Scitech | Drugs and money, yo

David Ou examines the cost – monetary and otherwise – of four drugs that most of us think we are familiar with

Illicit drugs and money often go hand in hand. Indeed, the pairing of the two is like a more sinister version of peanut butter and jelly. Although they are often mentioned in popular culture – like music and other media outlets – offhandedly, drugs and money affect almost all of us. Despite this, drug usage is, in many cases, still a taboo subject; it is one that we rarely discuss outside of high school lectures given by monotonous members of the local police department: “Don’t do drugs. Don’t have sex. Stay in school. Eat your veggies.”

But aside from acknowledging the fact that drugs do not carry very many physiological benefits, how much do we really know about some common street drugs? An American study conducted in 2008 by The Core Alcohol and Drug Survey from a sample of 77,481 students at over fifty colleges showed that more than 80 per cent of students consumed alcohol in the past year and over 30 per cent of students consumed illegal substances. In Canada, the numbers are slightly lower; The Canadian Alcohol and Drug Use Monitoring Survey showed that, in 2004, 11.3 per cent of youth from age 15 to 24 had used illicit drugs.

 

Alcohol (Alcoholic Beverages)

Alcohol is indeed classified as a drug, although most people do not consider it one. The psychoactive ingredient in alcohol is ethanol, or C2H6O. Interestingly, ethanol is also used in hand sanitizers as an antiseptic, engine fuel, and even as a treatment for poisoning by other, more harmful alcohols such as methanol and ethylene glycol (commonly used as car antifreeze). Ethanol competes for the alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme thus, avoiding the toxic side effects of methanol and ethylene glycol. Alcohol is by far the most commonly consumed drug in universities throughout North America. Information regarding how alcohol consumption can lead to addiction, dementia, cancer, and even strokes is widespread. But, what isn’t quite as widely publicized is how often and how much alcohol must be consumed to cause those maladies. For example, to be at a greater risk of developing cancer, one must drink at least four units of alcohol (two glasses of wine) every single day. However, studies have also shown that men who drink over three times a week were over 35 per cent less likely to have a heart attack than those who do not drink. It is crucial to find the right balance with frequency and quantity of alcohol consumption in order to still have fun and, at the same time, not harm your body.

How it works

Contrary to popular belief alcohol actually acts as a depressant, not a stimulant. Alcohol acts on the central nervous system (CNS) resulting in reduced attention span and reaction speed. Ethanol affects gamma-aminobutyric acid receptors, which are the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter receptors in the mammalian CNS. The result is a depressing effect comparable to those produced by benzodiazepines and barbiturates.

Legislation

Unlike many the other drugs in this list, alcohol is legal, at least to those above the drinking age. In Canada, the legal age for consumption is 18 in Alberta, Manitoba, and Quebec and 19 in all the other provinces and territories.

What it feels like

Overconsumption of alcohol, or getting drunk, is almost always associated with the loss of inhibitions and self-control. Usually, there is also a decrease in self-consciousness and thus an increase in self-confidence. However, since alcohol is a depressant, it can cause loss or fragmentation of memories. Getting drunk can also result in the infamous hangover, which is caused by dilated blood vessels in the brain, a decrease in blood sugar to the brain, and also the production of the more active and toxic metabolite of alcohol, acetaldehyde.

Cost

Given the huge range of choices one has when craving a drink, the cost can range from a mere $1 to anywhere upwards of $100.

 

Ecstasy

Ecstasy is also known as E, X, or M in its street pill form, and Molly or Mandy in its crystalline or powdered form. The active ingredient is called 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), and its molecule formula is C11H5NO2. Interestingly enough, there are over 100 chemicals with the same molecular formula, butamben (a local anesthetic) and MDPH (a psychedelic drug), just to name a few. In its purest form, MDMA exists as clear, ice-like crystals. However, in most street forms, the drug is cut with adulterants, such as methamphetamine, ephedrine, and caffeine. The manufacturing of MDMA almost always involves the use of safrole, which is extracted from the sassafras plant. The leaves of sassafras leaves are used in some types of gumbo, while the roots were traditionally used to flavour root beer. Sassafras leaves can commonly be found in health food stores as a supplement and a spice. However, after its use in the clandestine manufacturing of MDMA came to light, the distribution and transport of sassafras plants has become extremely guarded and monitored.

How it works

MDMA causes a rapid release of the three main “feel good” neurotransmitters: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. The increase in concentration of all three neurotransmitters produces the same effect as some antidepressants. The suddenly magnified availability of these neurotransmitters also cause the release of oxytocin, which is a hormone released after events such as orgasms. Collectively, these chemicals give you the high.

Legislation

MDMA was patented in 1913 and was most notably used to supplement psychotherapy in the 1970s. In 1976, Canada passed legislature that made it illegal to possess, traffic, produce, or import MDMA. Currently, MDMA is regulated under Schedule III of the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act of 1996, meaning possession can be sentenced with a maximum of three years imprisonment, while trafficking, exportation, and production can result in a sentence of 18 years maximum.

What it feels like

MDMA can have very different effects on people because each person has a different way of feeling “happiness”, which is what the serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine overload essentially causes. But generally speaking, there are some common feelings that almost all users experience: a boost of energy, self-confidence, and self-acceptance. Users feel friendlier with a strong sense of inner peace and euphoria. Like alcohol, MDMA removes a lot of self-consciousness and makes you more outgoing. However, unlike alcohol, MDMA does not take away your judgment abilities. You remain comparatively alert and well aware of your surroundings.

