated that they had used meth in the past month rose 60 percent over 2008. One in 20 American college students have tried it.

Effects of meth include loss of appetite, a sense of euphoria, and increased activity. It is particularly popular in Thailand, where some bosses even give it to employees to increase productivity. But chronic use results in schizophrenia, paranoia, violent behavior, insomnia, confusion, anxiety and fatigue, picking at the skin, auditory and visual hallucinations, preoccupation with one’s own desires, and homicidal and suicidal thoughts. Methamphetamines cause brain damage similar to that of strokes, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease.

Meth tricks the brain into producing huge amounts of dopamine—a “pleasure” chemical the body naturally produces. It releases 3.5 times more dopamine than cocaine, and six times what the body produces naturally.

But the higher the dopamine “climb,” the harder a user crashes. After frequent use of the drug, dopamine-producing neurons overload and the individual is no longer able to feel pleasure. Ironically, and sadly, the pursuit of extreme pleasure leads to greatly decreased pleasure.

One couple described the effect meth had on their son. He had been in jail scores of times. Sadly, his parents were always relieved when they received a phone call informing them that their son was incarcerated again. Why? Because if he was in jail, it meant he was not roaming the streets or dead from an overdose. The son had wasted 20 years of his life abusing meth, but was able to kick his addiction.

While the account had a happy ending, most end badly.

The following stories come from one of the many anti-meth websites and reveal the pain that comes from those who are addicted:

“I’m a 24-year old mother. I’ve been clean for about a year but I don’t feel clean at all…I feel disgusting. Even though I quit smoking meth my teeth still break and fall out frequently. I hate myself for ruining my body and my relationship with my family. I started smoking with my best friend in 2009 after a bad breakup. I didn’t wanna be alone and when you’re able to get massive amounts of meth given to you, you’re never alone. Always had a smoke buddy. Was usually my best friend…we had unlimited funds and unlimited dope. I thought I wasn’t doing [a lot] because I’d only use on weekends when my child was with her dad. But I was. I was short tempered and paranoid. We had cameras set up at her [apartment]…The cops visited her often. I was always glued to the window…If I could go back and say one thing to myself I’d say run! My teeth are rotting out of my head. I’m fat. My metabolism is shot. I still hear things. I have anxiety attacks. And I only did it for a year. I’ve been too [embarrassed] to tell my story. But it feels good to finally get it out” (kci.org).

The next account demonstrates the utter hopelessness of meth addiction: “This is just my short story about meth taking control of my whole city. It is literally stealing children away from their parents…a number of people, including me, are losing everything for that next hit. I’m 23 now, and since the age of 19 when I found IV use and meth I have probably smashed a…needle…in my arm between 2,000-3,000 times. Due to a car accident at the age of 19, I have been [paid] close to a quarter of a million dollars in compensation. And to my name right now, I have nothing but debt. I should be near set up at this point in my life. But instead I’m sucking the last bit of hope out of my [mother]. She has stood by me through ALL of the stealing and the lying, something that my girlfriend of five years only recently found out she could no longer do…”

“I just pray that the chemicals produced that factor in meth’s potency become a lot harder to get a hold of. It’s the only realistic dream of slowing down this horrifically fast-paced life sucker…In my perfect world ALL drugs that altered one’s state would be unavailable and unheard of…Oh how I hope that this is the only place in life where meth is available. If I have to leave my place on this earth behind one day, I do not want to be putting up with meth…in an afterlife or whatever comes next. I just hope the world gets better…Meth is a destroyer. And…it’s basically unbeatable. Well us as individuals have the opportunity to beat it, but we cannot beat the stranglehold meth has on the world, even in my entire lifetime…”

These stories show how horrible meth’s effects can be on individuals and families. But to truly grasp the scope of the problem, multiply just one of these accounts by 26 million—the estimated number of people who are using meth or similar drugs around the world. Only then does the picture come into greater focus.

Homemade Drug

To feed America’s growing meth appetite, labs began popping up across the country in recent years. Its ingredients are all legal and inexpensive, as reported by The Associated Press.

Notice the following account regarding the proliferation of meth labs in the United States: “Methamphetamine lab seizures rose nationally again in 2011, further evidence the powerfully addictive and dangerous drug is maintaining a tight grip on the nation’s heartland, according to an Associated Press survey of the nation’s top meth-producing states. Missouri regained the top national spot for lab seizures in 2011 with 2,096…Tennessee was second with 1,687, followed by Indiana with 1,437, Kentucky with 1,188 and Oklahoma with 902.

“Combined, the numbers indicate nationwide meth lab seizures rose at least 8.3 percent in 2011 compared with 2010.

