Drug Policy

Cocaine: It's Right Under Your Nose

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In an article headlined "Cocaine: Hiding in Plain Sight," The New York Times detects signs of a resurgence in cocaine use, although it concedes there's not much in the way of statistical evidence to back up its anecdotes. In the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, reported cocaine use has been flat or declining in recent years. Likewise the Monitoring the Future Study, which surveys middle and high school students. Here's the best the Times can do:

According to an annual survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, lifetime cocaine use remained stable between 2002 and 2005 among 18-to-25-year-olds. (Data before 2002 are noncomparable.) But the study—which estimates national rates based on a poll of 67,500 people—recorded a 20 percent increase in past-month use among that age group in 2005 from 2004, the last period for which data were available.

That sounds impressive, until you realize that the share of 18-to-25-year-olds who reported past-month cocaine use rose from 2.1 percent in 2004 all the way to 2.6 percent in 2005, while "there was no change in usage rates among people over 26." Having shown that cocaine use recently became slightly less rare among 18-to-25-year-olds, the Times quotes former ONDCP official Herb Kleber regarding the likely length of the emerging epidemic:

"Drug use tends to be cyclic," Dr. Kleber said. "If you have a really dangerous drug, the generational remembering will come back quickly. If it takes time for the casualties to add up, the epidemic will last longer." Referring to the drug's last heyday, he added, "As some of my colleagues said, John Belushi had to die before people believed that these drugs were really dangerous."

The addiction psychologist (and reason contributor) Stanton Peele has noted that attributing Belushi's death to cocaine, or even to a combination of cocaine and heroin, is medically problematic:

John Belushi did not die from cocaine and heroin use, and our saying he did is a feeble way of trying to suppress the horrible conclusions his death suggests. This man did everything he could to guarantee he would not survive. It is at least as correct to say that he died of cigarettes, overeating, and alcohol as to blame his death on one or another—or more than one—illicit substance.

Is Kleber suggesting that people thought nothing of injecting speedballs while drinking until Belushi died? Or does he mean that they erroneously concluded from Belushi's multifactorial death that a weekend snort of coke was apt to kill them? Since Belushi died in 1982 and cocaine use did not peak until 1985 or so, Kleber's theory does not fit the data very well. Also note that he simultaneously implies cocaine is not "really dangerous" (which is why it took so long for people to recognize its hazards) and insists it is.

[Thanks to Hans Allhoff for the link.]

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  1. Perhaps rising visible cocaine usage is related to rising affluence.

  2. Since Belushi died in 1982 and cocaine use did not peak until 1985 or so, Kleber’s theory does not fit the data very well. Also note that he simultaneously implies cocaine is not “really dangerous” (which is why it took so long for people to recognize its hazards) and insists it is.

    Anyone? Anyone? Len Bias, I’m looking in your direction.

  3. Well, let’s see…cocaine is fun, its price has decreased, and the economy is relatively stable. Wouldn’t it be suprising if coke use went down?

  4. > Perhaps rising visible cocaine usage is related to rising affluence.

    This was my first thought, too. Maybe the middle class is forgoing marijuana for cocaine, just as they forgo McDonald’s for Chipotle?

  5. I roll my eyes whenever someone throws the “fastest growing ____” stastic (fastest growing drug, city, cause of death). Stasticis are often empty and meaningless, but “fastest growing” is doubly so.

  6. Of course, the incident of eye rolling is the fastest growing gesture whenever these articles appear.

    [runs off]

  7. Cocaine use will probably increase as long as the Feds are engaged in a war on d-methamphetamine.

    It is basically considered a munitions-grade drug, causing a 10% to 20% increase in IQ along with its other beneficial effects. The military knows that the side with the meth wins. At times, it is more important than arms. This is not something the Feds want anyone to have, which declares their position against their own people.

  8. Uh Contra, I don’t think that whole wacky “the feds want to keep meth out of the hands of the people so they can more effectively control the populace” line stands when adderall and it’s variants’ sales are flying through the roof to the apporval of our rather probusiness washington establishment.

    At least, that’s what I assume you’re going for, because the knowlege and means of dextromethamphetamine production are well within the capabilities of anyone we might remotely consider a foreign enemy and have been since WW2 or so

  9. Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower Class Because They Have Taken to “Sniffing” Since Being Deprived of Whisky by Prohibition

    For some years there have been rumors about the increase in drug taking in the South-vague, but always insistent rumors that the addiction to such drugs as morphine and cocaine was becoming a veritable curse to the colored race in certain regions. Some of these reports read like the wildest flights of a sensational fiction writer. Stories of cocaine orgies and “sniffing parties” followed by wholesale murders seem like lurid journalism of the yellowest variety.

    But in point of fact there was nothing “yellow” about many of these reports. Nine men killed in Mississippi on one occasion by crazed cocaine takers, five in North Carolina, three in Tennessee-these are the facts that need no imaginative coloring. And since this gruesome evidence is supported by the printed records of the insane hospitals, courts, jails, and penitentiaries, there is no escaping the conviction drug taking has become a race menace in certain regions south of the line.

  10. How come every single dirt bag loser in the world is addicted to drugs if drugs are harmless?

  11. This must be why they release those “Don’t worry, the drug problem is resolving itself” reports when cocaine use drops by 0.6%.

    You’ve seen those, right?

  12. “How come every single dirt bag loser in the world is addicted to drugs if drugs are harmless?”

    …Because they’re dirt bag losers?

