Is cocaine back?

From the NYT:

Drug-abuse experts say the blasé attitude toward cocaine use is a result of “generational amnesia.”

“There seems to be less of a stigma about” cocaine, said Dr. Herbert Kleber, director of the division of substance abuse at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in Manhattan. As part of his oversight of research into cocaine addiction and treatment, and in his private clinical practice, Dr. Kleber hears stories about the drug’s use. “People don’t feel nearly as much the need to hide it,” he said. “They feel that they can use it in a more open fashion.”

The visibility of cultural markers — and the absence of cautionary tales — leads to the assumption that coke is not as harmful, say, as heroin (which was associated with the high-profile overdoses of River Phoenix and Kurt Cobain in the 90s), or methamphetamine, whose recent popularity in the gay community has led to a targeted campaign against it, said Perry N. Halkitis, a professor of applied psychology at New York University who studies behavior, the AIDS epidemic and drug abuse.

“If you’re a 19-year-old and you go out and party and you’re offered meth, you say no because you’ve heard these bad things,” he said. “But you’re offered coke, you say yes because you assume it’s safe.” And, he added, as the authorities crack down on meth, “people are going to tend to go to cocaine, which has similar, if not identical properties” as a stimulant.

STATS.org responds:

This is the problem with having a demon drug of the moment: all of them can’t possibly be “the worst” and “most addictive” and “most dangerous,” but if you look at the news coverage of each new scare, that’s exactly what the coverage claims. When crack came out, it was “more addictive than heroin,” (the previous worst drug ever), now meth allegedly makes crack look like “child’s play.”

Different drugs certainly do carry different risks—but that’s not what the media or the government wants to explore. To do that would mean admitting that some really are more harmful than others and that the relative harm has little to do with drugs’ legal status. For the media, it would mean that these drug trend stories have far less news value—because the truth is that some drug is always in and it’s not always worse than the one that went before it.

Exploring the varying risks of addiction related to these drugs would also mean having to actually understand addiction and why some people are at greater risk than others and what “more addictive” really means. It would mean recognizing that addiction is not an equal opportunity problem—that levels of it are much higher amongst the poor and unemployed than amongst the middle classes (and probably also higher amongst the extremely rich).

And it would also mean trying to understand whether the people who fall prey to one type of drug are only at risk for that sort of addiction—or whether the trends really don’t matter much and sweep up the at-risk people no matter what drug is in fashion.