Cost

A typical ecstasy tablet contains many other chemicals and only about 70 to 85 milligrams of MDMA. Costs range from $10 to $15 in America, to $20 to $50 in places like Australia.

 

Cocaine

Cocaine has a variety of other names, although it’s most commonly known as coke. Others include: snow, blow, crack, tardust, and so on. The active ingredient is a chemical called benzoylmethylecgonine, with the molecular formula C17H21NO4. Cocaine is obtained from the leaves of the Erythroxylum (coca) plant – not to be confused with cacao or cocoa trees – and this plant is the root (literally) of its name. The plant is native to South America and was traditionally used as a treatment for altitude sickness and as an anaesthetic before stronger substitutes were available. Originally, the leaves are also chewed and steeped to make tea, releasing the active ingredient from the leaves. Benzoylmethylecgonine is a base and is usually extracted using hydrochloric acid, resulting in a white and pearly salt consisting of hydrochloric acid and the cocaine base. This kind of cocaine is known as “crack cocaine” (also known as rock, hard, or cavvy). However, cocaine can be further purified by “freebasing it”. “Freebase” cocaine refers to cocaine that has had the proton freed from the cocaine base. While this cocaine is generally purer than crack cocaine, the production method often involves more toxic chemicals, increasing the risk of injury to those who attempt to isolate cocaine without proper equipment or knowledge. Cocaine can be taken orally (“numbies”), chewed in its coca leaf form, insufflated (snorting, blown, or sniffed), injected, or smoked.

How it works

Cocaine acts on the CNS and is arguably one of the most powerful stimulant known to humans. Cocaine not only causes a strong release of the “feel good” neurotransmitter dopamine, it also blocks the reuptake of dopamine in the post-synaptic neuron. This means that dopamine will stay in contact with its receptors longer and produce the high that you feel.

Legislation

When cocaine was first discovered, it was seen as a panacea for many of the world’s ailments. Even Sigmund Freud wrote many scientific papers extolling the numerous benefits of the drug. Cocaine was widely available in a wide variety of products, from medicines to soft drinks, It was even used for toothache relief for children in the 1880’s. As the negative health effects became more well known, use declined, and in 1911 Canada passed laws restriction the production, importation, sale, and possession of cocaine. It is currently listed under Schedule I of the Canadian Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, meaning that possession can result in a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, while trafficking, exportation, and production can yield life imprisonment.

What it feels like

Cocaine is a stimulant, so it will provide increased alertness, ability to concentrate, and wakefulness. The elevation of mood is also partnered with an increase in self-confidence and worth, thus achieving the euphoric high. A surge of great physical strength is usually felt. A loss of appetite is also very common.

Cost

Again, the cost of cocaine varies with your location. Here in Canada’s east coast, a single gram of cocaine ranges from $20 to as high as $100. This means that the sale of a single kilogram of cocaine can cost anywhere from $12000 to $35000 – that’s almost an entire year’s salary for many.

 

Heroin

Like many other drugs, heroin has a wide assortment of what are mostly benign sounding names: black tar, China white, dust, H, horse, junk, and smack to name a few. The active chemical in heroin is known as diacetylmorphine and has the molecular formula: C21H23NO5. Heroin was initially created in an attempt to make a less addictive version of morphine. Like morphine, it is synthesized from the seeds of the Papaver somniferum (opium poppy). The opium poppy is also used to make other drugs such as codeine, thebaine, and papaverine – most of which are used as analgesics to relieve pain without losing consciousness. Similar to cocaine, pure heroin usually comes in the form of a hydrochloride salt, which takes the shape of a white crystal. However, the heroin purchased on the streets is almost always adulterated with bases and other chemicals, which results in a matte white powder. It is estimated that about 90 per cent of the world’s supply of opiates originate from Afghanistan. Like other opiates, heroin can be prescribed legally as a painkiller. Heroin can be administered in the same ways as cocaine.

How it works

Opioids function by attaching to specific receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and the gastrointestinal tract. When the drug attaches to these receptors, they act as depressants on the CNS and block the transmission of pain messengers. In addition to blocking the feeling of pain, heroin also causes a large release of the opioid neurotransmitter endorphin. As you might already know, endorphins are released naturally after strenuous exercise or if we hear ourselves. This is our own body’s way of responding to pain by dulling it. Heroin causes you to feel that high 1000 times over, even without the presence of real pain. Heroin tolerance is easily developed, and, thus, it is considered one of the most addictive drugs.

Legislation

From 1898 to 1910, heroin was actually sold legally as a non-addictive morphine substitute for cough depressant. When the dangers of heroin came to be realized in the early 20th century Canada passed laws that made the production, distribution, and use of heroin. It is currently under the same control in Canada as cocaine.

What it feels like

Because heroin is more of a depressant than a stimulant, it does not give you the burst of energy or self-confidence stimulants like cocaine or MDMA do. Instead, it settles you down and you feel a warm rush, as if slipping into a hot bath. It allows your mind to drift off without your body being physically active. A common result of depressants is that the extremities become heavy and numbed. The use of heroin can result in dry mouth and extreme thirst. The euphoria experienced from heroin is not the same as the euphoria derived from MDMA or cocaine. The effects of heroin can last anywhere from two to six hours depending on the dosage.

Cost

The prices of heroin vary from region to region but the standard prices range are about $10 for one bag, or book. However, each bag is meant to contain only one tenth of a gram, and in many cases this amount is much less. This means that some addicts must pay hundreds of dollars a day to support their addiction.


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