Street drugs, also known as illicit drugs, are those drugs or medications illegally bought, sold, and consumed. Street drugs more specifically refer to those drugs which are not in prescription form and have been manufactured without regulation. Examples of street drugs include heroin, cocaine, meth, ecstasy, and many more. They pose extreme health risks, and many are very addictive. According to a 2018 survey, 31.9 million people aged 12 or older in the United States were "current users" of some kind of illicit drug.
Because so many illegal drugs exist, and new ones are being created currently, street drugs have earned their own classification. Each street drug may belong to a different subcategory of drugs, such as a stimulant, depressant, hallucinogen, etc. But referring to them collectively allows for more straightforward discussion and tracking of data without mentioning each type of street drug.
The History of Street Drugs
Drugs have been used in one form or another since time immemorial. Religious uses of psychoactive substances like hallucinogens, alcohol, and cannabis have been commonplace throughout history. And medicinal herbs and compounds have been utilized since the dawn of man, so far as we can tell. Likewise, people have been using drugs recreationally for millennia. No fine line exists where drugs suddenly became a problem in society.
Records exist as early as the 17th century, which describes the phenomenon of addiction as a problem. But we have some significant events that occurred in relatively recent history which demonstrate an increasing problem and response to solving it.
Perhaps the most notable early account of addiction and subsequent drug control comes from the 1800s and the opium wars between Britain and China. This was an effort to restrict the flow of opium into China, which was lost.
Britain prevailed, furthering the international spread of the drug.
Opium arrived in America before the turn of the century via Chinese immigrants who arrived in California to build railroads and work during the Gold Rush. Considered America's first drug epidemic, the phenomenon of opium dens and addiction spread across the country to New York rapidly. At this point, there was still no such thing as illicit drugs. But the phenomenon of opium addiction in America gave birth to the first drug control law in the country's history in San Francisco in 1875. It was a city ordinance aimed to stop the spread of opium dens.
No national laws regarding drug control existed until 1906 when the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed.
This didn't outlaw any drugs necessarily, but effectively ended the money-driven patent industry, which had made a habit of getting people unwittingly addicted to narcotics. The act required manufacturers to list certain ingredients, like opium, in their products on the label. Once consumers learned why they kept craving their favorite cough medicine, the entire industry shifted.
The Harrison Narcotics Act was the next evolution of drug control in the US. This began in 1914 and was the start of outlawing and classifying chemical substances, evolving into the modern Food and Drug Administration. It also outlawed opium and cocaine.
The 1960s were another period of major change, thanks to rapid advances in medicine and many new drugs that promised to solve many of man's dilemmas. But this period also became infamous for its political tensions, civil unrest, and expansive drug use. Drug abuse became such a problem in America that it was politicized, and the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 was born. This was the inception of the modern system we still use today to schedule drugs. Scheduling is the act of classifying and placing restrictions and penalties on different substances based upon their abuse potential and accepted medical use. These laws serve to guide prescribing and determine what is legal and which drugs are illicit, "street" drugs.
What do Street Drugs Look Like?
Since there are so many different kinds of street drugs, there is no one description. Commonly abused street drugs include heroin, cocaine, crack, meth, MDMA, LSD, and many others.
Here are a few examples of street drugs.
Effects of Street Drugs
Because of the vastness of this category, we'll examine the most commonly abused street drugs and their effects.
Heroin is one of the deadliest drugs in America. Heroin comes as a white or tan powder or a black sticky substance, known as "black tar heroin." Users can inject, inhale, or smoke it. Once heroin enters the brain, it binds rapidly to opioid receptors. People who use heroin typically report feeling a surge of pleasurable sensation, also known as a "rush." With heroin, the rush is usually accompanied by a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the extremities.
