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Updated 25 November 2013

9 most common street drugs

The crippling damage drugs cause to the brain has remained unseen - until recently. Here's more about nine common street drugs.

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The crippling damage drugs cause to the brain has remained unseen - until recently. For the first time scans have shown exactly how these substances mutilate our minds - while psychiatrists deal with the fall-out.

From the height of ecstasy to the depths of hell. As quick as a flash. Then brain damage for the rest of your life. This is what some street drugs can do to you.

And even after you've stopped, these drugs may have scorched the delicate tissue of your brain and changed you into a monster, capable of the most horrifying acts of violence. Or you might be left in a dark well of depression, from which nothing can save you.

It doesn't matter which drug you try, even if it's only once - you have to know you're playing with fire. The stuff you're smoking, sniffing or shooting up is going to hit your brain with the force of a lightning bolt.

It's not the moral custodians, teachers and religious ministers who say so. It's hardened policemen, chemical scientists and psychiatrists who have witnessed the effects of these drugs with bewilderment.

Forget everything you thought you knew about drugs. Nothing can prepare you for the havoc caused by charlie and crystal, hot ice, china white and liquid ecstasy.

And it's not happening somewhere else; it's happening here in our neighbourhoods, schools and universities, to normal teenagers who "just wanna have fun" and adults who should know better.

It makes the drugged-hippie era look like a Sunday school picnic. Modern drugs are so much more powerful, so much more intense, taking you to ecstatic peaks of euphoria and energy - then dropping you into the depths of despair. No wonder it's called a crash.

Until recently no one knew the extent of the devastation caused in your brain by this chemical violence. But we're beginning to find out. And it's not a pretty sight.

  • Midwives are holding babies born with their intestines outside their bodies.
  • Policemen are dealing with the victims of merciless crimes.
  • Neurologists, with the help of the latest technology, are assessing the extent of the brain damage caused by these drugs.

This, however, is relatively harmless compared to the drug called yellow honey, says superintendent Casper Venter of the SAPS forensic laboratories.

Yellow honey is a deadly form of marijuana that is seven times stronger than normal dagga and can cause a brain meltdown. This drug surfaced in Los Angeles a number of years ago. The SAPS Narcotics Bureau predicted that once it gained a foothold in South Africa it would make the tik problem look like child's play.

Many local drugs - especially when they're manufactured in someone's loo, kitchen or warehouse - have the added danger that you have no idea what they really contain. Street drugs are often cut with highly addictive heroin to ensure you become physically dependent. On top of that, street drugs can be sold in hugely concentrated form; sometimes they are up to 1 500 times more powerful than the dose the human body can safely handle. It's like pouring jet fuel into an old jalopy. Street drugs may also contain harmful impurities. For example, a chemical in mandrax tablets can cause lung cancer.

In the wake of drug use, one can follow the crimes associated with it. Violent crime in the Western Cape has increased enormously and is attributed to the dramatic rise in the use of tik. We're seeing more and more frequently that when people are murdered, they're not stabbed or shot once or twice, but as many as 60 times.

"Tik changes the brain chemistry and numbs the moral reaction of users. Killing or raping someone is nothing to them,'' says Venter.

The nine most common street drugs
The substances discussed here are illegal and are listed in the South African Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act, Act 140/92. The most common street drugs in South Africa are classified according to their effect on the brain. There are three main classes: uppers (stimulants), downers (depressants) and hallucinogens (which cause you to see strange things).

Uppers (stimulants)
Uppers include cocaine, crack, Ecstasy, tik, crystal meth or methamphetamine, amphetamines, ephedrine and khat. These substances stimulate the brain and increase the heart rate. Young people use them to feel stronger, more energetic and more decisive. Typical signs of stimulant use are a reduced appetite, high energy levels, insomnia, dilated pupils, talkativeness, irritability, anxiety, increased excitability and hyperactivity, abrupt mood changes, impatience and nervousness.

