The Pure and Deadly: Concentrations Higher in Today’s Street Drugs

The Pure and Deadly: Concentrations Higher in Today’s Street Drugs

What happens when you hear words like “drug use” and “drug addiction” in news stories night after night for years on end? As with anything else, endless repetition of certain phrases tends to cause the mind to blur or gloss over what’s really being said or the intent of the message to begin with. Case in point is the touted War on Drugs, a worthy initiative that somehow never really accomplished what could be classified as a victory. And drugs on the street today are deadlier than ever, boasting concentrations that are higher than ever before. From various forms of heroin to marijuana to methamphetamine and other drugs, the pure and deadly drugs are all over our streets.

This results in needless tragedy. Let’s consider the facts.

According to information from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), more than 38,000 people died of drug-induced causes in 2007, the latest year for which data are available. In 1999, there were 19,128 drug-induced deaths, or 6.8 deaths per 100,000 population. In 2007, it grew to 12.6 per 100,000. This only comprehends deaths due to drugs, such as accidental poisoning or overdoses, and not as result of deaths indirectly caused by drugs, such as homicides, accidents, AIDS or other causes.

In the U.S., there is a drug-induced death every 15 minutes, four per hour, 96 per day, and an average of 2,920 per month. That’s an incredible waste of lives.

As for drugged driving, the statistics are similarly alarming. The ONDCP cites results from a 2009 self-report survey included in the 2009 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Survey (NSDUH) findings that approximately 10.5 million Americans reported driving under the influence of an illicit drug during the past year. Also in 2009, stats reported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revealed that one in three drivers killed in motor vehicle crashes (who were tested for drugs and the results known) tested positive for at least one medication or illicit drug. One in 10 high school seniors in 2008 reported in the two weeks prior to their interview that they had driven a vehicle after smoking marijuana. That’s from the 2008 Monitoring the Future Study conducted by the University of Michigan.

Where the Drugs Come From

Mexico is the principal transit country for the cocaine entering the United States from South America. It is estimated that 70 percent of the cocaine shipments bound for the U.S. pass through Mexico’s borders. In addition, Mexico is also the leading foreign source of marijuana consumed in this country, and, together with Columbia, is one of the principal heroin sources. Mexico is also a major production and transit point for methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs.


Marijuana, also known as pot, is the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States. There is much debate over the increased levels of marijuana potency in more recent years. Some pro-marijuana advocates state that federal reports of increasing potency are overblown and/or complete fabrications. Due to disparities in additives and source of origin, there is no definitive way to determine potency or concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana. Marijuana laced with PCP and other potent chemicals is extremely dangerous.

Over the past few years, synthetic marijuana, also called Spice, Blaze, Red Dawn and K2, has become increasingly popular among teens. It is available over the Internet and is sold in retail shops labeled as incense to mask the true intent. These smokable herbal blends provide a marijuana-like high. They consist of plant material that has been coated with research chemicals that mimic THC.

Late in 2010, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), under its emergency scheduling authority, began the process of classifying the five chemicals used to make synthetic marijuana as controlled substances.

This follows numerous reports since 2009 of serious adverse events and hospitalizations among people using synthetic marijuana. For at least the next year, while the DEA studies and classifies the five chemicals, it is now illegal to possess or sell these chemicals.

Data from the 2009 NSDUH released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) show that there is a sharp increase in marijuana use among teens and they are beginning use at younger ages. There were 2.9 million new past-year users of marijuana in 2009, and their average age of initiation (first-time use of the drug) dropped from 17.8 to 17.0 years (2008 to 2009). There was also a nine percent increase (to 7.3 percent from 6.9 percent) of current marijuana users age 12 t 17 from 2008 to 2009.

Looking at dependence and addiction statistics, marijuana tops the list of illicit drugs with the highest rate of past year dependence in 2009. Of 7.1 million persons aged 12 or older classified with dependence on or abuse of illicit drugs in 2009, 4.3 million were dependent upon or abused marijuana or hashish.

With marijuana use so widespread, the risks of higher potency THC cannot be minimized. Marijuana use is associated with dependence, cognitive impairment, poor motor performance, respiratory and mental illness, among other potentially negative effects. Although chronic use of drugs can lead to addiction at any age, research shows that the earlier a person begins drug use, the more likely they are to move on to more serious abuse and addiction. This can happen even later in life, long after drug use has been discontinued, and reflects the long-lasting harmful effects of early initiation of drug use. Teen use of drugs, such as potent marijuana, is particularly dangerous because research shows teen brains are still maturing into their 20s.


Heroin is a highly addictive drug and is the most widely used and rapidly acting of the opiates (painkillers). Heroin is processed from morphine, a naturally occurring substance that is extracted from the seed pod of certain types of poppy plants.

Pure heroin is a white powder with a bitter taste and is rarely sold on the streets. Most of the heroin sold on the street is a powder ranging in color from white to dark brown. What accounts for the color differences is what’s left behind in the form of impurities or chemical or other additives. There is another form of heroin, “black tar” heroin, which is primarily available in the western and southwest parts of the U.S. Black tar heroin comes from Mexico. The reason it is called black tar is that its consistency may be like that of black tar, sticky like roofing tar and hard like coal. Black tar heroin, widely available, is much higher in potency and concentration, and that, coupled with the fact that it is less expensive than illegally-obtained prescription opiates and therefore more attractive to buy, makes it much more dangerous for users due to the potential for overdose.

Heroin may be injected, smoked, or snorted. Injection is the most efficient way to administer low-purity heroin. What’s happened recently, however, is that the availability of high-purity heroin – and the fear of HIV/AIDS infection due to needle sharing – has made smoking and snorting the drug more common. No matter which route of administering heroin is used, however, the fact remains that all forms are highly addictive.