Other effects of heroin include:
- Slowed breathing
- Clouded mental functioning
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sedation; drowsiness
- Hypothermia (body temperature lower than usual)
- Coma or death (due to overdose)
Meth is another drug that is heavily abused in America. It has seen a surge in popularity since the 1990s, despite intensive efforts across the country to discourage the substance's manufacturing. Unfortunately, this has diverted most of the drug's production south of the border, where cartels now supply tons of the drug to the United States annually. Meth can have some very harsh effects on the person, including:
- Loss of appetite
- Increased heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature
- Dilation of pupils
- Disturbed sleep patterns
- Bizarre, erratic, sometimes violent behavior
- Hallucinations, hyperexcitability, irritability
- Panic and psychosis
- Convulsions, seizures, and death from high doses
The drug is abused for the intense euphoria and energy it produces, but this quickly gives way to addiction and an inability to experience pleasure without consuming meth. Cocaine is a drug that has not received the recent media attention of the previously mentioned street drugs but is nevertheless a serious health threat. Cocaine use was responsible for unprecedented addiction rates across America in the 1980s, yet another drug epidemic in the country's history. Produces a "rush" when consumed by rapid onset ingestion methods such as smoking or injecting the drug intravenously. It is a stimulant drug, so it can produce effects similar to meth, including:
- Loss of appetite
- Increased heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature
- Contracted blood vessels
- Increased rate of breathing
- Dilated pupils
- Disturbed sleep patterns
- Bizarre, erratic, sometimes violent behavior
- Hallucinations, hyperexcitability, irritability
- Tactile hallucinations that create the illusion of bugs burrowing under the skin
- Intense euphoria
- Anxiety and paranoia
- Intense drug craving
- Panic and psychosis
- Convulsions, seizures, and sudden death from high doses
Street Drug Overdose
Overdose is a condition where the person consumes more of the drug than their body can tolerate, resulting in adverse effects and potential harm. Every drug can cause an overdose if enough of it is consumed. This depends upon the potency of the drug and the way it affects the body's different systems. Again, we'll look at the same commonly abused street drugs as examples of overdose. Heroin is notorious for causing deadly overdoses in the United States, particularly since the early 2000s. In 2018, nearly 15,000 people died from a drug overdose involving heroin in the United States, a rate of almost five deaths for every 100,000 Americans.
When a person ingests too much heroin, there's little if anything they can do to save their own life. The drug produces intense sedation and will cause them to become unconscious before they start to die. Because of this, surviving a heroin overdose is virtually always the result of an intervention. Recognizing heroin overdose is vital, so watch for the following signs:
- Recognizing heroin overdose is vital, so watch for the following signs:
- Loss of consciousness
- Unresponsive to outside stimulus
- Awake, but unable to talk
- Breathing is very slow and shallow, erratic, or has stopped
- For lighter-skinned people, the skin tone turns bluish purple. For darker-skinned people, it turns grayish or ashen.
- Choking sounds, or a snore-like gurgling noise (sometimes called the "death rattle")
- Body is very limp
- Face is very pale or clammy
- Fingernails and lips turn blue or purplish black
- Pulse (heartbeat) is slow, erratic, or not there at all
If someone is making unfamiliar sounds while "sleeping," try to wake them up. Many loved ones of drug users think a person was snoring when, in fact, they were overdosing.
Thankfully, medical technology has improved dramatically with time, allowing for accessible treatment options for a heroin overdose. Naloxone, a medication that rapidly reverses heroin overdose, is now available for people to carry with them or keep at home to rescue someone overdosing on heroin. It is available as a nasal spray or injection. Even when used successfully in a nonmedical setting, the person must receive medical attention as soon as possible. Heroin overdose can cause severe damage to tissues and organs even if the person survives.
Until the last two decades, meth wasn't associated with overdose very much. But since the drug's production has been diverted into super-labs in Mexico, the problem has grown immensely. According to the DEA's 2017 Threat Assessment, its purity has been steadily climbing and is now well above 90 percent. It's also cheap, at $5 per hit.
Now, overdose is quite common from meth, and many people are unfamiliar with the signs:
- Enlarged pupils
- Rapid, slowed, or irregular heart rate
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pains
- Heart attack
- High body temperature
- High blood pressure
- Kidney failure
- Stomach pain
- Altered mental status
Meth overdose requires immediate medical intervention. No at-home options are available to rescue someone overdosing on meth, so look out for symptoms and act quickly. Thankfully, once medical professionals intervene, proper medication can be administered, and lifesaving measures can be taken.
Cocaine is another stimulant drug similar to meth in the way it kills. In 2018 there were 14,666 deaths involving cocaine.
When a person abuses cocaine, their body experiences several sensations and physiologic changes, all relating to its strong stimulant effects:
- Arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythm)
- Severe tachycardia (elevated heart rate)
- Very high blood pressure
- Dangerously high body temperature
- Severe anxiety or agitation
Like meth, cocaine overdose requires immediate medical intervention, and there are no approved therapies other than calling 911 and administering CPR if warranted until they arrive.
