Everything your LO teacher wouldn’t tell you about drugs (Part 1 of a Harm Reduction guide)

CW: Drugs, descriptions of drug use, images and media depicting drug-related content.
So you’re in university… chances are, you’re going to bump into some drugs in your environment. If you’re interested in experimenting, that’s ok! Just make sure you have enough information to stay safe.

I initially wanted to include this post as a section in an upcoming post about the university experience, but I realised there is far too much to cover. Even as its own post I will only be covering drugs you are likely to come across in our sleepy little Makhanda. In this section I’ll focus on weed and stimulants. But before we get into it, a couple of disclaimers.

Many of the drugs on this list are illegal in South Africa; many of them also involve some degree of risk. This post is in no way encouraging the reader to buy or consume drugs. I am by no means saying that drugs have to be a part of your university experience; I am simply saying that you will probably come across them in your surroundings and you might want to be prepared for that.
The point of this post is strictly for Harm Reduction purposes. What is harm reduction? Harm reduction is an approach to recreational drug use which neither promotes nor condones any drug or user; instead it acknowledges that people are going to make their own choices, and endeavours to equip them with as much information as possible so that they can experiment safely. However, I can’t go into too much detail on each one in this post. So, if you’re curious, make this post a departure point for much more research.

Right off the bat it is important to emphasise that the word “drug” is actually a lot more difficult to define than you might think. In fact, the notion of, and attitudes towards drugs are socially constructed. For instance, we consider marijuana a drug, but do we think of cigarettes and alcohol as drugs in the same way? Marijuana and alcohol are both mind altering substances – but one is completely legal, and one is not. Nicotine and alcohol are both more addictive and more dangerous than marijuana, but they are more socially accepted than marijuana.
Still, when I say “drugs”, you know what I mean. This is just a note to people with a negative attitude to drug use, and a warning against double standards.

For example….

Now, without any further ado, let’s get into the guide.

Marijuana/ Weed

An ASAPScience video explaining the science of marijuana.

Marijuana is the dried leaves of a cannabis sativa plant, which can be smoked, or eaten to produce a high. (Note that marijuana edibles affect your brain and body differently. Watch this video for more information on edible marijuana.)

Marijuana is currently legal in South Africa for private use, meaning you can grow and use marijuana in a private residence but its sale, and use in public places, is still prohibited.

Effects: As described in the video above, marijuana can magnify your thoughts and imagination, and induce feelings of euphoria and relaxation.

Addiction and risk potential: Marijuana has been discovered time and time again to be the safest “drug”. It is not possible to overdose from marijuana and it is not, chemically/ physically speaking, addictive. However, marijuana use can definitely become a habit which inhibits you from functioning properly in your daily life, if used in excess, and there can be physical withdrawal symptoms from marijuana.

Other effects to look out for: This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s had an edible-related incident (y’all know what I’m talking about), but it’s worth mentioning that hospitalizations relating to marijuana rose in Colorado after weed was legalized there. Why? Because when taking edibles, many people do not wait long enough for the effects to kick in, consume too much, and end up getting way too high.
Being way too high is not physically dangerous, but it can be a very unpleasant experience psychologically. Some people find that marijuana – whether smoked or eaten – causes them more anxiety and paranoia than the high is actually worth. It’s not for everyone 🤷

Stimulants

Stimulants, also known as “uppers”, make users feel “sped up”, more alert, active, and euphoric. They also have the physical affects of increasing heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and blood sugar.

I would say there are three kinds of stimulants you might come across in Makhanda:

Ritalin/ Concerta (methylphenidate)

Ritalin and Concerta are both drugs used to treat ADHD. The main difference between them is that concerta is more slow-releasing and takes effect for longer. When used recreationally, methylphenidate is generally either orally ingested or insufflated (i.e. schnarfed – crushed into powder and snorted through the nose). It is commonly used to enhance one’s experience when partying, or to provide energy and focus when pulling an all-nighter on an essay, for example.

Source

Addiction and risk potential: Like any stimulant, ritalin and concerta can be addictive to some extent. Users can build a tolerance (meaning they require more of it to feel the effects), and they can develop a strong desire to take rit/concerta, going to great lengths to acquire it, and taking it even if it has an adverse effect on their life and relationships.
Methylphenidate also carries risks associated with blood pressure and heart rate if the user has preexisting related conditions. It can also give your immune system a bit of a knock, making you more susceptible to illness.
In addition, look out for the comedown. When the effects of rit/ concerta wear off, users may feel irritable, anxious, and downright depressed.

