Meth and Cocaine: The Fourth Drug Wave?

Published on March 8, 2021

Canaan, CT – With news cycles largely focusing on the coronavirus, other public health concerns have taken a backseat, including the opioid crisis. Yet the drug epidemic ventures beyond opioids, and dismissing the dangers of non-opioid drugs could have lethal consequences. Stimulants, such as methamphetamine (meth) and cocaine, have also been rising in popularity, and early data suggests that the pandemic could be influencing these increased rates of stimulant use.

A 2020 study of 150,000 patients comparing substance use before and during the COVID-19 pandemic found that the number of positive drug tests for cocaine rose from 3.59 percent to 4.76 percent. Increases in meth use were even more prominent, with positive test results increasing from 5.89 percent to 8.16 percent during the same period.

The National Institutes of Drug Abuse note that stimulants were gaining in popularity prior to the pandemic, with provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing that there were more than 16,500 national meth-related overdose deaths in 2019 – a figure ten times greater than it had been a decade earlier. The number of cocaine-related overdose deaths similarly totaled 16,196 in 2019.

Addiction professionals fear that stimulants could be at the epicenter of a fourth drug wave, with the first wave referring to the extensive use of prescription opioids in the 1990s, the second being the rise of heroin overdose deaths in 2010, and the third comprised of the threat of fentanyl beginning in 2013. The widespread use of stimulants is concerning not only for the drugs’ potential for overdose but also because of the long-term health risks they can pose, such as kidney damage and cardiovascular complications.

Compounding this worry is the rise of polydrug use, with stimulants and opioids being increasingly used in conjunction with one another. Mixing stimulants like meth and cocaine with depressants – opioids like heroin and fentanyl – can cause respiratory failure and other potentially lethal consequences, yet many seek out this deadly concoction because each drug may temporarily reduce the negative effects of the other.

The CDC reported in September of last year that cocaine and fentanyl was the most common combination of opioids and stimulants. In 2019, the CDC discovered that 72.7 percent of cocaine-related overdoses in 2017 were also in combination with opioids, and the prevalence of fatal overdoses containing a mixture of cocaine and synthetic opioids like fentanyl rose from 2012 to 2017.

“Even though we’re just starting to see the rise of stimulants, the influx of these drugs in the Northeast is a cause for concern, as meth use had previously been confined to the West and Midwest. Now, regional demand has increased as stimulants are more frequently mixed with opioids,” says Alexandra Helfer, Chief Clinical Officer at Mountainside treatment center. “Experiencing a meth or cocaine overdose can be life-threatening, especially when there are no overdose reversal medications available for stimulants, unlike with opioids.”

Considering the potency of fentanyl, cocaine, and meth individually, these troubling trends should not be taken lightly. Those who struggle with stimulant misuse should contact a local treatment center to explore their options for recovery.