Street Drug Addiction
Addiction to street drugs can occur quickly and begins as it can with any substance. The person is struggling with a major problem in life. This could be anything from physical pain to mental or emotional anguish, feelings of loss or loneliness, or any unwanted condition. They discover, intentionally or accidentally, that some drug alleviates this condition or provides them an escape from it, however brief. They continue to use the drug to "solve" their problem, which leads to tolerance, dependence, and, eventually, full-blown addiction.
For example, a high school student may struggle to fit in and making friends. They get bullied and made fun of regularly, so they have been miserable for the last three years. But one night, they are invited to a party by a classmate, and when they go, they are offered cocaine. To fit in, they try it and surprisingly discover that they feel incredible. It's as though their problems have all dissolved, and they can easily talk to people and fit in. They make several new friends that night, and school starts to go much better. This experience has confirmed that cocaine can solve their biggest problems, so it's easy to see how addiction could develop. Sadly, 29% of 12th graders in 2015 said that it would at least "fairly easy" for them to buy cocaine if they wanted to. This illustrates the reality of the above example.
Often, the person who uses a drug like heroin didn't start there. About 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.
Addiction to opioids can easily begin with a legitimate injury or medical issue. The person was in pain and was given a prescription from a doctor. But this simple fact does not make using prescription opioids safe. They work quite well, and soon the person only feels well when they take their pills. When the doctor discontinues their opioid prescription, they may resort to getting the drug from illegal sources. Making matters worse, heroin is both cheaper and easier to obtain for most people than prescription opioids.
How to help a loved one addicted to Street Drugs
Street drugs encapsulate a broad category of substances. If someone you know is addicted to street drugs, this could be anything from heroin or meth or even newer illicit drugs that we haven’t learned about yet. Some of these are so deadly that overdose can occur from simple skin contact.
One of the biggest myths about helping someone overcome street drug addiction is that they need to be “ready” to be helped. Certainly, the rates of success are higher among people who “want” treatment. But even those who want it also have a strong urge to continue using drugs. Otherwise, they’d just stop. And those who initially have the best intentions will have days in treatment where they consider leaving and using street drugs, and many of them do.
Conversely, people who don’t want to quit using drugs can be helped. With proper intervention, they can change their mind and decide to try getting clean. This doesn’t mean that they won’t flip-flop when things get tough, but that’s the nature of addiction. No one wants to be a drug addict, but nobody wants to struggle through the pain and difficulties that the drugs were masking.
And nobody wants to experience drug withdrawal. The withdrawal process can be one of the biggest barriers to getting help because it is so uncomfortable. This is why you should keep in mind that it's often the biggest fear in the person’s mind and the reason they don’t get help.
Never minimize their fears or concerns or approach them with an attitude of “why don’t you just quit?”. It is also important that you do not become upset or angry with them when confronting them about drug use or getting help. They already know that you do not approve, and they are likely very hard on themselves, even though they seem like they don’t care. These are defense mechanisms and should be disregarded. Remember, you are not dealing with the person. You’re dealing with a chemical version of them.
If your loved one is using street drugs and is unwilling to get help or even admit it, it may be time to get some professional help. You can always call us at the number on this page and get some help with finding treatment and intervention services. Armed with information and a plan, you can now move forward with getting them the help they need.
Street Drug Treatment
There is no set method for treating addiction to street drugs. Depending upon the substance being abused, different treatment interventions may be utilized. But thankfully, standard treatment models work for all forms of substance abuse because they all deal with addiction.
The most common form of treatment is known as inpatient or residential drug treatment. This means the person lives at the facility and stays there for boarding and treatment until complete and discharged.
This is to help ensure that the person cannot access drugs and is in a completely different environment from where their addiction developed. This can allow for much better results and is the gold standard of addiction treatment.
Most programs are around 28 days in length but can vary greatly and be as long as six months or more. More extended programs are usually more intensive and are for people who have relapsed after multiple rehabilitation attempts.
Outpatient treatment is an alternative to inpatient treatment. It consists of living at home but traveling to the treatment facility for regular treatment sessions. This allows the person to continue to work, go to school, or handle other obligations that may prevent someone from attending an inpatient program. But this shouldn't be used as a more leisurely route only because it sounds more attractive, particularly to those who have never been to treatment before. Outpatient treatment offers less support and restrictions that deter relapse, increasing risk. When possible, inpatient treatment should be the first line of attack for moderate to severe addiction. Outpatient is often utilized for these cases as continued care after discharge from inpatient treatment.
