Beyond the Basics: Street Drugs

This article focuses on many traditional street drugs and includes methods of street use and packaging to help providers identify and understand how drugs may be found on the street.

CEU Review Form Street Drugs (PDF)Valid until July 6, 2007

     There is a wide variety of street drugs that makes street identification challenging. Due to the enormous number of abused drugs, it's not possible to cover all of them here. This article focuses on many traditional street drugs, including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, ecstasy and GHB, and includes methods of street use and packaging to help providers identify and understand how drugs may be found on the street. We also touch briefly on the illicit use of prescription drugs. A subsequent article will discuss additional substances and trends (e.g., dextromethorphan in cough medicine).

     Traditional drug classifications include narcotics, stimulants, hallucinogens, etc. This article uses a more street-based approach to classification: uppers, downers and all-arounders. Not only does this simple classification represent the actions of the medications covered, it generally matches the presentation of patients taking each type of substance.

     The wide classification of "uppers" actually includes stimulants, amphetamines and other substances. Ecstasy also has stimulant properties and is discussed later in this article.

     Cocaine is a stimulant derived from the coca plant, which is grown primarily in the Andes mountains in Bolivia and Peru. Inhabitants of the region chew coca leaves for their stimulant properties. Using a seven-step process involving kerosene or gasoline, cocaine is extracted from the leaf of the coca plant and eventually converted into cocaine hydrochloride (powder) or cocaine base (crack).

     In the 1980s, cocaine was primarily used in the powder form, which was snorted. When snorted, cocaine enters the body through the nasal mucosa, travels through the capillaries into the venous circulation, the right side of the heart, lungs, left side of the heart and then to the brain, where the effect is felt. This route of administration takes about 2-3 minutes to take effect.

     Later in the 1980s, crack cocaine became more prevalent for a number of reasons: It was less expensive, sold in individual doses and provided a potent high in a fraction of the time. Prior to the "invention" of crack cocaine, the dangerous process of "freebasing" using volatile chemicals was the only choice when smoking cocaine was preferred.

     From the standpoint of a drug user, crack cocaine is physiologically more efficient. Smoked cocaine enters the lungs, goes to the left side of the heart and to the brain in 2-10 seconds. It creates a remarkably quick and powerful sensation of euphoria, which adds to the chemical reasons this form of cocaine is so profoundly addictive.

     After being mixed into a liquid solution, cocaine powder can also be injected. Although injection provides quicker action (about 30 seconds), this method is least popular, due to the limited availability and risks associated with needle use and sharing.

     As the name implies, methamphetamine is an amphetamine. Methamphetamine had some medical uses in the 1960s, but the addiction potential quickly caused methamphetamine to be placed as a schedule II controlled substance.

     The thing about methamphetamine that introduced it into the illegal drug market and has caused dramatic increases in its use is that it can be manufactured or "cooked" in a clandestine drug laboratory. Anyone who has recently tried to purchase an over-the-counter drug remedy knows that those medications are commonly placed behind the pharmacy counter. This is because the nasal decongestant pseudoephedrine is a chemical that can be used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Recipes for cooking methamphetamine using a variety of materials may be easily found on the Internet.

     The Drug Enforcement Administration, in its publication Drugs of Abuse, reports that methamphetamine abuse has outpaced the traditional leaders cocaine and heroin in Western states and is rising dramatically throughout the country.

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