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Drug Abuse—A Global Epidemic – Part 1: Painting the Picture

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Drug Abuse—A Global Epidemic

Part 1: Painting the Picture

As drug use skyrockets worldwide, more admit the war on drugs is being lost.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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A farmer scatters poppy seed across a field. It is early spring in the mountains of Ipiales, Colombia.

After three months of sun, beautiful white and red flowers bloom. The petals fall off and growers return to the field to start the harvesting process. The seed pod is cut and raw opium oozes from the bulb. Workers skillfully wield knives to gather the sticky white substance. It is then formed into bricks, which are wrapped in plastic and collected in piles.

With the harvest complete, a local black-market merchant arrives at the farm. Money exchanges hands as a crew of men tosses bricks of the raw substance into the back of a truck. The material is then delivered to a nearby refinery. There, the opium is dumped into a large, weathered oil drum and combined with boiling water and lime. The morphine separates and rises to the top. After further processing, it is poured into molds and set out to dry in the sun.

The morphine is then sent to a laboratory for more treatment and purification. The result is a white powder known as heroin, which is packaged in small bags and placed into a larger container. A distributor within a drug cartel is contacted and the heroin is brought to Mexico through an intricate multi-tiered distribution chain. Once the highly addictive drug arrives near the border of the United States, drug couriers, or “mules,” are paid thousands of dollars to hide the packages and transport them.

After entering America undetected, another contact is made and the drugs switch hands again, this time traveling to the distribution hub of New York City—more than 2,700 miles from the small farm in Colombia.

In New York City, a longtime heroin addict rouses herself out of bed with one thing on her mind. She flips open her cellphone and makes a call. Fifteen minutes later she knocks on the door of her dealer, who just received a new shipment. She trades a wad of cash for a tightly rolled plastic bag of heroin. The routine is the same, but this time will be different.

A few days later, local police enter the young woman’s apartment after receiving a report of a missing person. Her lifeless body is sprawled across the floor, a needle by her side. She leaves behind a family that will mourn the loss of a daughter, a sister, a niece, a cousin, but who will also feel a strange sense of relief that her long, painful battle is over.

This account could describe any number of deaths that occur as a result of drug addiction, from uptown penthouses to neighborhood slums. The statistics are mind-boggling. Millions are hooked. Some are lifelong addicts. Others first-time users. Still others are in rehab, teetering on the brink.

Scientists have failed to find a quick-fix cure to addiction and governments are growing desperate to eradicate this scourge. Despite huge amounts of money being poured into drug abuse prevention, information about the harmful effects of illicit substances being more available than ever before, and stricter enforcement, the global drug epidemic only spreads.

The United Nations “War on Drugs – Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy,” released in June 2011, gave a sobering report of the reality of worldwide abuse: “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.

“Vast expenditures on criminalization and repressive measures directed at producers, traffickers and consumers of illegal drugs have clearly failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption. Apparent victories in eliminating one source or trafficking organization are negated almost instantly by the emergence of other sources and traffickers. Repressive efforts directed at consumers impede public health measures to reduce HIV/AIDS, overdose fatalities and other harmful consequences of drug use. Government expenditures on futile supply reduction strategies and incarceration displace more cost-effective and evidence-based investments in demand and harm reduction.”

The war appears unwinnable.

Growing Impact

Every year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime also releases a “World Drug Report,” which analyzes current trends and statistics. The 2011 edition revealed the scope of the problem: “Despite increased attention to drug demand reduction in recent years, drug use continues to take a heavy toll. Globally, some 210 million people use illicit drugs each year, and almost 200,000 of them die from drugs. There continues to be an enormous unmet need for drug use prevention, treatment, care and support, particularly in developing countries.”

How prevalent is the problem?

The report revealed that while certain drugs are decreasing in popularity in some areas, their use is surging on other continents.

For example, the report stated that there has been “a large increase in cocaine use in Europe and South America over the last decade...Meanwhile, new drug use profiles are also emerging: consumption of combinations of drugs rather than just one illicit substance is becoming more common, and this increases the risk of death or serious health consequences.”

“In 2009 (the year with the most recent data available), an estimated up to 272 million people around the world used illegal drugs at least once that year.”

In addition, up to 203 million people globally used marijuana in 2009, and “non-medical use of prescription drugs is reportedly a growing health problem in a number of developed and developing countries…” (ibid.).

“The long-term trends show increased seizures for all the major drug types,” the same research showed. “Between 1998 and 2009, seizures of cocaine, heroin and morphine, and cannabis almost doubled. ATS [amphetamine] seizures more than tripled over the same period” (ibid.).

According to the report, in 2009, around 10,600 amphetamine labs were busted, most of which were producing methamphetamine.

These staggering numbers are strictly based on arrests, surveys and a few other means. The actual numbers are much higher!

The annual report also revealed that drug-related death rates are rising, especially in America: “North America seems to experience a large proportion of drug-related deaths (45,100 deaths)…The United States saw an estimated 38,400 deaths from illicit drug use in 2006…”

The report also concluded, “…overdoses from prescription opioids have been steadily increasing from 4,000 in 2001 to 11,000 in 2006 (the most recent year available), an increase of 175%” (ibid.).

The drug industry is a multibillion dollar a year business. The Vienna-based International Control Board reported that the drug trade generates “several hundred billions of dollars a year and exceeds the gross national product (GNP) of most countries…Most of the money stems from illicit drug production, trafficking and abuse throughout the world.”

The worth of the cocaine market in North America is $37 billion, and $33 billion in Europe. The drug industry has increased to such proportions that it can now impact global financial markets. For instance, “In some countries and regions, the value of the illicit drug trade far exceeds the size of the legitimate economy,” the report stated.

