Enter the Void: Drugs & Vibes in America
I analyze new results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health for 2021. No matter what the government does, millions of Americans are going to use drugs.
Drugs are a sort of inkblot test, offering a snapshot of a society’s mood at any given time. I think we can learn a lot about a nation and its people by which drugs they use, which drugs they binge, and which drugs aren’t so popular. Like all aspects of culture, drugs are trendy, and trends come and go. Sometimes certain drugs are in, and sometimes they’re out.
Results from the just released National Survey on Drug use and Health for 2021, which tracks drug use trends across the population, offers us a vibe check.
Drugs and Vibes
Drugs tell us something about what it means to be alive at certain points in time. Doesn’t it make sense that cocaine was the drug du jour in Ronald Reagan’s America? A nation buzzing with a “greed is good” mode of hyper-capitalist energy: Sniff some cocaine to work longer and harder, that way you make more money, and what do you with that money? Buy more cocaine. It’s a perfect mirror of a rat race society trapped on a speeding treadmill. The party can’t last forever. There’s always a come down. The 1990s yuppie rebellion produced grunge, slackers, and Gen-X aged heroin users.
Of course, I’m speaking in pretty broad strokes here. America is a big place with protean cultures and subcultures and sub-subcultures. Drug using styles are time and place specific. I always think MDMA (escstacy) is the best example of this phenomenon. How people used MDMA depended on where and when they were. If you were in the Bay Area in the 2000s, MDMA was called “thizz” and you probably listened to Mac Dre, got hyphe, smoked blunts, wore Vans, and told your friends how much you loved them. But if you used MDMA in the 1990s in the Midwest, you were probably going to underground warehouse parties in post-industrial cities, dancing all night to house music. Two very different cultures built around the same exact chemical.
Regional drug trends are also dictated not just by culture but also by the drug trade’s opaque supply lines. Foreign imported drugs can be hard to find—at least in bulk—outside of big hubs and port cities, which is why, for a time, crude versions of domestically produced methamphetamine were mostly found in rural America. Aside from alcohol, domestic drugs like meth and bath salts were pretty much all there was in small towns. But that began to change in the 2000s as society became more globalized and technology rapidly changed the way we live. If you lived in Fargo, North Dakota, now you could order exotic drugs off of the Dark Web.
A major change in the early 2000s was that illicit drug supplies began to be stocked by pharmacies. What historian David Herzberg calls “white markets,” where (mostly white) people access pharmaceutical grade drugs, became the primary supplier of street opioids. If you lived anywhere, but especially in places like Florida or West Virginia, there was suddenly a massive supply of pharmaceutical opioids being sold on the street. This is when dirty doctors and pill mills proliferated.
From the 2000s onward, America’s drug scene has gone through rapid and chaotic changes. The time of pharmaceutical opioids lasted about 10 solid years, until the FDA forced formula changes to oxycodone in 2010 and federal controls tightened the market. White market opioids then became scarce, triggering a mass exodus to illicit heroin markets. To meet a massive new demand for street opioids, suppliers shifted from agricultural (heroin) production to synthetic (fentanyl) production.
In its own way, the shift to synthetic production is fitting for a dying planet. Farmers cultivating crops were replaced by chemists manipulating precursor chemicals. Entire drug markets could be met without relying on an increasingly unreliable climate.
Which brings us to the 2020s. Heroin in North America is now considered a rare artisan product, like certain brands of small batch bourbon. According to the latest results from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health data (NSDUH), heroin is the least used drug that people reported using in the past month. This fact may come as a shock to those who are passingly aware of the “opioid epidemic” because they watched the latest Laura Poitras documentary about Nan Goldin or the Dopesick show on Hulu.
Unfortunately, these cultural projects give the impression that heroin and OxyContin are still flowing in the streets.
Stimulants vs Opioids
One trend in these data I find to be quite interesting is the rise in stimulants—they’re back!
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