The drug crisis spreading across America is not a new concern, as chemical restrictions and drug enforcement agencies crack down. However, the concern has become not which drugs are present in the United States, but their purity.
A drug’s chemical composition contains telling information about how and where it was made, but these details are often very hard to uncover. When a user buys drugs, they rarely know exactly what they’re getting.
Each year the Drug Enforcement Administration discloses detailed records on the purity of all the drugs they’ve confiscated. In August, Laguna Treatment Hospital compiled this information in a comprehensive study finding some interesting insights on drug purity across different states and how it effects overdose deaths to street-level prices.
In Nevada, drugs were on average 84.9 percent pure — the fourth highest of the states that were analyzed in Laguna’s study. Additionally, Nevada came in fourth for the purity of methamphetamines and amphetamines.
These substances are cause for major concern with Nevada’s amphetamine death rate sitting at the highest in the nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if current trends continues, the death rate for “psychostimulants” will soon eclipse the state’s prescription opioid death rate.
The purity of methamphetamines, which is also often included in many other distributed drugs, has risen from 39 percent purity in 2008 to more than 93 percent purity in 2018.
The key to understanding these findings are important is understanding what drug purity is. Simply stated purity in drugs is the lack of impurities. Often times drugs are cut with other additives, to help drug dealers stretch purchasing power. The Associated Press found substances from baby power to rat poison in various drugs.
Drugs seized west of the Mississippi River were nearly 40 percent purer than those confiscated in Eastern states according to Laguna.
This is due largely in part to the shift from homegrown labs in the U.S. — due to chemical regulation — to cartels in other countries, such as Mexico.
While one may expect to see more drug-related deaths in the Western states with higher-purity narcotics, Eastern states actually have higher overdose rates, but it is not for the reason most people think. Most blame the substances the drugs are cut with for higher overdose deaths but while it’s true substances used to dilute drugs can be harmful if ingested in large quantities, it’s unlikely dangerous additives account for the entirety of this trend.
Overdoses often occur when a substance is purer than a user anticipates, overpowering the tolerance they’ve developed for more diluted forms of the drug. In states where substance purities tend to be consistently high, deviation from the norm might lead to dissatisfaction and swift withdrawal. But in places where drugs are usually diluted, Laguna Treatment Hospital reports an especially strong batch could prove deadly.
“Psychostimulants” — a class of drugs that includes methamphetamine, ecstasy and ADHD prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin— are the highly addictive drugs causing the most concern in Nevada and other western states.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse psychostimulants like methamphetamine increase the amount of the natural chemical dopamine in the brain. High levels of this chemical in reward areas of the brain strongly reinforce drug-taking behavior, making the user want to repeat the experience.
The “high” from these drugs both starts and fades quickly, causing users to often take repeated doses in a “binge and crash” pattern.
Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that 7,663 people died from psychostimulant use in 2016. Despite the fact that methamphetamines are more unlikely to cause death alone, unlike opioids.
Methamphetamine overdose can lead to stroke, heart attack, or organ problems—such as kidney failure—caused by overheating and these conditions can result in death. There are currently no government-approved medications to treat methamphetamine addiction or overdose.
Nevada was one of 14 states that saw an increase in the psychostimulant-related overdose death rate in 2016 according to the CDC. After Nevada, New Mexico and Oklahoma tied for second-highest at 7.1 deaths per 100,000.
The DEA also reports that prices are the lowest they have been in years and the average purity of seized methamphetamine remains at or above 90 percent, making the drug easier to obtain and a larger threat.