Within these two forms of treatment exist many methods of recovery. The prevailing model, the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, is at the core of most substance abuse treatment programs. But for many, other modalities meet their needs or preferences. Holistic drug treatment programs are considered to be some of the most successful for thoroughly addressing addiction, but can be lengthy and more costly. Another style of treatment that has become very popular for opioid addiction is Medication-Assisted Treatment. This consists of utilizing opioid replacement drugs like methadone and suboxone to address opioid addiction. Many people who are addicted to heroin choose this route because they do not have to withdrawal from the drug, which can be an excruciating process. Instead, they resign to a life of opioid maintenance therapy, which consists of taking these replacement drugs instead of finding and using heroin. While the practice is controversial, it can offer some an opportunity at harm reduction and living a somewhat normal life.
The best way to get into the right treatment program is to research your options and speak with a professional. Be completely honest during the screening process so that they can help you find what will be the safest and most effective form of rehabilitation. But do not feel forced into any one way, and express your desires and goals clearly. The process often comes down to preference, and getting started doing ANY treatment is better than none.
Street Drug Statistics
According to the 2018 NSDUH findings, illicit drug use rates have increased, mainly due to a recent trend in increasing marijuana use and an increase in the abuse of prescription-type psychotherapeutic drugs.
- 31.9 million people aged 12 or older in the United States (11.7%) are "current users" of some kind of illicit drug.
- Just over 50% of respondents had used illegal drugs or done nonmedical use of prescription drugs in their lifetime.
In addition to past-month usage, the 2018 NSDUH looked at how many people used drugs in the prior year. By the number of users aged 12 and older:
- Illicit drugs combined (53.2 million)
- Marijuana (43.5 million)
- Misuse of prescription pain relievers (9.9 million)
- Misuse of prescription tranquilizers and sedatives (6.4 million)
- Hallucinogens, including ecstasy (5.6 million)
- Cocaine (5.5 million)
- Misuse of prescription stimulants (5.1 million)
- Inhalants (2 million)
- Methamphetamine (1.9 million)
- Heroin (808,000)
According to SAMHSA estimates, 2.8 million people used drugs for the first time in 2013, an average of 7,800 new users per day. Of those new users, 54.1% were under 18 years of age.
The most popular drug of choice for those new teenage users is marijuana, followed by prescription painkillers and inhalants.
- Illicit drug use is – directly and indirectly – responsible for over 750,000 deaths per year.
- Illicit drug use is responsible for 585,000 premature deaths by increasing the risk of particular disease and injury. · Over 166,000 die from drug overdoses each year.
- More than half of those who die from drug overdoses are younger than 50 years old.
- Opioids are responsible for the largest number of overdoses from illicit drugs.
- It is estimated that around 1% of the world has a drug use disorder.
- The US had the highest overdose rates from all three leading illicit drugs: opioids, amphetamine, and cocaine.
In 2018, 47% of young people had used an illegal drug by the time they graduated from high school. Additionally, 70% of users who try an illegal drug before age 13 develop a substance abuse disorder within the next seven years compared to 27% of those who try an illegal drug after age 17.
Common Terminology Used for Street Drugs
|Drug misuse||The use of illegal drugs and/or prescription drugs in a manner other than as directed by a doctor, such as use in greater amounts, more often, or longer than told to take a drug or using someone else's prescription.|
|Heroin||An illegal, highly addictive opioid drug processed from morphine and extracted from certain poppy plants.|
|Illicit drugs||The nonmedical use of a variety of drugs that are prohibited by law. These drugs can include amphetamine-type stimulants, marijuana/cannabis, cocaine, heroin, other opioids, and synthetic drugs, such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) and ecstasy (MDMA).|
|Naloxone||A drug that can reverse the effects of opioid overdose and can be lifesaving if administered in time. The drug is sold under the brand name Narcan or Evzio.|
|Narcotic drugs||Originally referred to any substance that dulled the senses and relieved pain. Some people use the term to refer to all illegal drugs, but technically, it refers only to opioids. Opioid is now the preferred term to avoid confusion.|
|Nonmedical use||Taking prescribed or diverted prescription drugs (drugs not prescribed to the person using them) not in the way, for the reasons, in the amount, or during the period prescribed.|
|Opioid||Natural, synthetic, or semi-synthetic chemicals that interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain and reduce the intensity of pain signals and feelings of pain. This class of drugs includes the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain medications available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and many others.|
|Overdose||Injury to the body (poisoning) happens when a drug is taken in excessive amounts. An overdose can be fatal or nonfatal.|
|Physical dependence||Adaptation to a drug that produces symptoms of withdrawal when the drug is stopped.|
|Tolerance||Reduced response to a drug with repeated use.|