MDMA/ Ecstasy

This channel, Drugslab, is a Dutch Youtube channel (with English subtitles) which provides scientific information about a drug before trying it on camera, safely, and under supervision.

MDMA is a catchy name for a drug called “3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine”. It takes the form of crystals or powder, often enclosed in a gel capsule and ingested. It can be taken orally, snorted, or even boofed (taken rectally). Ecstasy is MDMA in a pill form, and is less common around these parts (referring to Makhanda). MDMA (often just called MD) is a very popular way to boost enjoyment of an event. However, there are quite a number of risks and factors to consider.

Addiction and risk potential: There is little conclusive research about MDMA addiction. However, it can definitely be abused.
One big risk with MDMA is impurity.

One study in the USA in 2014 analysed 250 samples of drugs being sold as MDMA, and found that 40% of the samples contained no MDMA at all!

That number has since dropped significantly down to 4%. Still, harm reduction communities tend to really stress the importance of testing your drugs (using test kits which can be purchased online), because mdma is often cut with other substances. I know of someone here in Makhanda who had a terrible experience on some “mdma” they bought in town, and then tested positive for meth the following day.
While on MDMA, there are two tricky factors which must be monitored. One is hydration. It is important to stay hydrated on MDMA, but users can feel very thirsty (especially if they have been active and dancing) and end up overhydrating. The guideline is about a cup of water per hour. The second factor is body temperature – MDMA can increase body temperature (again, especially if you have been dancing), so the user must stay cool in order to avoid heatstroke.
Finally, MDMA is another one with a difficult comedown. If one uses too much MDMA in a short span, it can cause feelings of depression, brain zaps, and serotonin syndrome. MDMA works by dipping into your serotonin reserves, so people whose brains aren’t too good at making serotonin can feel awful in the days following even regular-dose use. Using MDMA too frequently over a longer period can cause an effect known as “losing the magic“, where a person is no longer able to feel the effects of the drug.

Cocaine and Cat/Kat

Now, these are two entirely different substances, and it is only because of the Makhanda/ Grahamstown context that I have chosen to group them together. Essentially, cocaine is a very expensive drug, especially considering how much people tend to use of it. In addition, by my hear-say, it seems like there is a general lack of good-quality and pure coke in town. On the other hand, cat/kat is known as “poor man’s coke”; it is much cheaper, used similarly to cocaine, and is actually very popular in South Africa.

Cocaine is made from coca leaves; Cat is a chemical called methcathadone. Both drugs are taken in powder form, generally by snorting.

Addiction and risk potential: This may come as a shock to you, but cocaine is actually less addictive than nicotine. However, its effects are considered more attractive than those of nicotine or alcohol; so once users come down from the pleasant high, they may go back for more. People do get addicted to coke; cocaine is addictive.
Cat is similarly addictive, but it is also much cheaper, making it more accessible to more people.

More information on cocaine, and the dangers of use and dependence.

Cocaine and kat use also carries serious risks for users who mix drugs (i.e. use more than one drug at a time). This is especially true for mixing these “uppers” with “downers” (depressants, which I will cover in part 2). For example, long term use of cocaine with alcohol can lead to a buildup of cocaethylene in the liver, which can put stress on major organs. When users mix uppers with downers – e.g. kat with xanax, or coke with benzos – the effects of the one can mask the danger signs of the other, making overdose more likely.
You might wonder why people would bother to take stimulants alongside depressants, because it seems counterproductive. But imagine a night out for a drug user we’ll call Mike: It begins with predrinks – Mike drinks a fair bit of alcohol (a depressant). Then Mike and his mates venture out and decide to buy a gram of kat, which they finish over the next few hours. Time for posties! Mike and co. leave the club and head to Mike’s home, where he has a couple of xanax that he uses to bring himself down after a big night, so that he can relax and sleep. Under the wrong conditions – too much of one or both, not enough time in-between, excessive use over a period of time – this kind of combined use can be very dangerous.

Proceed with caution

So, in Part 1 of this mini-drug guide, I’ve given some introductory information on weed and various stimulants. It is very important that if you think you may wish to try one of these substances yourself, make sure you do your own extensive research. If you have questions, I would recommend finding a Harm Reduction group like Sesh Safety, where you can request information from a community of experienced seshers. Don’t do drugs if you aren’t informed about them, and if you aren’t in a safe and trusted environment. Stay safe!!!

In Part 2 we’ll be delving into downers and psychedelics 🙂

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