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Street slang in drug education advertises more than it helps

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Yesterday, I asked a 12-year-old the biggest lessons he learned from a recent middle school drug assembly. The answers I received contained the terms “White Lightning,” “Hurricane Charlie” and “Trail Mix.” While valuable for kids to have drug education programs in schools, it becomes a pressing concern when lesser known drugs and/or street names are the primary concepts gleaned from lessons. It’s worse, yet, when kids learn misbegotten ideas on the identity and usage of such drugs, such as the designer compounds commonly referred to as ‘bath salts.’ And here I thought marijuana and alcohol would be the key school drug assembly takeaways for the 11 to 14-year-old demographic.

Though I’d never claim to know everything about drugs, I’d like to think I’m at least ahead of the curve – and these street terms were almost completely unknown to me. The middle-schooler hinted that while he didn’t know for certain what each of the foreign drug names like Hurricane Charlie meant, he thought they dealt with Ecstasy and bath salts.

A growing fascination of the media, ‘bath salts’ is a street name for a class of recreational drugs containing the active compound Methylenedioxypyrovalerone (PDF link), or MDPV. This compound was classified as a schedule 1 drug in October by the DEA, meaning that it has high abuse potential, no current medical use and no established safety protocol. Though scant pharmacology research has been done on MDPV, ‘bath salts’ are a known central nervous system stimulant and often induce hallucinogenic effects in users. The medical effects and consequences from chest pains to stroke are immense, and hospitals often struggle to sedate those facing psychosis from these chemical stimulants swallowed, snorted or injected. (For thorough explainers on the science and legalities surrounding MDPV, see David Kroll’s “Take as Directed” post lineup.)

In fact, though the 12-year-old didn’t know Hurricane Charlie’s actual identity (MDPV), he mock-crawled a spider up his arm, a pantomime the kids were enacting on one another after the assembly in fits of laughter. Clearly, psychosis was more cool and funny than it was a frightening prospect.

When kids hear the term ‘bath salts,’ they, using basic logic, may think of mom’s Bath & Body Works collection. Sure, MDPV or Methylenedioxypyrovalerone may not have the same ring as colloquial street slang, but it’s important to teach kids that we’re not talking about aromatherapy and exfoliation beads. What if, confused after hearing the idea of ‘bath salts,’ Junior decides to inhale mom’s scented relaxation collection? The medical implications of failed at-home highs and experimentation could be catastrophic.

Furthermore, street slangs morph and cool terminology changes often, leaving drug education based on such terms woefully bereft. This, for instance, is a short list of MDPV pseudonyms, courtesy of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA):

“Ivory Wave,” “Purple Wave,” “Red Dove,” “Blue Silk,” “Zoom,” “Bloom,” “Cloud Nine,” “Ocean Snow,” “Lunar Wave,” “Vanilla Sky,” “White Lightning,” “Scarface,” and “Hurricane Charlie”

We need to return to the science of what drugs actually do to our brains and bodies. This extreme brevity and methodology of glossing over key concepts inflicts more damage than it helps — kids enter the assembly knowing perhaps nothing and leave thinking the bath salts under mom’s sink make you act silly and see invisible spiders?

Worse, too, are news reports explaining the effects of ‘bath salts,’ revealing where you can buy the legal high in stores and displaying the products on the show, a horrifying form of well-intentioned press. As one YouTube viewer responded (and received thumbs’ up for), “woah! i gotta try that…thanks CBS”

What’s the lesson here? There’s a better way of providing lessons from these compounds: less discussion of slang and product names and more explanation of the science and detrimental effects. Are we stifling these drugs or offering them multimedia and curriculum-based platforms?

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. freddyf 3:24 am 12/28/2011

    The first casualty of any war, including the war on drugs, is truth. If the purpose of drug education is to be “stifling these drugs” then it is no longer science-based. The “science” shows that many recreational drugs are not as harmful as they are portrayed to be. Some are, but many are not.

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  2. 2. docdeal13 6:12 am 12/28/2011

    fact is that until a law enforcement representative spoke in our study hall i wasn’t remotely interested in using or abusing drugs. put that in your pipe and smoke it.