“Experts blame the continued increase on the drug’s addictiveness and the growing popularity of the meth-making shortcut known as ‘shake-and-bake,’ in which the drug is concocted quickly in a soda bottle. The method results in smaller labs, but more of them.

“Clandestine meth labs are most common in the Midwest and South. U.S. users who don’t make the drug themselves get it from Mexico, but experts say the drug made in homemade labs is more addictive than the often-diluted product that crosses the border.

“‘When they’re manufacturing it locally they’re making the purest form and the strongest form they can make,’ said Sgt. Niki Crawford of the Indiana State Police Meth Suppression Team.”

One problem associated with meth is the cost of cleaning up a lab once it is seized: “…programs helped…states continue with busts after millions of dollars in federal funding set aside for cleanup suddenly was cut in February 2011. Many local police agencies in states without their own programs all but stopped seeking out meth labs because the local governments couldn’t afford cleanup costs” (ibid.).

Think of the awful environment in which children of meth addicts are forced to grow up. The meth lab inside a home creates such a toxic zone that once one is discovered by authorities, the house often cannot be salvaged and becomes condemned.

Yet meth use is not confined to the United States. South of the border, in February 2012, Mexican authorities seized the largest meth stash ever—15 tons, equal to roughly 13 million doses, over double the amount of meth seized at the Mexican border in 2011. The drugs were discovered at a ranch near Guadalajara, and had a street value of four billion dollars.

Rusty Payne, a spokesman for the DEA, stated in The New York Times, “The big thing it shows is the sheer capacity that these superlabs have in Mexico…When we see one lab with the capability to produce such a mass tonnage of meth, it begs a question: What else is out there?”

Eric Olson, an expert with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, summarized the ultimate effect of this drug bust: “‘It’s important to keep the seizure in perspective…It’s huge. Eye-popping. But seizures, even huge ones, don’t generally change the demand for the drug in the long run. If a seizure of this magnitude raises the street price, consumption may go down for a time, but it is only a matter of time until the market adjusts and the supply comes back up’” (ibid.).

This cycle of drug seizures can be likened to someone pulling their finger out of a bucket of water, with the water simply filling in around the empty space. As soon as illegal materials are captured and destroyed, more are produced for the market.

As more lives are lost, more people become addicted, bigger stockpiles are seized, and more money is spent to combat it, there seems to be no end in sight to the illegal drug trade.

Every Corner

When it comes to drug abuse, every country has a story to tell. Take for instance the streets of Dublin, Ireland. Drug deals occur in broad daylight on O’Connell Street, one of the city’s main shopping areas. Ireland’s Evening Herald newspaper reported, “The crisis on our streets was highlighted…by the savage nose-bite attack on [a woman]…Gardai [police] are struggling to cope with the extraordinary level of drug dealing and binge drinking that is horrifying tourists.”

“An estimated 1,500 heroin users roam the inner city every week after receiving their dose of methadone in one of six clinics. Fianna Fail Justice Spokesperson Dara Calleary believes the drug problem in the city has become an ‘epidemic.’”

In Yemen, severe water shortages are looming, threatening to bring widespread famine. Incredibly, United Press International revealed that the Middle Eastern nation is using more water to grow drugs than it uses for food. “The water problem, hidden by the security crises, was worsened because Yemenis use 40 percent of their available water to grow qat, a mildly narcotic plant that’s the country’s largest cash crop and highly prized across the Arabian Peninsula. That’s far more than they allocate to grow food.”

This is just one example of the effects the illicit drug trade has on a national scale. The country is risking its future to make easy money exporting drugs. Is it any wonder a United Nations Commission on drug policy declared that the war against drugs has “failed”?

A report by the Congressional Research Service as published by GlobalPost revealed the worldwide nature of the drug trade: “Many have concluded that there’s no way to defeat what is essentially a dynamic global commodities market…Marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin—they are global commodities markets much in the same way that alcohol, tobacco, sugar or coffee are.”

“So long as there is a demand, especially a significant demand in a country like the United States, there will be a supply. The demand is growing worldwide in many respects.”

Why is drug use exploding out of control—with the effects more harmful than ever and the problem unstoppable and unsolvable? Why are so many young people unable to refrain from falling into addictions?

In a world filled with so many ever-worsening problems, more people are turning to drugs to escape reality. They are reaching for a lifeline out of the confusion around them, but end up searching in the wrong places.

What is humanity collectively doing to combat this problem? Is there a real, workable solution on the horizon? Will the stories of teenage overdoses and awful, lifelong addictions ever fade into history—or will they only be replaced by more stories of the effects of drugs?

Part 3 will answer these questions and examine the solutions mankind has attempted in controlling drug abuse, along with how the age-old problem will ultimately be solved.


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