1. Cocaine
Street names: blow, charlie, coke
This mind-altering drug, extracted from the coca bush in Peru, Bolivia and other mountainous countries, was once the glamour drug of the rich and famous but now more and more children are experimenting with it.

The heaven:
A feeling of exhilaration, euphoria, hyperactivity, self-confidence, heightened awareness and boundless energy. The rush occurs five to 10 minutes after snorting cocaine.

The hell:
Some users will experience headaches, tremors, apprehension and insomnia after a single dose. Larger doses may lead to teeth grinding and compulsive acts such as scratching and finger tapping. Users may hear voices and suffer from extreme paranoia, extreme anxiety, irrational ideas and aggression. An overdose can result in a seizure, panic attack, cardiac arrest, stroke, difficulty breathing and death.

Effects on the body:
Your pulse rate increases, your blood pressure rises and your pupils dilate. After long-term use, you'll look emaciated, your sex drive will decrease, your nose will always be running and you'll get frequent colds. Cocaine is psychologically and physically addictive. Once the high wears off, addicts are left craving more stimulation.

Effects on the brain:
Cocaine interferes with the natural secretion of dopamine and serotonin, two of the brain's chemical messengers that transmit feel-good sensations. As a result, these neurotransmitters accumulate and trigger the trademark "high".

The scary fact is cocaine eventually depletes the level of neurotransmitters to such an extent that depression, apathy, fatigue, anxiety and suicidal depression can set in and may last for months.

If the depletion is total and permanent, even the best antidepressants will be futile and the user may never be able to escape from the darkest depression. Some also develop Parkinson's disease which leaves them with a tremor at an early age.

2. Crack
Street names: rocks, freebase
Crack is a cheap and deadly form of cocaine, turned into smokeable ''rocks'' with the use of additives. Crack is cocaine intensified and kicking a crack habit is three times as difficult.

The heaven:
Feelings of wellbeing, mental exhilaration and euphoria. The high is intense but lasts little over 10 minutes.

The hell:
The euphoric feeling is quickly followed by devastating depression equal in intensity, creating the need to smoke again and again. This cycle of highs and lows causes an addiction that takes hold faster than with any other drug.

Effects on the body:
The same as for cocaine but intensified. Users may see snowlights or halos. Their heart rate may become irregular, increasing the risk of a heart attack.

Effects on the brain:
Because it's smoked it delivers a high dose of the drug to the brain in less than 10 seconds - with a potency five to 10 times greater than snorted cocaine. The assault on the brain is quicker and more profound. It alters the biochemical state of the brain by changing the dopamine and serotonin receptors and depleting the stores of these two feel-good neurotransmitters. This damage can be permanent, leading to severe paranoia, lasting suicidal depression or murderous rage.

3. Ice
(Crystal methamphetamine)

Street names: crystals, crystal, meth, rock, candy, batu, glass, LA glass, super ice, hot ice, LA crystal, Hawaiian salt
This newer and deadlier form of crystallised methamphetamine is nearly 100 per cent pure methamphetamine. Odourless and smoked in glass pipes, it is more lethal than crack and cocaine, and seemingly more addictive.

The heaven:
Within seconds smokers feel an intense wave of physical and mental exhilaration. The effects may last from four to 14 hours.

The hell:
Intense feelings of anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and fatigue, and eventually psychosis. Toxic psychosis similar to paranoid schizophrenia can also result from heavy, short- or long-term use.

Effects on the body:
Users need ever-heavier doses to reach the same high. Prolonged use damages the lungs, liver and kidneys.

Effects on the brain:
Brain damage is similar to tik, but to a greater degree.

4. Ecstasy
Street names: XTC, e, Adam, MDMA
Ecstasy is a rave or party drug and is often taken to enable the user to dance through the night. It's knocked together like tik. Why does it have such a cool-sounding name? Because methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) is somewhat of a tongue-twister. 

The heaven:
There's an enhanced sense of pleasure, increased self-confidence and loads of energy, peacefulness, acceptance and empathy. The high lasts between four and six hours.

