One of the country's largest public health epidemics has reached college campuses

One of the country's largest public health epidemics has reached college campuses

VicesNovember 21, 2018 By Jackson Deakins

Everyone shuffled into the bedroom slowly. Space was tight, feet were stepped on, but soon enough the door shut and the group started to lower their voices. Kyle Wong reached into the top of his white tube sock and carefully pulled out a plastic bag the size of a quarter between his fingers.

With the entire room fixated on him, he emptied the contents delicately onto the top of his glass desk and began carving thin lines, like scattered white toothpicks along the surface in front of him.

“I’ll take next,” a voice mumbled from the corner of the room. Kyle turned, scanned the room for the customer and gave him a nod.

I sat in the adjacent corner. I chimed in before Kyle hunched over his desk, “Have you ever considered the possibility that your coke could be laced?”

Everyone turned. The room was stone cold. My face flushed with embarrassment. Then, unexpectedly, everyone burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. My embarrassment grew into more of a sense of confusion.

The roar died down and Kyle gave me a grin, shook his head and leaned over his desk. With a sharp hfffft, the rest of the evening began.

On Oct. 26 of last year, the Boulder County coroner’s office ruled that Eric Chase Bolling died of an accidental overdose of cocaine laced with fentanyl. His death came as a shock to the school community, but Bolling’s death was no freak incident. Rather, it indicated that one of the country’s largest public health epidemics had reached the college campus.

Almost 41 percent of overdoses in the last year were from non-methadone synthetic opioids, primarily the mass-produced painkiller fentanyl. Nearly half of the roughly 10,000 cocaine overdoses in 2016 occurred due to a combination of cocaine and synthetic opioids. Preliminary data from 2017 suggests the number of combination overdoses to increase.

As a country we recognize opioids as a threat. For the most part we understand the danger implicit in drug abuse. What we don’t understand is that the purposeful or unintentional combination of pharmaceutical opioids, like fentanyl, and more commonplace recreational drugs like cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine, poses a deadly threat.

Overdoses from cocaine and fentanyl combinations increased 23-fold since 2012.

“Drug traffickers are lacing cocaine with fentanyl to give the user a more intense high,” Special Agent Randy Ladd, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman, said bluntly over the phone. “We like to call them the basement chemists.”

Historically, according to Ladd, fentanyl has been mass-produced in China, where regulation of pharmaceuticals is loose. Companies export the drug into Canada and Mexico in bulk, only to have traffickers smuggle the products into the U.S, where they end up in the hands of Ladd’s basement chemists.

While the drug is cheap because of its abundance, it is a far more powerful alternative to drugs like heroin and morphine. It works similarly to them in that it binds itself to the brain’s opioid receptors, which control dopamine levels, and creates an intense euphoric high.

These dealers are effectively poisoning their customers by virtue of the fact that they are handling an opioid fifty to one hundred times more potent than morphine, with little to no knowledge of dosage or chemical compounds.

Fentanyl is then either deliberately mixed in with the primary drug, for example cocaine, or accidentally cross-contaminated into the drug unknowingly. It’s virtually undetectable without testing the drug’s composition with a kit – in other words, you wouldn’t know until you tried it.

Ultimately, Ladd said, “A little over 72,000 people died in drug-related overdoses in 2017. Nearly 50,000 of those are opioid related. At the same time deaths from cocaine are on the rise,” he continued. “You’re standing in the Mile High Stadium at a Bronco’s game, look at how many people are at that game – that’s how many drug overdose deaths there are in one year.”

Kyle was feeling good.

The group had dispersed a few minutes before and we moved into the strangely unsettling living room. If not for a bright red light strip coiled around the ceiling, the room would be a claustrophobic pitch dark. I was lucky to find a chair.

There was dancing, but I kept my eyes fixed on Kyle, whose unhinged smile made the ambience all the more unwelcoming. He shifted back and forth in conversation, seemingly having a conversation with three people at once. The smile remained.

Everyone was feeling good at this point. The conversations were lively and animated. It all seemed surprisingly normal, apart from when I focused on their eyes. They jolted back and forth from the conversation, to the door along the back wall, to the beer that was just knocked off the table, back to the conversation.

The red light distilled everything and every person into the same rich, smoldering mass of energy. The mass moved and flowed like magma. If I didn’t focus, it felt like I was in the lava flow myself.

I snapped back to reality.

In the office, the sunlight beamed in from the wall of a window to my left. Daniel Conroy, Director of the University of Colorado Recovery Center, welcomed me and asked me to sit. 

“Drugs are problem at CU for some people, just like drugs are a problem in West Palm Beach or drugs are a problem in Dubuque, Iowa,” he said, grinning as we began our discussion.

According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, monthly cocaine use in young adults aged 18-25 is up by 19 percent from 2016.

“In our society we have a mentality that if there is something wrong with us – we don’t like the way we feel – we take something.”

Conroy referred to the fact that one-in-five adults take at least some form of behavioral or psychiatric medication. This statistic doesn’t include alternative coping mechanisms, like illicit drugs or alcohol. We don’t discuss the role that stimulants (or other drugs) play in handling the stress of not only adulthood, but also college life, he said.

“Basically, we live in a society that says, if you have pain, you take something, rather than saying if you have pain, you develop some coping mechanisms, you talk about it, you figure it out.”

“Alcohol and other drugs tend to take those feelings of intense isolation and neutralize them, essentially,” Conroy said.

The increase in cocaine-related deaths isn’t because of cocaine alone, it’s because of fentanyl lacing. Conroy added that those who are cocaine addicts, who have zero physical tolerance for opioids, are being exposed to potentially lethal levels of one of the strongest opioids available.

“Everything is a continuum of use, you have people here who have done nothing in their entire life and then you have people who are chronically addicted and are going to die if they don’t stop,” Conroy said of drug culture. “Everyone is somewhere on that continuum.”

The night came to a crashing close. Energy levels were completely shot. A couple people lingered, most had left – it was about 3 a.m. Kyle was completely knocked out, fully clothed, on his bed. As I grabbed my coat, I looked at the red room. Hours before it boomed with sound. Now it was a graveyard of crumpled beer cans.

No one overdosed. No one had alcohol poisoning. As far as I knew, everyone made it home safely. To be sure, most evenings of intoxication will probably end this way, but what about when they don’t?

“Anytime that you’re using these drugs from off the street, or from anywhere, it’s basically Russian roulette,” Special Agent Ladd concluded. “It’s at your own risk.”

Names have been changed to protect the identities of sources.