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Cocaine and Teens: The Cold Hard Facts

During the 1970s, cultural experimentation was rampant. Edgy, daring trends in music, fashion, filmmaking and pop psychology were all the rage. Hedonistic pursuits became an accepted form of self-expression. Old standards were dismissed as quaint and reactionary. In this mercurial climate, it was inevitable that people’s attitudes about drug-taking would change. If drugs were morally degenerate before, now they were seen as just another way to have a good time, without consequence or regret. This complacent attitude helped pave the way for the infamous 1970s cocaine epidemic, when this white powdered powder keg established its reputation as the ultimate party drug among the “in” crowd. But the hipness of cocaine was based on naiveté, wishful thinking and just plain stupidity. All the “in” crowd got was in big trouble for playing around with this supercharged, highly addictive, central nervous system stimulant. Cocaine messes with neural functioning by revving up the brain’s pleasure circuits, getting them to run at unsustainable levels. When first snorted or injected, cocaine delivers a euphoric high than can last for a half-hour or more. But as tolerance quickly develops, users spend the subsequent days and months pursuing an ecstasy that is no longer attainable—and plunging headlong into hopeless dependency as they follow this rocky road to nowhere. Despite an occasional upswing in the market, levels of cocaine consumption have dropped considerably (about 40 percent) since the 1970s. But unlike disco music, Richard Nixon, bellbottom pants and long lines at the gas station, cocaine is still around, and as a fixture on the illegal drug scene, it is still damaging lives, including those of adolescents unfortunate enough to have fallen victim to its sadistic allure.

Cocaine Abuse by the Numbers

According to the government’s 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, there are about 1.6 million regular cocaine users in the United States. This number includes approximately 150,000 school-age adolescents, which comprises about 0.8 percent of the teen population. But these are only teens who have used cocaine in the last month. If we add in those who have taken cocaine at some point in the previous 12 months, the percentage more than doubles to 1.8 percent, which means somewhere north of 300,000 young people will sample cocaine during any given calendar year. Estimates are that up to 75 percent of regular cocaine users meet the criteria for addiction; so in the United States, the lives of more than 100,000 young people are currently being torn asunder by a drug that had supposedly fallen into disrepute. The situation certainly is not as grim as it used to be. In 1979, an astounding 12 percent of 12th graders had consumed the drug within the previous one-year period, but this percentage had dropped to just 2.6 percent by 2013. While 639,000 Americans tried cocaine for the first time in 2012, three-quarters of these individuals were older than 18, which proves cocaine experimentation among adolescents is far from rampant. Indeed, data released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in its most recent Monitoring the Future report shows that the percentage of teens who try cocaine each year has actually declined by about one-third since 2010 alone. Thankfully, the “in” crowd among the current teen set isn’t into cocaine nearly as much as their forerunners were back in the bad old days. But despite going somewhat out of fashion, cocaine is still implicated in 5,000 overdose deaths and 400,000 emergency room visits annually, with every demographic group well represented on the roster of the damned. Optimism about present trends in cocaine use are justified, but even now there are hundreds of thousands of kids ingesting this potent chemical and putting themselves at grave risk of disaster by doing so.

Disco Is Dead but Cocaine Lives

As addiction to cocaine develops, users will experience a wide range of frightening symptoms and health problems related to their escalating drug consumption. Some of the most common side effects of chronic cocaine use include elevated heart rate and blood pressure, significant loss of appetite, irritability, insomnia, anxiety attacks, severe paranoia, nosebleeds, headaches, nausea, moodiness, seizures and sudden violent outbursts of temper. Heavy cocaine use can eventually lead to death by cardiac arrest, and even first-time users are not immune to this risk if they go on binges. Through a combination of traditional therapies, cocaine addiction is highly treatable and defeatable. The club of recovering cocaine addicts numbers in the millions, as many who struggled to control their drug use in the past were able to kick their habits after undergoing treatment and rehabilitation. Detox, inpatient and/or outpatient treatment, individual and family counseling, 12-step peer group involvement and individualized follow-up therapy can all be a part of the solution to cocaine addiction, and such a comprehensive approach can work wonders regardless of the age of the addict. While prohibitive cost and changing fashions probably help keep most young people away, cocaine has not disappeared from the youth drug scene just yet, and perhaps never will. Vigilance remains necessary, and any adolescent who starts using cocaine and continues despite the consequences needs professional help.

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