The hell:
Users may develop blurred vision, sweat a lot, clench their teeth or bite the inside of their cheeks and suffer seizures, nausea and vomiting. Used regularly for a long time or in large doses it can make you extremely depressed and paranoid and cause panic attacks.

Effects on the body:
Even in small doses Ecstasy can be dangerous to people with heart disease and asthma. Large doses can lead to overheating of the body and brain, dehydration, water retention, stroke and heart attack.

Effects on the brain:
Ecstasy affects your brain by increasing the release and activity of at least three neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine), and when it depletes these stores, especially the serotonin stores, it can lead to chronic depression. Psychiatrists say they are experiencing an increase in psychotic episodes and permanent brain damage among Ecstasy users.

Danger: Many knocked-together street drugs are sold as heroin or cocaine substitutes to naive or desperate users under the misleading name of designer drugs. Chances of an overdose are high because you don't know what you're buying.

5. Methamphetamine
Street names: tik, tik-tik, crystal, meth, crystal meth, crank, uppers, speed
Tik is also a knocked-together drug and is sold in the form of powders, pills and capsules that are sniffed, smoked or injected. It can be manufactured at home from medicines that are available over the counter.

The heaven:
Like cocaine and crack, tik leads to increased alertness, energy and self-confidence, a heightened sense of sexuality and euphoria.

The hell:
Aggression, violence, psychotic behaviour, memory loss and heart and brain damage. Long-term users face insomnia, psychotic episodes, paranoia, hallucinations and collapse.

Effects on the body:
Trembling hands, increased heart rate and sweating. An overdose can result in stroke and heart failure. Long-term use leads to an increased risk of hepatitis C and HIV as the drug is injected and often prompts risky sexual behaviour.

Effects on the brain:
Tik acts as a stimulant, similar to cocaine - but stays in the system for longer. The exhaustion of the brain's dopamine supply is extremely worrying. A tik addict loses up to half his dopamine supply every two years, compared with the 5-10% every 10 years for the average person. Dopamine helps to regulate coordinated movement and as soon as its levels drop by 15%, the victim develops Parkinson's disease, characterised by head and hand tremors.

In the Western Cape there are already young tik users who have Parkinson's. Psychiatrists are also worried about the increase in cases of schizophrenia and psychosis among tik users. It seems as if tik damages the human brain to such an extent that users start acting like extremely aggressive psychopaths. This is reflected by the Narcotics Bureau's observation that murders and rapes committed by tik abusers are becoming a lot more senseless and aggressive. Babies born to moms who used tik during pregnancy have a greater risk of developing Parkinson's disease in their childhood years. Much worse: the birth of babies with intestines outside their tiny bodies is a regular occurrence at some Cape Peninsula hospitals.

Downers (depressants)
These suppress or delay certain brain functions. Depending on which part of the brain is being suppressed, they are divided into sub-groups: either narcotic or tranquillising substances such as heroin or substances that make you sleepy such as mandrax.

6. Heroin
Street names: smack, mud, china white, brown, Mexican brown, brown sugar, gear, H, horse, junk
Heroin is produced from the resin of the opium poppy and is the most dangerous and addictive narcotic. Pure heroin is a white, odourless crystalline-like powder with a bitter taste. The browner the colour, the more impurities it contains. It is often diluted with starch, sugars such as glucose, powdered milk, baby powder, washing powder, strychnine or other poisons before being sold. It is smoked, snorted or injected.

The heaven:
A profound sense of warmth and wellbeing envelops the user and blocks feelings of pain and insecurity.

The hell
Within six to eight hours symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, chills, excessive sweating and muscle and bone pain may follow. The real hell starts with the withdrawal symptoms which can set in within two days after the last fix.