Reasons for the Rise

An increase in drug use leads to more crime and death. Armed robberies, assaults, forgery, money laundering, burglaries, rapes, kidnapping and prostitution are often drug-related.

No country has seen this more than Mexico. Since President Felipe Calderon ordered a crackdown on drug cartels in December 2006, over 50,000 people have been killed, including police officers, cartel members, smugglers and innocent bystanders. Kidnappings are commonplace on the U.S.-Mexico border. Cartels are becoming bigger, bolder, wealthier, more technologically advanced, and better at evading police and Drug Enforcement Agency officials.

While drug dealing was once more commonly associated with gangs or the mafia, dealers now range from teens to the elderly, from pregnant mothers to couples with children. Children are even used to transport drugs from dealer to buyer. If caught, they can often avoid prosecution because of their age.

Hard economic times have pushed people to seek other means to earn an income. Many even use selling drugs as a “night job.” In fact, the average drug dealer maintains a low-wage job and sells part-time to obtain drugs for his own use. Thus, selling becomes a means of satisfying his own appetite and making a profit.

The drug world has evolved from a street-corner “try-to-outrun-the-police” business, to a worldwide underground franchise. How has the impact of drugs grown so wildly out of control?

Drugs in the Media

One factor of increased drug addiction is the way these substances are portrayed in the media. Although commercials, programs and documentaries attempt to prevent drug abuse by describing its consequences, children and teenagers receive mixed signals from other media sources—movies and music. In reviewing 43 movies featuring illicit drug use, the Office of National Drug Control Policy found that approximately 60 percent portrayed it occurring at parties, in luxurious settings, or in humorous contexts. Instead of realistically showing tragic results of illicit drug use, popular actors and recording artists glamorize it.

The entertainment industry, which puts profit first, understands that teenagers are a major part of sales. This carefree representation of drugs is a marketing ploy to appeal to a teen’s sense of rebellion.

The director of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign stated, “It’s pop culture, it’s the talk-show hosts that make light of drugs…It’s also the mixed messages you get from movie stars and sports celebrities who beat somebody up or crash their car because they were under the influence or used drugs, and still make $20 million a year. If you go to some stores, you see marijuana T-shirts and jewelry.”

On April 20, 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported, “April 20 marks a high holiday for marijuana enthusiasts, who have long used ‘420’ as code for cannabis and who celebrate the date’s appearance on the calendar…with concerts, stoner-film marathons and controlled substances.

“This year…marketers are trying to get in on the buzz. Marijuana advocates say the commercialization just proves that pot is gaining mainstream acceptance; there were some 17.4 million users in 2010, up from 14.4 million in 2007, according to government data…”

“Film studios hope to capitalize on the day with pot-themed film releases, while television networks and small businesses are running promotions.”

With such a drug-saturated environment, it is no wonder more young adults are experimenting with illicit substances. From hip-hop, rock and electronic music, children and teens—from inner cities to small towns—are seeing and hearing about the “excitement” surrounding drugs.

Yet the reality of drug abuse is far from the rosy picture seen in music and movies.

Inside the Science

The meaning of the word “drug” varies. Scientifically, a drug is any substance (other than food) that affects an organism’s structure and function. Most drugs were developed for therapeutic reasons but abused later. An example of this is morphine. During the Civil War, morphine was a painkiller for amputations and wounds. After it was used extensively, it was discovered to be extremely addictive—but much too late. Many soldiers became addicts.

In the 1970s, the federal government passed the Controlled Substance Act (CSA), which provided a set of guidelines for the classification of drugs.

The CSA regulates five classes of drugs: narcotics, depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens and anabolic steroids. Each class has distinguishing properties. Drugs within each class often produce similar effects. These classifications allow the Food and Drug Administration to administer guidelines for drugs “acceptable” for medical usage.

In the context of drug abuse, drugs become social rather than scientific. Illicit drugs are those used for anything other than their medically designed purpose, such as mood-altering drugs, called psychoactive drugs. These are substances that affect and alter the mind or behavior through pathological or functional changes in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Of course, the more pleasurable the sensations produced by a drug, the more likely it will be abused. Psychoactive drugs affect senses, emotions, thoughts and consciousness. Users lose track of time, experience feelings of disorientation, or hallucinate.

Through abuse, a user can become dependent on a drug’s effects. Various “experts” claim that some are genetically born an alcoholic or drug abuser. But unless a child is born to an addicted mother, this statement is false. Dependency is what makes millions become addicts—not their genes!

The two types of dependency are physical and psychological. Physical dependency occurs when heavy drugs such as heroin, alcohol and tranquilizers are repeatedly used, causing the body to chemically change. Unless the body receives regular doses of the drug, it suffers withdrawal symptoms—ranging from unpleasant to life-threatening.

Psychological dependency occurs when the user abuses a substance as a means of coping with life, believing he cannot function without it. The drugs are used to relax, relieve stress, or for escapism. This dependency is more common and can happen with almost every drug. Psychological dependency lasts much longer, leaving a person craving a drug’s effects. It is one of the chief reasons for relapse after rehabilitation.

Recall the example of the woman who overdosed. Around the world, millions like her struggle daily with drugs, unable to completely break free from their pulls and temptations. Some are overcome by their addictions, and eventually pay the ultimate price. Others are just beginning their long, dark journey into the world of drugs.

All of this is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the growing problem of drug abuse. Part 2 will bring in-depth analysis of the major drugs and the devastation they cause. For instance, is marijuana harmless, or a dangerous gateway drug? What impact do methamphetamines have on a user’s life?

Be sure to read the next installment of this three-part series!

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