America's Top 5 Street Drugs

America's Top 5 Street Drugs - Page 2

By Jeff Deeney 02/07/12

The 2011 data just came in—and there are some surprising new names and rankings on the list.

Brown-bagging it out on the mean streets of America. photo via

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Remember that episode of The Wire focused on how liquor is killing as many people in East Baltimore as crack? Of course you don’t—David Simon didn’t write it—and that’s a shame because while crack and heroin claim most of the glam press, John Barleycorn may, in the long run, be even more hazardous—same as it ever was.

4. Pills

That’s right, just “pills"—no fine distinctions here between oxycodone and hydrocodone. The fact is that on the streets, where formal knowledge of psychopharmacology is often at a low ebb, black-market pharmaceuticals that came in pallet loads off a truck or bottled from the pharmacy shelves are largely seen as a monolithic category separate from “street” drugs that were cooked and bagged at someone’s kitchen table.

Over the past two decades specific sections of some cities have grown up to accommodate the traffic in pharmaceuticals; my own old stomp in North Philadelphia—"Pill Hill"—was set away from the more violent heroin and crack corners so Oxy addicts could cop in relative safety. Oxys weren’t the only product trading at Pill Hill; Percs and Endos (percocet), Xanies (Xanax), Pins (Klonopin) and even Suzie Q (the antipsychotic drug Seroquel) were abundant and readily available at a 24/7 open-air drug market at the corners of 17th and Jefferson streets until recently when gentrification moved into the neighborhood.

Of course, pill abuse has swept the entire nation, as the incidence of treatment for prescription drug addiction has skyrocketed, doubling, tripling and more over the past 20 years. The ongoing meteoric rise in social costs associated with pharma narcs puts pills ahead of the remaining street drugs of abuse in this survey; dope and coke are, in many ways, so last century. 

The DoJ considers CPDs (controlled prescription drugs) “the primary drug threat” in its most recent drug-market analysis of Appalachia, handily outpacing the abuse of locally cooked meth. That Rx drug abuse has yet to subside from the hysteria-inducing levels of, say, 2002 has recently spawned a new round of “Oxy epidemic” news stories, pitting enforcement-oriented pols and the families of overdosed drug addicts against civil libertarians (and the medical and pharma lobbies) arguing that legitimate pain patients suffer unnecessarily when given a bad name by crazed gun-toting drug-store cowboys knocking over the local CVS for a sack full of Vicodin.

The ongoing meteoric rise in social costs associated with pharma narcs puts pills ahead of dope and coke, which are, in many ways, so last century.

5. Heroin and Cocaine

How to choose between these two old stand-bys of the street drug world for the final spot on our list? Neither high has the same allure as in the '70s, '80s or '90s. Cocaine, especially, has lost its disco-era luster; fiscal austerity imposed by the financial collapse seems to have driven many casual coke snorters to cheaper alternatives like weed. There’s also an “older-sibling effect”—kids who observed the devastating impact of the crack epidemic on the inner city grew up to prefer comparatively harmless blunts to the dime rocks that put them in foster care. This trend is reflected in nationwide data; the count of current cocaine users has dropped off hugely from 2.6 million in 2003 to 1.6 million in 2010.

Yet coke and junk remain a presence in the nation's inner cities, especially on the East Coast—for example, ranking third and fourth respectively in total treatment admissions in Philadelphia only behind marijuana and alcohol. And both are still very risky ways to get high, ranking first and third in drug-related deaths.

Heroin use was especially Russian Roulette-like during the fentanyl outbreak of 2006, when a batch of bags containing the superpotent, respiratory depressing anesthetic instead of heroin left a trail of dead addicts in Philly, New York and New Jersey. The DoJ calls heroin the “most significant drug threat” in Boston, overburdening law enforcement and public health resources. In addition, officials are predicting that in big-city markets where heroin is available in unlimited quantities and more expensive painkillers less so, today’s Oxyheads will be tomorrow’s dopefiends, setting off an addiction bomb that spikes new heroin users through the roof.

(Dis)Honorable Mention:

Levamisole: You may have first read about it in 2009 after a coke-addled DJ AM turned up dead with a bunch of it in his system. As of 2011, this animal deworming chemical had found its way into 82% of all American coke as a cutting agent. Ominously, the Coroner’s Office in Philadelphia found levamisole in 29% of corpsed-out coke users in 2010, raising the distinct possibility that levamisole is so prevalent in autopsied stiffs less because of its prevalence in the overall drug supply than some lethal properties of its own.

Media-stirred fears that the toxic substance would spawn hordes of undead-looking New York bar-scene casualties with their noses rotted off have proven overblown, but seriously, who wants this nasty shit in their body? Yet if you insist on blowing casual lines at certain dance clubs to keep the party going, odds are that right now you do whether you like it or not.

PCP: Phencyclidine garners little attention in drug discussions because on paper the war on PCP appears to have been won; a mainstream party drug in the '70s, angel dust resulted in astronomical numbers of regular young users. But psychosis horror stories about people getting dusted and then flaying and feeding their own faces to the family dog eventually drove the numbers down to near vanishing. Except that PCP never actually vanished; its diminished user base became tightly concentrated in very poor black and Latino inner-city neighborhoods, where smoking “wet” has recently increased in popularity.

A dramatic 10% of all Washington, DC, parolees test positive for the drug; in Philly, 12.5%. The social costs associated with widespread use of this long-lasting anesthetic are astonishing; expensive psych unit stays, long-term hospital care for grievous physical injuries, ongoing treatment for chronic psychotic disorders and jail stays for violent public behavior are par for the course for a regular smoker of “dippers”—blunts or cigarettes dipped in liquid PCP and let dry.

From street corners where users and dealers meet to buy and sell the dope they take, to bars where they party, to the treatment centers they land in after the sun has risen and the cold chill of reality has set in, there you have it: The Fix’s Top 5 Street Drugs of 2011. If you can’t take none of them, best odds are to stick with number one, though who could fault you for the judicious use of number three, thereby joining in our national pastime. For more adventurous readers, let us ex-junkies remind you that the rest are best approached with great caution and used only in moderation—let’s not see you or anyone you love on next year’s statistics list.

Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia social worker and a writer who is in recovery. His column, "Street Beat," runs biweekly in the The Fix.