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  3. 3. cccampbell38 8:55 am 12/30/2011

    This article points out, unintendedly I think, the major problem with drug abuse prevention and education and perhaps the underlying futility of the so called “War on Drugs”.

    You see, when I began working in the addictions field as an educator and counselor more than 40 years ago we already knew all of this and spent as much time fighting these stupid, counterproductive practices as we did doing our primary jobs of helping teens already in trouble.

    So, what have we as a society learned from all this negative experience and failure over the last four decades? NOTHING!!! We just keep on repeating the same mistakes again and again.

    I do not see any sign of that changing in the future.

    If anyone wants to get a basic idea on what should be done read Brecher’s (sp?) Licit and Illicit Drugs, published by Consumer’s Union in 1974 for pete sakes! We knew what to do way back then and have made no significant progress since.

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  4. 4. steve castleman 4:40 pm 01/3/2012

    I couldn’t agree more than drug education needs to be science-based, answering basic questions like: what parts of the brain are affected by alcohol and/or drug use; how abuse changes the brain’s structure and function, and leads to addiction; why addiction is a progressive disease; why some get addicted and others don’t; how treatment works, etc. For a website that focuses on these issues, please check out

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  5. 5. milestogodrugeducation 9:57 am 01/4/2012

    This is exactly why we have made it a policy to explain both the scientific and slang terminology as we go through our lectures. We make it very clear to kids as young as 5th grade how important it is to understand both because if someone offers them something that they think sounds fun or friendlier they need to know what it is. The most common question over the past 17 years of drug education is: What is the difference between pot, weed and marijuana? So, there is a place for slang, but in the correct scientific context.

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  6. 6. sarahsmith67yz 5:40 pm 05/4/2012

    Let me first explain I have experimented with drugs, but in my mid to late thirties now, I quit doing drugs entrirely. Though I am not old by most standards I developed a string of sensitivities to various substances and cannot tolerate any chemical or natural drugs what so ever.

    My parents were addicts and so I have done a lot of therapeutic work on addiction.

    I recently came into contact with bath salts second hand. I was in someone’s home. They said they wanted to smoke what I believed was crack . I didn’t feel comfortable. They insisted and said they would smoke in the adjoining bathroom. Once he came out of the bathroom, I tried to close the bathroom door so that the fumes would not enter the room we were in. As soon as I closed the door the fumes became much stronger. This as close as I came to the bath salts. I left within a few minutes of this and was really really high.
    I was kind of amped up on an adrenaline rush and became extremely negative and critical of things I normally like such as womens apparel and attractive looking people . I felt like I had this weird psychological play back of like my early twenties or teens. I had the same kind of mind set. It was very strange. What I do recall is this incredible and unusual negativity toward things. I felt the unhappiness of my early twenties and teens again. I felt like that sort of thought pattern had returned to me. I did feel like all the projects I was working on no longer mattered, but at the same time it was kind of a stress relief as well. I stopped worrying about everything and didn’t worry at all. I was really high. I actually called an addiction line two days later, not knowing what to do and wanting to come down and wondering if I needed to do anything . I described my symptoms and the woman on the phone suggested that it might be “ bath salts “. After the first 24 hours the high slowly began to melt away and I felt better/ happier. I am normally often over polite and aware of how I deal with people in public. After getting high I just was not concerned about this anymore. Though I was highly agitated , I did not express it any way, except in my face. I actually lost or forgot muscle control of my face and maybe my body. I was so high my face kind of reflected my brain. It could not move and, as a result , in my agitated state, my face had this incredibly scary look of its own. As I said I am normally very polite in person and rather small in size. In my agitated state people took one look at my face and shivered. My face looked like something from another world, perhaps reflecting how I felt.

    After about a week I felt increasingly better and returning back to my normal mental state. It has been about two and half to three weeks now and I feel I have mostly returned to normal. That is how much “ bath salt” affected me. I did not even smoke anything. I was within two feet of the fumes for about five or ten minutes. I do not like drugs and did not want to stick around or even be near them in the first place.

    If I had not have done so much therapy on addiction and drug use, I don’t know what would have happened or how I would have felt. However, I know what drug users and addicts go through and have to face and all their challenges and the psychology of it.

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