This Week in Addiction & Recovery: July 21

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Is This the Perfect War Drug?

Captagon, a powerful amphetamine that’s been nicknamed everything from “the jihad pill” to “chemical courage” continues to charge across the Middle East, emerging as a substance that’s every bit as dangerous as the war-torn Gulf itself. A story in The Economist revealed that the market for Captagon is booming across Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, where massive seizures of the drug haven’t put a dent in its overwhelming demand. That’s because, for one, the pill is transforming jihadist militants into perfect killing machines. The article focused on a captured Islamic State fighter, who recounted that he’d been given pills “that would make you go to battle not caring if you live or die.” In fact, it’s that potent mix of euphoria, fearlessness and “reduce[d] compassion” that makes Captagon so attractive to militant leaders. Known generically as fenethylline, Captagon was originally developed to combat depression, narcolepsy, and attention deficit disorder—not enemy forces. Many countries (including America) swiftly banned the drug in the early 1980s, mainly due to its highly addictive properties. Still, Captagon is becoming increasingly popular among wealthy partygoers, diet-conscious women, and students cramming for finals, who are all keeping the demand for Captagon alive far beyond the battlefield.

Researchers Argue for Psychedelics in Therapy

While marijuana continues to gain momentum in medical therapy, many experts argue that the net should be cast even wider when it comes to drugs and research. According to a story in The New York Times, an increasing number of researchers believe that psychedelics like LSD, mescaline and MDMA could play a highly effective role in treating everything from anxiety to life-threatening illnesses. A small research trial in 2014, for example, revealed some encouraging results from a study on LSD’s impact on anxiety. Similar studies have focused on psychedelics’ impact on abuse and alcohol addiction. Researchers, however, believe they’ve only scratched the surface of possibility. Since psychedelics are Schedule I drugs, scientists need the DEA to provide a special set of permissions (in other words, a political red-tape nightmare), which is why many critics are calling for a widespread overhaul of drug classification. “Using these metrics, it’s hard to argue that alcohol and tobacco should be legal for adults while marijuana and psychedelics should be considered so dangerous they’re hard to study,” the article criticized current drug laws. “Likewise, opioids are considered widely acceptable in practice, yet appear to do far more harm.” The debate won’t be settled anytime soon but, for many people, it’s a big win that serious conversations about psychedelics and therapy are even happening at all.

Study Reveals Risks From Prenatal Exposure to Alcohol

A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study revealed a staggeringly wide range of risks caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol. And while the study used mice as test subjects, the risks are anything but tiny. The study’s findings “help explain the range of behavioral and learning deficits and other symptoms observed in individuals with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders,” including problems with physical growth, damaged organs, and overall behavior. Researchers zeroed in on the brain’s defense mechanisms, including one in particular: Heat Shock Factor 1. While the mechanism (abbreviated as Hsf1) protects “the fetal brain from environmental stress,” alcohol can activate too much Hsf1, which causes brain damage. Researchers gave alcohol to pregnant mice, then analyzed how the fetal brains responded to alcohol. The amounts of alcohol administered were intended to yield “peak blood alcohol concentrations approximately like those of people who either drink socially or who have severe alcohol use disorder.” In almost every case, alcohol triggered high levels of Hsf1 activation, which disrupted the normal development of the fetal brains. Perhaps the simplest, most startling revelation from the study was that even the most trace amounts of alcohol had a massive impact on neural development.

Reddit Community is Saving Addicts’ Lives

With nearly 38,000 subscribers, the Reddit forum r/opiates is more than just an online forum where substance users swap stories and get advice. The group has “transformed into a lifesaving map for addicts navigating a minefield frequently filled with fentanyl,” according to a story at The Guardian. Members across the country frequently post warnings about drug batches cut with fentanyl which, in turn, saves the lives of users who might have otherwise overdosed. Among the 38,000 subscribers are “habitual users, addicts desperate to get clean, and everything in between,” the story said. Since last November, the Reddit forum has exploded in use, too (up by 42%). It’s also a “twofold increase in user growth” over 2014, which tracks with the nation’s sharp rise in addiction overall. Neither trends show any signs of slowing down. Many applaud the forum’s encouragement, support and honesty, not to mention its relative anonymity—though, as the story argues, r/opiates will continue to grow in numbers and participation “as the stigma around addiction continues to lift across the country.”

Dentists Start Drilling Into the Opioid Crisis

Dentists and oral surgeons alike are responsible for prescribing the most opioids to people aged 10 to 19—an age range that also happens to be the “sweet spot” for addiction. An eye-opening New York Times piece reported that dentists are now fighting hard to change their (surprisingly) central role in the story of American opioid addiction, especially in light of studies that show elementary school-aged kids who are prescribed opioids end up with a “one-third chance of lifetime illicit use.” Even worse, as the story argued, 75% of opioid abuse (including heroin) started with legitimate prescriptions—a far cry from the media’s portrayal of “evil pill-mill doctors and drug addict patients.” As such, the American Dental Association and dental schools are beginning to encourage NSAIDs (Advil and Tylenol) as a first line of treatment, which research proves “works better after wisdom teeth surgeries than opioids.” Still, dentists have a long way to go to curb opioid addiction: the Times reported that 74% of oral surgeons said they preferred the NSAID treatment, though 85% of those same surgeons prescribed opioids anyway.

Addicted Students Find Success in “Recovery Schools”

An NPR story reported on the encouraging rise of “recovery schools” in the US, where young people struggling with addiction can get both professional treatment and academic support. Students in the schools, the story said, “have better sobriety levels—and usually better grades, than students with addiction who remain in regular class settings.” NPR focused on Horizon High School, just outside Madison, Wisconsin, which has seen 150 students over the past 12 years. Horizon builds in therapy time during the day, with certified counselors leading groups and individual treatment sessions “to talk mental health, social, family—anything going on in the students’ lives that could pull them back into substance use.” And by most accounts, the NPR piece said, it’s working. Still, Horizon remains challenged by operating costs, leading to an uncertain future every passing year. The school, however, has made an impression on local lawmakers, who see the value in opening similar schools across the state. With opioid-related deaths on the rise in Wisconsin (like the rest of the country), funding and support for the concept is also on the rise. If nothing else, the story suggests, Horizon has created a template that proves diplomas and recovery can go hand in hand.

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family. His writing has appeared in AfterParty Magazine, The Fix, The Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of Drop the Needle, a podcast about music and addiction recovery.

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