The 2009 NSDUH data shows an increase in the number of heroin initiates, with 180,000 persons age 12 or older who had used heroin for the first time within the past 12 months, compared with the average annual number of 100,000 first-time heroin initiates in the 2002 to 2008 period. Of the 7.1 million persons aged 12 or older classified with dependence on or abuse of illicit drugs in 2009, 399,000 were dependent on or abused heroin (up from 213,000 in 2007).

Cocaine and Crack Cocaine

Cocaine is the most potent stimulant of natural origin. It can be snorted, smoked, or injected. When it is snorted, it is inhaled through the nose where it is absorbed into the bloodstream through the nasal passages. Injection delivers the drug directly into the bloodstream. Smoking involves inhaling the smoke or cocaine vapor directly into the lungs, with the effect of getting into the bloodstream as rapidly as by injection.

Crack cocaine is cocaine base that has not been acid neutralized to make hydrochloride salt. Crack cocaine comes in a rock crystal that is heated to produce vapors which are then smoked.

Price and purity studies have shown that as prices of cocaine decline, purity levels increase. In 2001, the purity of powder cocaine ranged from 55 to 65 percent pure. In 2009, it ranged from a low of 55 percent to a high of 75 percent. The price in 2007 was down to $125 per gram from $145 in 2001.

With crack cocaine, the purity level was highest with lowest quantities (below 1 gram) and lowest with the highest quantities (above 15 grams). In the past five years, adjusted prices for crack cocaine shifted downward from about $180 to $170 per gram, while retail purity remained approximately constant in the 75 to 80 percent pure range.

In 2009, according to data from the 2009 NSDUH, there were 617,000 persons age 12 or older who had used cocaine for the first time within the past 12 months. This averages approximately 1,700 initiates per day. The number of cocaine initiates is a decline from the 1.0 million in 2002. Crack cocaine initiates saw a similar decline in the 2002 to 2009 period, from 337,000 to 94,000.

Of the 7.1 million persons aged 12 or older classified with dependence on or abuse of illicit drugs in 2009, 1.1 million were classified with dependence on or abuse of cocaine.

Prevention Efforts on the Southwest Border

The Southwest Border High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) is one of the most diverse of the HIDTA areas that is overseen by the ONDCP. The vast area covers about 2,000 miles of international border between Mexico and the United States, and stretches from San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas. This area is critical to combating the drug threats arriving in the U.S. including Mexican-produced methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin produced in South America, as well as other dangerous drugs such as marijuana and precursor chemicals used to produce meth.

There are five regions in the Southwest Border HIDTA: Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, West Texas and South Texas. There are 45 counties, five federal judicial districts, and includes representatives from 115 federal, state and local agencies.

While each region faces unique challenges, they have adapted to meet changing needs. In Southern California, the California Border Alliance Group (CBAG), one of four California HIDTAs, supports drug intelligence, investigative and interdiction operations, and coordinates efforts to stop drug use before it starts. Through its community-based Demand Reduction program, CBAG brings together community institutions to prevent drug use. One of their projects, “Forces United,” brought together all four California HIDTA regions in 2010 and played a key role in educating the public on the dangers of methamphetamine, marijuana and prescription drugs in local communities.

The Arizona HIDTA recognizes that law enforcement alone isn’t enough to combat the proliferation and potency of street drugs. They have also developed demand reduction programs to educate the citizenry about the dangers of drug use and abuse. Their goals include reducing pharmaceutical substance abuse and related crimes, raising awareness of the prescription drug problem in the state, and partnering with DrugFreeAZ to develop an effective demand reduction program to educate parents and children about drug abuse dangers.

In New Mexico, the Investigative Support Center (ISC) is the go-to organization that works to help get things done for the state’s drug task forces and supports all New Mexico’s law enforcement agencies.

In West Texas, the drug trafficking in the region and the escalating drug and gang violence from Juarez, Mexico spilling over into El Paso, Texas has resulted in law enforcement agencies being on high alert for the past several years. Similarly, in South Texas, despite low population density in some areas, drug trafficking and related crime in the area impacts the U.S. nationally. The South Texas HIDTA utilizes a balanced counter-drug strategy that includes law enforcement action and drug education and prevention efforts.

New England HIDTA

The major threat to the six-state (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire) New England HIDTA is heroin, followed by cocaine and crack cocaine. In recent years, however, drug trends have centered on the increasing use of opioids, including diversion of prescription pharmaceuticals.

In 2009, the largest cocaine seizure in the history of New Hampshire was conducted by the North Shore HIDTA. In the operation, a multi-million dollar international drug trafficking organization (DTO) was identified and dismantled and 45 kilos of cocaine worth an estimated $4 million on the street was seized. The New England HIDTA also focuses on prevention efforts. One of the newest prevention initiatives involves working with the Essex County Massachusetts Sheriff’s Office (ESCO) in its Youth Leadership Academy. This is a program designed to involve at-risk children, aged 12 to 15, in challenging, fun, and safe activities in a drug-, tobacco-, alcohol- and gang-free environment. It also provides instruction in anger management, peer counseling, teamwork, ethics, and cooperation.

Street Drugs are No Picnic

Any involvement with illicit street drugs is a very risky endeavor. In addition to being against the law to buy, sell, use or transport them, their potency is always unreliable and could be life-threatening to certain individuals in certain circumstances. Thus, getting involved in street drug use is a zero-sum game. There’s just no point in putting yourself in such harm’s way.

The illicit drugs available on the street today could come from Mexico (very likely), South America (also a high probability), or some poppy fields in Afghanistan. But they are all potentially deadly and, if nothing else, could lead to a life-long addiction.

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