Wednesday, April 05, 2006

New Drug vs. Old Drug?

Sometimes my fascination with my research areas gets the best of me. Case in point: my initial reaction on reading a CSM article posted to Yahoo!, titled "A new scourge sweeps through Argentine ghettos: 'paco'," is intense curiosity:

A recent study by the Argentine Secretariat for Prevention of Drug Addiction and Control of Narcotrafficking, known by its Spanish initials SEDRONAR, showed paco has outpaced all other drugs in rates of adolescent users in the last two years. Based on the results of the study, officials say 70,000 Argentines between 16 and 26 years old in the greater Buenos Aires area have tried paco.

I immediately start running through an internal checklist of psychoactive plants and drugs used in South America, trying to figure out which might have become a street drug. I'm completely coming up blank, because none of the ones I can think should be addictive enough--or even particularly appealing enough--to become a street drug.

At this point, I'm fascinated. That means there's something there I don't know about. I burn my way through the article, trying to find out what it is, thirsty to discover this new drug out there. And there's a part of me that's a bit let down to discover... it's just a cocaine byproduct:

The paco sold here is a chemical byproduct, a leftover when Andean coca leaves are turned into a paste, then formulated into cocaine bound for US and European markets. Paco was once discarded as laboratory trash, says Dr. Ricardo Nadra, an Argentine government psychiatrist who works with paco addicts. But Argentina's devastating financial collapse in 2001 left the poorest even poorer, creating an impoverished demand for "cocaine's garbage," he says...

...Because it's smoked rather than sniffed, and because of the physiological impact the confluence of chemical toxins have, experts like Dr. Roberto Baistrocchi, an Argentine pharmacologist who has studied the drug, say paco is exceedingly addictive and can cause lasting physical damage. "More than any other drug, paco is the most dangerous." says Nadra.

Last April, La Nacion, a leading newspaper here, quoted Claudio Mate, a ranking health official from Buenos Aires' provincial government, as saying that intense paco consumption can cause "cerebral death" in as little as six months.

It's part of being a scientist, I guess. An interest in topics that others would find boring or even repulsive; and sometimes it even ranges into a fascination best described as "morbid."

But I've gotta say, paco sounds like nasty stuff. But if there's anything that we should have learned by now, it's that intense poverty generally goes hand in hand with drug abuse. And as the meth explosion in America over the last decade has shown us, people desperate for a fix will turn to whatever's made available:

Like crack in 1980s America, paco has become a metaphor for societal problems.

Parroting a common refrain from experts interviewed for this story, Nadra says paco is fundamentally a social and economic issue. He says the roots of the growing scourge of paco are "social and spiritual dislocation" caused by an increase in poverty.


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