The White Noise

The White Noise

A hit of addiction and mental illness, chased by chemistry and culture.

Street slang in drug education advertises more than it helps


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?

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

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Email this Article