  13. It is basically considered a munitions-grade drug, causing a 10% to 20% increase in IQ along with its other beneficial effects. The military knows that the side with the meth wins. At times, it is more important than arms. This is not something the Feds want anyone to have, which declares their position against their own people.
    That’s going straight to my “awesome quotes from isane people” file.

  14. Like de Stijl, when I saw the “1985 peak” number I immediately thought, “they picked the wrong celebrity death; it was Len Bias.” I don’t have the faintest idea whether there was causation there, but it seemed at the time like Bias’ death was a huge and shocking event that affected the public perception of cocaine– he wasn’t a live-fast-and-maybe-die-young-hard-partying Hollywood celebrity but a prime of life athelete, and I think that made a difference.

  15. Okapi,
    Correlation is not causation.

  16. How come every single dirt bag loser in the world is addicted to drugs if drugs are harmless?

    Only dirt bag losers are drug addicts?

  17. “Only dirt bag losers are drug addicts?”

    All cars are red does not meant everything red is a car.

  18. you definitely just devoted 4 paragraphs too many worth of commentary to any article that ran in the Sunday Styles section of the times. I mean, we are talking about the same Fashion and Style section that gave us The Man Date article and The Fancy Underwear article.

    Asking Sunday (or Thursday) Styles to base a story on anything other than anecdotal evidence provided by two or three of the author’s friends is like…like…asking Guiliani to provide campaign literature that doesn’t include “9/11” in the title? I don’t know. Insert your own analogy. I’m tired.

  19. “It is basically considered a munitions-grade drug, causing a 10% to 20% increase in IQ along with its other beneficial effects. The military knows that the side with the meth wins. At times, it is more important than arms. This is not something the Feds want anyone to have, which declares their position against their own people.”

    Ffffffffuck!

  20. How come every single dirt bag loser in the world is addicted to drugs if drugs are harmless?

    But not everyone who uses cocaine ends up a dirt bag loser. I heard of this one guy who kicked and then went on to own the Texas Rangers and later became President of the United States.

  21. Actually, I think Sullum’s critique makes the NYT piece look more hysterical than it really is. There’s a real difference between claiming that cocaine use is up, and that it’s used more openly (or that it’s easier to get). In fact, the perspective of the article seems to be closer to his own position than he seems to think. The article argues that cocaine hasn’t gone away. (This, after decades of “war on drugs”). Then, despite the breakdown of social stigma against it, the use of cocaine hasn’t gone up, either. I think the upshot is that demand for coke is relatively self-limiting and neither enforcement nor cultural fear or shame has made much headway. About the only thing that would suggest otherwise is one person’s quote that coke is “the new pot” — whatever that even means. All in all, a pretty credible piece of journalism for an article in the “Fashion and Style” section.

  22. is it just me or are there tons of ads on craigslists in ny for skiing?

  23. “How come every single dirt bag loser in the world is addicted to drugs if drugs are harmless?”

    Drugs and alcohol and cigarettes too are powerful stuff, and powerful stuff isn’t harmless.

    Most street people smoke in, drink up and drug out, or they’re crazy. They can’t face life without it.

    Go into a special education class for the bad behavior kids, and you find the same shit going on at home, mood alteration, with the daddy gone and doing it on his own. Prisons are filled with fatherless boys who were under the influence during their crimes.

    As for bums on the street, IF we didn’t have to pay the medical cost, etc. and suffer their crimes, who would care? They don’t want to live, just numb out. Let them OD.

    If you need substances for fun, do it and keep it under your hat. But why would anyone be championing it for others? The more they use it the higher the price for you.

    Nobody gets a Nobel prize for inventing a new alcohol or more addictive tobacco or a longer lasting high. They might get rich.

  24. Stasticis are often empty and meaningless, but “fastest growing” is doubly so

    Is that 200% of “often” or 200% of “meaningless” or 200% of “empty and meaningless”?

    Hurry up, I need to know!

    😉

  25. How come every single dirt bag loser in the world is addicted to drugs if drugs are harmless?

    Why do you care so much about dirt bag losers on drugs that you are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars and the middle third of the bill of rights to keep those dirt bag losers from sticking coke up their noses?

    Plus it don’t work any way. The dirt bag losers are still sticking needles in their veins, coke up their noses, and tweakin’ all night while they stock the shelves at the local A&P. Hell, speed is almost a union mandated benefit for grocery people that works nights.

  26. I think most people around at the time would tell you the death of Len Bias did represent a turning point, both in the culture and in the law.

    Bias was an athlete in his prime and, at least according the stories current at the time, he was not a regular coke user. The weekend warrior types, especially boomers in their 20’s to 40’s, could relate to his lifestyle a lot more than they could somebody like Belushi, and it really did scare them.

    Remember, too, that Bias had just been drafted by the Celtics – that’s what he was celebrating. His death was an important factor in Tip O’Neill’s (R-MA, remember) decision to push through new drug legislation that put in place a lot of the mandatory minimums and the statutory difference between crack and powder cocaine that have so effectively filled our prisons since.

    Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but for this you can make a pretty good case.

  27. And the quoted comment about Belushi’s death is remarkably silly. Belushi’s smoking, drinking or overeating might have killed him eventually, but the reason his heart stopped that particular morning was an overdose.

  28. “Tip O’Neill’s (R-MA, remember)”

    Make that (D-MA he was a representative,
    a very liberal democrat and speaker of the house from the 80s to the 97? exit)

  29. Actually, Tip O’Neill was gone and Jim Wright was speaker at the time of Bias’s death. It is true nonetheless that Bias’s death was a major cause of 1987’s anti-drug legislation.

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