The idea that the U.S. has a problem with prescription drug abuse is not a new one. Three years ago the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention branded prescription drug abuse an “epidemic,” and last week statistics released by Medicare reinforced this view. That Vicodin was the most widely prescribed drug highlights just how easy it has become for doctors to prescribe pain relief drugs — despite their well documented potential for addiction and abuse.
While certainly unsettling, the newly released figures should not come as a surprise; the U.S.’s pain relief pandemic has been well-documented. Despite the undisputed issue that is prescription drug abuse, there are many other concerning statistics about America’s drug use that have not been as widely documented:
1) Rural Vermont Is the American heroin capital
Though Vermont has long been associated with beautiful pastoral scenery, maple syrup and skiing, its quiet rural appeal has been tainted by the fact that it now has the highest rate of illegal drug use in the entire country. Though Vermont has a big problem with many illicit drugs (cocaine, crack, hallucinogens, inhalants, methamphetamines, marijuana etc.) it now has a much nastier reputation as the “new face of heroin.”
The extent of this problem was highlighted last year when Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin dedicated his whole State of the State address to tackling Vermont’s “full-blown heroin crisis.” To call it a crisis is, if anything, a minimization: since 2000, the number of Vermont citizens seeking treatment for heroin addiction has increased by a shocking 250 percent; more broadly, the number of citizens seeking treatment for opiate addiction in general has risen by 770 percent.
Not surprisingly, the soaring levels of addiction has had a knock-on effect on crime and Vermont courts are overwhelmed with cases directly relating to heroin abuse. The number of people charged with heroin trafficking increased by 135 percent in just one year, and convictions for heroin-related offences rocketed from 106 in 2012 to 220 in 2013. In addition, Vermont is an especially attractive market for traffickers; a bag of heroin costs $6 in New York City, whereas it can reach up to $30 in Vermont.
2) There is a “purple drank” pandemic
If you haven’t heard of “purple drank” before you should probably get used to hearing about it — or “sizzurp” or “lean,” as it’s also known. Purple drank is a concoction made of pharmaceutical grade codeine cough syrup — which is what gives the drink its distinctive purple color — which is then usually mixed with soft drinks, candy and alcohol. Variants of this drink have been around since the 1960s but it’s only in the past decade or so that the bizarre craze for cough syrup has seriously escalated.
With high-profile musicians like Justin Bieber and Lil Wayne openly professing their love for purple drank (Lil Wayne even wrote a song about it entitled “Me and My Drank”), it’s not hard to see how the concoction has become so popular with teenagers — and that’s without considering its sweet taste. The staggering rise of purple drank is demonstrated by the fact that just two years ago, only 5 percent of US teenagers confessed to using cough syrup to get high; the figure has now doubled to 10 percent.
What makes purple drank so dangerous is the incorrect notion that it’s relatively harmless. The immediate euphoric effects of purple drank hook teenagers to the drink and its sweetness conceals its potency. It can be hard to keep track of how much you’ve had and this is where the danger can come from. The cough syrup used in purple drank contains codeine — highly addictive and now responsible for killing more Americans than cocaine and heroin combined. The other dangerous ingredient is promethazine, a central nervous system depressant which, when combined with codeine (a respiratory depressant) can have fatal results.
3) A “flesh-eating” drug from Russia has hit the USA
For a long time the side-effects and addictive properties of crystal meth and heroin were thought be the most damaging of all narcotics, but now a new drug from Russia has set a new precedent. Desomorphine, better known as “krokodil” because it causes scaly green or black skin, is a powerful opioid that comes with side-effects that are the stuff of nightmares. Krokodil is made at home from paint thinner, gasoline, codeine and red phosphorus and is cooked up in a similar way to meth.
Krokodil quite literally eats a person from the inside out, rotting the flesh and exposing bone and muscle. It causes severe vein damage, infections, gangrene, blood poisoning, rotting gums, tooth loss, bone infections and may lead to the need for limb amputations and skin grafts. Krokodil is incredibly addictive and regular users usually die within two years, typically from loss of skin, blockages in veins and infection.
In addition, withdrawal from krokodil is said to be even worse than withdrawal from heroin: it produces excruciating pain that is so unbearable it can cause the user to pass out. Even if a user is able to get clean they may be left with a speech impairment, erratic movements and an empty gaze as a permanent reminder of their addiction.
You may be wondering why on earth anyone would ever take this drug. The answer is that it’s predominantly vulnerable heroin addicts who can no longer afford a hit — so, in their desperation they try another stronger, cheaper drug. In Russia, krokodil is apparently responsible for about half of all drug addictions and deaths — and terrifyingly, it’s now made its way over to the USA.
The first cases were reported in Arizona and Utah and more recently in Illinois, where one user spoke out to warn the public about the dangers of krokodil, saying that she had almost lost her arm due to the drug and that her boyfriend “actually had maggots coming out of his leg.”