2012-11-16

Here Comes Heroin

The above graph shows the Google Trends for various drug-related search terms. Yellow is ecstasy, blue is heroin, green is meth, and red is cocaine. Although the following interpretation relies solely on visual analysis of the graph, as opposed to careful data analysis, I am willing to put this "out there," and welcome whatever criticism anyone might have.

Frank Zappa once pointed out a reality later confirmed by all sorts of researchers: Drug use goes through trends. For a while, users prefer one drug or one type of drug more generally, and then after a time they switch to another preference. I have no insight into the why of this particular fact of life, as faithful readers well understand.

Recently, I've observed a bit of a spike in references to heroin. In some cases, the references are comedic, in some cases they are not. Most recently, you may have heard about the reported heroin overdose of Jon Bon Jovi's daughter in her college dormatory. This is not an iconic example, it is simply a recent example.

Because I seemed to be hearing about it more, I thought I'd check to confirm my suspicion that heroin is becoming the preferred drug within drug culture. A look at the Google Analytics graph above confirms the following:
  • Ecstasy use is clearly and unequivocally on a long-term downward trend.
  • Cocaine use is on a long-term downward trend, but may be experiencing a slight upward trend during the last two years.
  • Methamphetamine use is highly correlated to cocaine use, although the total number of users (as estimated by Google searches) is lower.
  • Most relevantly, heroin is trending upward.
The caveats here are that, once again, I'm simply looking at what I see, not running any kind of statistical analysis on the numbers themselves; and, I am using Google searches as a proxy for actual use. To this second point, it doesn't particularly matter what the "absolute number of searches" is, just as it doesn't particularly matter what the absolute number of reported users happens to be. The point here is solely that many common drugs are trending down, while heroin is trending up.

Why Do We Care?
Long-term readers of this blog know very well that I am opposed to drug use. I favor legalization, but strongly oppose the use of drugs. While I have laid out my reasoning extensively in the past, I feel it's good to touch on past topics from time to time, and this is one such case.

Nearly every recreational drug works the same way, as far as the human brain is concerned. Active dopamine levels are increased, active serotonin levels are increased; re-uptake of both of the above is decreased; euphoria ensues. It is important to keep this in mind because the mechanism of action involved with most recreational drugs is such that using drugs diminishes a person's ability to experience emotions such as "reward" and "satisfaction" in normal circumstances. In short, drug use calibrates the brain to expect more pleasure than it reasonably should expect.

Heroin, though, works differently from other drugs. It works on the opioid-receptors in the brain, which are tied up in the body's pain-detection system, rather than pleasure-seeking system. This is what makes the rise of heroin use interesting from a philosophical point of view. Heroin is less of a "party drug" and more of a "whatever drug." Withdrawal involves an intense feeling of dissatisfaction which can be partially understood if one considers that heroin itself is a pain-killer. The psychology of heroin use would appear to be quite different from the psychology involved in other recreational drugs.

The impact of this on our culture has been drastic. We hear quite frequently that we have become an "instant-gratification" culture. How did come to this? It's true that simple pleasures are more readily available than they once were, but it is also true that millions of ADHD patients receive the medical equivalent of a recreational drug at early ages. It is true that such patients tend to seek out recreational drugs later in life at a higher incidence than the general population. It is true that even once-off experiences with drugs like cocaine can lead to irreversible neurological consequences with respect to the mind's expectations of pleasure.

The idea that recreational drug use would not adversely impact society is a bit of a fanstasy. Logic and science indicate the contrary.


It remains to be seen what the impact of a heroin trend will be on today's world. We know what it has looked like in bygone periods. We watched it in the 1990s, in the 1950s, at the turn of the Century, and so on back into history. It rarely coincides with a very happy period. We shall see what happens this time around.