Editor’s Note: Six years ago, New America Media’s Youth Outlook! published a story called “Geography of the Dope Game,” a breakdown of drug usage in the Bay Area that asked: What drugs are trending on Bay Area streets? Who are the people most likely to use them, and why? How does availability and pattern of use differ from community to community? Because so much has changed since that article appeared, New America Media’s Richmond Pulse, a youth-led media project, decided to produce an updated version. Richmond Pulse staff reporter Sean Shavers lives in West Oakland. He spoke to young people from various Bay Area neighborhoods, as well as law enforcement officials and youth workers, to gain an understanding of today’s drug trends and how they impact health at a community level.
OAKLAND, Calif.--Across the San Francisco Bay Area, young people are using all kinds of drugs – well known, obscure, illegal and prescription. The wide variety of drugs now available on the street offer users different highs at different prices.
Although the names and effects of the drugs may vary, what’s consistent is that youth are a major segment of the population abusing them, often mixing multiple substances at the same time. And in Oakland, Richmond and other East Bay communities, it’s the prescription drugs that appear to be gaining popularity among youth.
Purple, Dro and Grand Daddy
On the streets of West Oakland an assortment of drugs can be found, but the most common is still weed. “Purple,” “Dro” and “Grand Daddy” are among the common slang terms for marijuana around town. Marijuana is probably the most common drug used throughout the City of Oakland. It’s on every corner, and being caught with it by police usually results in a minor citation, at most.
“Grimmies” or “Chewies” are forms of weed rolled in a “blunt” (cigar paper), sprinkled with cocaine and smoked. West Oakland locals also have what they call a “Belushi” -- named for Blues Brother John Belushi, who overdosed on the same mix of cocaine and brown heroin -- now a favorite of some drug-using youngsters.
“Bo” is made from prescription cough syrup that contains promethazine and codeine. It’s usually mixed with a bottle of Sprite or with some other fruity drink. Some people mix weed and Bo by pouring the mixture on the weed and then smoking it. Others pour Bo on their cigarettes.
Out of all these drugs, Bo is the most popular. It’s also the most expensive, because it’s the hardest to get a hold of. Although it can only be obtained with a prescription, that hasn't stopped folks from using or selling it. The drug is sold by the ounce in four-ounce increments at $40.
Ecstasy is another substance that’s widely used throughout the Bay Area. But it’s the ways folks use it that separates the common thug from the suburban kid. In the ghetto, people usually pop these pills or smoke it with weed, whereas in the suburban areas, folks just snort it.
“E-pills,” also referred to as “thizzles,” “pills” and “smackers,” are common among young drug users, and unlike pure ecstasy they can be a mixture of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and several other drugs.
The Oakland drug scene is pretty much the same across the city, except for one particular drug: black-tar heroin. This substance is popular on the streets, from the youngsters to the O.Gs. (or “original gangsters”). They call this form of heroin “Chiva” or “Black Boy.”
San Francisco High on Cocaine, E-Pills
Across the bridge in San Francisco, James, 20, from the Tenderloin, said the most common drugs used by the youth in his neighborhood are powder cocaine and e-pills. They may sniff the cocaine, as well as crunch the pill into a powdered form and sniff it. He says sniffing the pill boosts the high, giving it an instant effect rather than waiting 10 to 30 minutes for it to kick in.
Pharmaceuticals like Vicodin and Volume are also used regularly in the Tenderloin, according to that neighborhood’s police captain, Joe Garrity.
"In the Tenderloin area, we see more use of prescription drugs on the street: Oxycontin, hydrocodone, codeine, stuff like that,” Garrity said. “The young people are going toward the pill type drugs. Some still use the traditional drugs, but we're seeing more use of prescription pills.”
Salvia, a psychoactive plant and a hallucinogen – one that is toxic -- is another drug that James says is on the rise in his neighborhood. Salvia is commonly smoked, but it can be eaten as well. Unlike the other drugs, Salvia is not illegal. James said that once he used the drug, and it felt as if his body was being sucked into a tube for 15 minutes. ''It has a mind of its own and seriously trips you out,” he recalled. “It costs about 15 bucks and can be found at any smoke shop.”
Donny, 24, resides in San Francisco’s Mission District, where he spends most of his time rubbing tattooed elbows with the young and hip party crowd that has moved into the neighborhood. He said the people he knows there use a number of drugs, depending on the occasion. One is Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic compound found naturally in trace amounts in plants, people and most mammals.
“DMT is usually smoked and can resemble small yellow crystals in one form or be snorted in a powder in another. It’s not to be used recreationally because the trip can be indescribably intense,” Donny said.
Ketamine or “K” is a pharmaceutical drug used in human and veterinary medicine, often given as a tranquilizer. It’s used in the party scene along with “Molly” (MDMA), a party drug that’s the pure form of ecstasy.
Donny, however, added that Molly is “constantly being cut and mixed with other drugs, so the pure form is no longer there.”
Adderall (an amphetamine), pharmaceutical, is used to treat people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. “A lot of stressed college kids use it,” said Donny. “They say it helps them focus. But like most prescription drugs, some kids just like the high.”
Heroin Increase Surprises Richmond Police
Back across the Bay in Richmond, Police Captain Mark Gagan said that over the last five years the police department has seen an increase in the number of younger people experimenting with heroin.
"Surprisingly,” Gagan said, “we see an increase of young people trying heroin, which is a disturbing trend because heroin is one of the most addictive narcotics. We see black tar heroin, which is a long high and a cheap high. Drugs like methamphetamine and crack are also popular,” he said.
Khaled Elahi, who works with incarcerated youth at the Contra Costa Juvenile Hall, said the youngsters he speaks to mostly use weed, e-pills, powder cocaine and Bo, which he said is the most common drug used by the population he works with. Elahi likened Bo to liquid heroin and said, “These kids are drinking it like it’s water. They either sip it in a Sprite bottle, with fruit punch or straight out of the pharmacy bottle.”
Khalid believes some of the violent crimes perpetrated in Richmond can be directly attributed to young people getting high on a number of drugs at once. “Sometimes these cats go all out and use two or three drugs at one time, in order to get a different range of effects,” he said. “So they may start off smoking weed, then they pour Bo on the blunt, then sniff some cocaine or just put the cocaine in the blunt.”
Captain Gagan said the trade in street drugs also fuels community violence.
"The nature of street level narcotic sales is such that the dealers have to defend their territory with force and violence. And then whenever you have an illegal exchange of narcotics for money, you have the likelihood of either robberies or rip offs,” he said.
Economics aside, Gagan said the drugs themselves, especially certain combinations, will result in violence when taken by people who are already stressed out or on the edge.
Gagan continued, "I think people who gravitate toward drugs and eventually abuse drugs are more prone to not be in control of their emotions or have other conflict resolution tools, making them more likely to be involved in assault or other endeavors like that. So yes, there is a definite correlation,” he said.
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