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A Drug Was a Drug Isn't Anymore

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In my days as a teenager who got high on weekends, a drug was a drug was a drug. Not counting heroin — that was hardcore, relegated to junkies who got their fix in squalid shooting galleries in the bowels of inner-city neighborhoods, far away from the suburbs or small towns or respectable communities most of us called home.

A drug was a drug was a drug — marijuana grown and harvested in Mexico, cocaine propagated and processed in Colombia, a six-pack of cold beer from the corner 7-Eleven or a pint of vodka from the liquor store in town. It didn't matter that my choices came from the al a carte menu. I knew what drug I was ordering.

It's not like that anymore.

The other day, I moderated a conference on the topic of synthetic drug use, mainly by young people. The panel included an emergency room doctor, a chemist, a police chief, a drug-trends data wonk, a school counselor, a treatment counselor and two teenagers who've been there and done that but don't anymore. All of them are the experts, not me, which explains why I probably sounded perplexed by what I heard them say. People who use drugs today aren't ordering from Mother Nature's recipes.

"Bath salts" are popular right now. The high is similar to stimulants like cocaine. But I doubt users can pronounce, much less spell, some of the manufactured ingredients found in "bath salts" they're ingesting: methylenedioxpyrovalernoe, mephedrone and methyone. Chemicals made by humans, packaged as plant food or herbal incense and labeled as "not for human consumption" so that they can be sold legally in smoke shops to users whose intent is to do just that.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, the number of calls related to bath salt exposure increased from about 300 in 2010 to more than 6,000 last year.

Dealers peddle and consumers buy manmade pot known as "Spice" or "K2." Ask them what's in it, and few really know, though they'll swear it is nothing more than a fine blend of traditionally used medicinal herbs.

The only problem is that chemistry analogs don't lie, and while the compounds in synthetic marijuana are intended to mimic those in natural cannabis and, hence, create the same effects (to wit, a high), the two are very different. In fact, researchers have been unable to identify all of the chemical fingerprints in synthetic marijuana. Emergency calls related to adverse effects of using this substance have jumped fivefold in the past three years, proving that what we don't know can hurt us.

And remember heroin, that opiate reserved for hardcore junkies? It is making a comeback, thanks to what the Centers for Disease Control officially calls "an epidemic" of prescription painkiller overdoses.

We're a nation hooked on avoiding what hurts us, and nothing eases the pain better than what pharmaceutical companies make and doctors hand out in hundreds of millions of prescriptions each year. Except that now tighter regulations are making it tougher on users to manipulate their doctors and pharmacies. That leaves them no choice but to seek relief in what comes mainly from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, a drug that today is easier and "cleaner" to smoke or snort than shoot with a needle into the vein.

Heroin isn't the drug it once was, just like a drug was a drug but isn't anymore.

William Moyers is the vice president of public affairs and community relations for the Hazelden Foundation and the author of "Broken," his best-selling memoir. His new book, "Now What? An Insider's Guide to Addiction and Recovery," was published in October. Please send your questions to William Moyers at wmoyers@hazelden.org. To find out more about William Moyers and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2012 CREATORS.COM


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