Effects on the body:
First it leads to suppression of pain, drowsiness, heaviness of the limbs, shallow breathing, a weak pulse, dry mouth and pinpoint pupils. Long-term use causes liver damage, poisoning as a result of additives, bacterial infections, abscesses, arthritis and infection of the heart lining and valves. High dosages can result in a seizure, coma and death. Babies born to mothers who abuse heroin during their pregnancy may be born addicted.

Effects on the brain:
Heroin is quickly changed to morphine in the brain, which acts on certain receptors to give that feeling of utter bliss. But the brain reacts by creating fewer of its own feel-good endorphins. Heroin destroys the chemical balance in the brain to such an extent that the user starts to experience pain in the absence of any injuries. Rapid mood changes and confusion are the result of the chemical changes in the brain.

7. Mandrax
Street names: whites, buttons
South Africa has the highest per capita mandrax abuse in the world. Mandrax (methaqualone) tablets are usually powdered and smoked with a mixture of cannabis or tobacco in a bottleneck pipe called a "white pipe" or "witwyf".

The heaven:
You feel totally laid back, at peace and without a care in the world. You're giving the world the proverbial finger.

The hell:
Take too much of it and you'll feel nauseous, lose consciousness or fall into a stupor.

Effects on the body:
Mandrax users can develop physical and psychological dependence on the drug, constantly craving its effects, but needing more and more to get the desired high.

Effects on the brain:
Mandrax use alters the brain chemicals, suppressing brain function so that the user becomes like a zombie.

Hallucinogens
These psychedelic drugs distort reality, plunging the user into a dream world where everything is distorted and colours become audible and sounds visible. Taken in large quantities they scramble your brain, resulting in delusions and hallucinations. They also rev up the brain, causing mood swings that can vary from euphoria to the deepest depression or violence. Sometimes the loss of self and depression can be so severe that suicide may happen.

8. Cannabis
Street names: dagga, weed, marijuana, dope, grass, pot, ganja, hash, hashish
In South Africa cannabis is grown in rural areas and sold as a means to put food on the table. Cannabis contains more than 426 known chemicals, including the mind-altering substances known as THCs (tetrahydrocannabinols).

The heaven:
You feel euphoric and relaxed.

The hell
Panic attacks, hallucinations, flashbacks and memory loss.

Effects on the body:
It causes frequent sinusitis and bronchitis and may cause infertility in men and women. Lung cancer is a real risk. It may harm an unborn baby, leading to miscarriage, stillbirth or early death. Foetal marijuana syndrome - characterised by lower birth weight and developmental abnormalities - is five times more common than foetal alcohol syndrome.

Effects on the brain:
THC changes the brain chemistry that governs feelings, memory, the senses and co-ordinated movement.

9. LSD
(Lysergic acid diethylamide)

Street names: acid, blotter acid, microdot, white lightning
LSD is an odourless and colourless drug available in two forms: paper stamps impregnated with LSD or micro-tablets ("microdots'') containing LSD in very low concentrations per tablet.

The heaven:
It seems as though you have your senses crossed, giving you the feeling of hearing colours and seeing sounds. Taken in large enough doses, LSD produces delusions and visual hallucinations.

The hell:
Mental disorders such as schizophrenia and severe depression.

Effects on the body:
Increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, numbness and weakness.

LSD affects a large number of chemicals in the brain, including the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. The drug may also increase the levels of a substance called glutamate in very specific parts of the brain, over-stimulating the brain cells and causing an "electric storm''. Each electric storm causes hallucinations, and can lead to permanent changes.

Effects on the brain:

Spying on your brain
New technology has allowed doctors to pinpoint the areas of the brain most affected by drug abuse. One method is the brain Spect (single photon emission computed tomography) which uses gamma rays to construct two- or three-dimensional images of active brain regions.

With a brain Spect doctors can look at the damage done by impaired blood flow caused by various drugs, explains Dr Pieter Botha of the department of radiology at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town. Drugs such as alcohol, cocaine or marijuana impair the effectiveness of blood vessels in the brain, constricting blood flow to certain areas. On scans these affected areas show up as "holes" in the brain.


 
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