Cocaine, heroin not drugs of choice for students

by Wendy Yu | 5/23/01 5:00am

Illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine have been on the decline since the 1970s, even though they often receive much attention in the media and movies such as "Traffic" and "Blow."

Decades of characterization as the most dangerous and addictive types of illicit drugs have made the current generation of youth extremely cautious about abusing heroin and cocaine.

In fact, a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health in February of this year reports that marijuana has ceased to be considered a "gateway" drug to "harder" drug use because generations before and after the baby boomers are not likely to try different, more exotic drugs.

These findings suggest that the gateway phenomenon was unique to the baby boomer generation due to the influences of a specific time and place in American history on youth.

Although heroin and cocaine are commonly referred to as "hard drugs," Coordinator of Alcohol and other Drug Programs Margaret Smith sees problems in the term. She believes that the phrase "hard drugs" connotes the idea that heroin and cocaine are more dangerous than other types of illegal or even legal drugs.

For instance, Smith said that alcohol is the most dangerous drug to come off of, and should not necessarily be seen as a safer substance.

A survey from a "little while ago" found that among Dartmouth students, "somewhere in the upper 90, even as high as 99.9, percent do not use those drugs," according to Smith.

"Mostly people stay away from it because of moralistic views, or they know of the dangers," Smith said. "Plus there's a legal consequence."

Although the rate of drug-related casualties and crimes are higher in urban settings, Smith said that Dartmouth's rural location is probably not a large factor in the low instance of heroin and cocaine use, due to the nearby interstate highway. Moreover, some research claim that drug usage is actually higher in rural areas.

Smith added that cocaine and heroin's "reputation" is probably the most effective deterrent.

Erin Artigiani, coordinator of Maryland's Early Warning System, confirms that cocaine and heroin use tends to be "fairly low" among young adults.

In a 1998 survey of the students at the University of Maryland, two percent admitted to having used heroin in the past month, and four percent said they used cocaine.

Artigiani said that usage rates are dependent upon how people perceive the dangers and pleasurable effects of a drug.

For instance, when heroin became available in a powdered form, usage increased because people believed that it was safer than having to use injections.

Other factors that lead to trying cocaine and heroin include personal psychological stability, access to a supply, general well-being and if people have been victimized in some way, according to Artigiani.

The students who admitted to using cocaine and heroin missed more classes, received lower grades and withdrew involvement in academic and extracurricular activities.

"[Cocaine and heroin abuse could] be very detrimental internally and externally," Artigiani said, adding that the students' appearance changed as well.

As with drugs such as ecstasy, Artigiani said that heroin users tend to be members of higher socio-economic status because they needed to have the wealth to afford it.

National statistics from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Substance Abuse Chartbook show that 18 to 25 year olds have the highest rate of illicit drug use.

Cocaine use of that age group peaked in 1979 at 10 percent and is currently at two percent, where it has been stable for a number of years.

Overall heroin usage has increased between 1993 and 1997, although that trend halted in 1998.

Although males are twice as likely to use marijuana and much more likely to be heavy drinkers and smokers, there is no discernible gender difference in frequent cocaine use.

Heroine or cocaine are involved in 70 percent of illicit drug deaths. The number of deaths associated with alcohol is greater than illicit drug-related deaths, although that gap has narrowed in recent years.

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