Today marks the beginning of 2019’s National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week, a health observance first launched by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2010. In 2016, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism became a partner, adding alcohol as a topic area for the week. Geared towards teens, the initiative helps educate people on what science has taught us about drug addiction and alcohol. It also attempts to debunk myths that teens–and adults–may believe about certain substances due to various influences such as social media, peers, music, movies, and TV shows.
“We’ve moved from an epidemic to a crisis” in opioid abuse in the United States, said Daniel Ciccarone, M.D., MPH, during a panel discussion at AAAS in Washington, DC, this week. Ciccarone, a doctor at University of California, San Francisco, who treats addicted people and does research, described a pattern of intertwined waves involving abuse of prescription pills, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
For example, while overdose deaths due to prescription pill use are spread relatively evenly across the country, “this is not true for heroin,” Ciccarone said. The Northeast has had troubles with opioid abuse for a generation, while in the Midwest, numbers have jumped just recently. And while older folks (50-64) are using pills in greater numbers, it’s younger people (20-35) driving heroin use.
“Heroin itself is becoming more and more dangerous,” he said, especially when it is laced with synthetic drugs like fentanyl and carfentanil (used to tranquilize elephants). People who stop breathing after using these stronger concoctions often don’t respond to emergency treatments like naloxone.
Every year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) creates initiatives to raise awareness about drug and alcohol abuse in the US. Today, until January 29, is officially “National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week,” an annual health observance that links students with scientists and other experts to offset false information about drugs and alcohol that is widely circulated from the internet, social media, TV, movies, music, and friends. Among the many events taking place this week, Thursday the 26th is Chat Day, where students can go online and ask NIDA scientists about drugs and drug abuse.
On December 13, the 2016 results of NIDA’s “Monitoring the Future” (MTF) were released. The annual survey has been tracking drug, alcohol, and cigarette use among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders nationwide since 1975. According to the study:
Science and policy are often in tension with one another, but in the case of cannabis, as medicinal or recreational marijuana, science seems to be playing catch-up.
“Cannabis was scheduled [made illegal] in the absence of science,” and now is being legalized in some areas, still in the near-absence of science, said J. Michael Bostwick, a practicing psychiatrist and a senior associate dean at Mayo Medical School. In 1970, when Congress classified cannabis as Schedule 1 (“drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse”), scientists did not know which neuronal receptors it activated or what exactly in the substance was causing which effects.
More than four decades later (and 5,000 years since people first started using it as pain reliever), we still don’t know much more of the botanical substance’s potential as a medicine, because its Schedule 1 status means US researchers have to jump through hoops at several different agencies to get access to the legal federal supply. That’s just the start, science-wise: As with any plant, cannabis varies widely in quality, strength, and in what other compounds are bound within the plant, so research—and comparing previous studies in the US and elsewhere—can be tricky.