Five notes on narco-nickname cartography

Ran across this interactive map of “The World’s Insane and Ever Expanding Drug Lexicon” yesterday. It prompted reflection on what this map – that is, a set of linguistic anecdotes bounded by time – could tell us about the state of global drug markets, particularly when cross-referenced with other data. Broadly: synthetics, synthetics, synthetics – and public health impacts. Since I’m living in a city situated in the general area of Latin America’s cocaine corridor, I’ve brought a little analysis to bear on the region’s drug issues at the end. Unlike many of the drug markets featured in this map, much of Latin America is still getting to the point where enough people can afford these drugs to make them a major public health issue. But this is changing, making certain global trends increasingly likely to apply to the region.

  1. Synthetics are king… According to the UNODC’s 2012 World Drug Report, amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) are the second most-used drug category worldwide, after cannabis. Worldcrunch situates variously-synthesized items in places as far-flung as the UK, Thailand, Hungary, the US, and eastern Russia. But this is an issue in places not on the map, as disparate as Berlin and Bogotá.
  1. … and this trend is only going to become more pronounced. The Worldcrunch map cites the EuropeanMonitoringCenter for Drugs and Drug Addiction in noting that this trend is ticking up. Synthetics like “Benzo Fury” and “Hitler Speed” – that is, crystal meth – are increasingly popular as party drugs. Some of these, like bath salts in the US before late 2012, exist in a legal gray zone; others just have a price advantage, so see number three:
  1. Cheaper alternatives to higher-end drugs are a big deal… Plenty of people can’t afford heroin and other “high-end” hard drugs. Siberian users shoot up with “crocodile,” a synthetic alternative to heroin that was profiled in a Vice documentary. And part of the allure of the synthetics mentioned above is their relative cheapness compared to other drugs. As powder cocaine use has remained stable, synthetics have risen in popularity.
  1. …and these bring major public health concerns in their wake. Part of what makes the aforementioned Vice documentary so horrifying is the terrible effects that “crocodile” has on its users – these include skin damage, a panoply of secondary infections, and, commonly, premature mortality. Few US readers will fail to be familiar with the ravaging effects of meth on users, and in the communities affected. These highly addictive, highly destructive drugs carry a high individual and social cost.
  1. Latin American takeaway: South America is about more than jungle shamans and zombie drugs. The Worldcrunch map flags psychotropic ayahuasco (“vine of the dead”) and the bizarre “devil’s breath” (a nightshade derivative that’s synthesized for a variety of licit and illicit purposes) for inclusion. While these are colorful examples (with colorful names, which is after all the point of the linguistic map), the trends identified above all hold true in the region. Synthetic drug use is increasing here as well, as growing wealth in the Southern Cone and Colombia price users in to these markets. Meanwhile, the use of cheaper alternatives is a regional scourge (think “paco,” or cocaine base, and the prevalence of crack cocaine in some parts of Brazil). In addition to South America’s position in the global cocaine supply trade, economic growth in countries like those mentioned above, as well as Peru, will likely drive an increase in recreational drug consumption in these countries. In this realm, economic success stories like Colombia and Peru will need to be especially careful not to fall prey to this “rich country” trap.
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