At NIDA’s last Chat Day, we got this question from a high school student:
”Why do people scratch a lot when they are high on heroin?"
A NIDA scientist responded that he had done years of research on this topic. He explained: “Heroin activates connections in the brain called opioid receptors. These receptors then activate fibers that transmit itch information (aka ‘pruritus’) to the brain. Thus, heroin users feel itchy. Good question.”
But before heroin can activate opioid receptors, it has to enter the blood stream and reach the brain. So how does this happen?
People usually inject heroin into their blood stream with a syringe. Soon afterwards, the heroin crosses the “blood-brain barrier”—a protective membrane that separates circulating blood from brain fluid in the central nervous system. Once in the brain, heroin is converted to a chemical called morphine and binds rapidly to the opioid receptors already mentioned. These receptors recognize chemicals affecting pain, like morphine.
Heroin users typically report feeling a surge of pleasure, or a “rush,” which makes sense because heroin enters the brain so rapidly. This quality also makes it extremely addictive. Along with the rush usually comes a warm flushing of the skin, dry mouth, and a heavy feeling in the arms and legs, which may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and, of course, severe itching. Also, since heroin is a depressant, it clouds your thinking and can slow—or even stop—breathing.
Because heroin is mostly sold on the street, users can’t be sure of the purity (or strength) of the drug they’re taking. Also, because it’s so addictive, they may crave bigger and bigger amounts of the drug to get the same rush they got the first time—which often leads to overdose and death.
One of the things I love most about music is its ability to transform tragedy into hope, as anyone who has listened obsessively to a "breakup song" knows. But, as artists like Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Bob Marley, Joan Baez, and countless others have shown, songs can do more than comfort. They can change who we are as a culture and inspire us to work together to make the world a better place.
So, when I first met with a group of advanced music production students at the Media Arts Collaborative Charter School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I knew I wanted to do more than just help the teens make an album of original music. I also wanted to help them make a difference in their community—to tap into the transformative power of music to heal, to comfort, and to open a window of hope.
A Life Lost to Addiction
The high school class of eight fledgling producers, songwriters, rappers, and musicians were all highly enthusiastic about the project. When considering issues to address, they reflected on the senseless 2010 death of a schoolmate, 16-year-old Haley Paternoster, of a heroin overdose. It turned out almost all of us had seen someone—a friend, a family member—destroyed by addiction, whether from heroin, prescription drugs like OxyContin, or alcohol. Haley’s death offered us a tragic common bond.
The class decided to make an album of original hip-hop music focused on addiction, dedicated to Haley's memory. Her father, Steve Paternoster, a local restaurateur, talk show host, and philanthropist, talked to our class several times. His words were raw, real, and deeply moving. Other students, also touched by addiction, began sharing personal stories, allowing us to begin working through our losses and permitting us to dive in, fully aware and sensitive to how addiction can wreck lives.
Haley, We Miss You
It took just 2 weeks to complete the title track, "Haley, We Miss You." We pushed forward. It was very important to the students that we keep the message real, unlike many other antidrug education programs they had experienced in the school system. We wanted an album to be thoughtful and hard hitting while keeping in mind the many complexities surrounding the issue.
The students composed songs about the power of music, the apparent contradictions of the "war on drugs," and the hardships of growing up in the rougher parts of our hometown. They wrote about the dangers of prescription painkillers and how advertisers try to manipulate youth to buy their products. We looked at addiction as part of the larger context of the mental and emotional health of our community.
Jennifer Weiss of the Albuquerque Heroin Awareness Committee, whose son Cameron had overdosed after a long struggle with heroin addiction, approached us. Cameron was a poet and rapper who, before he died, had composed and partially recorded a song about his struggle, "A One Way Track To Hell." It was a haunting and powerful work that unknowingly foreshadowed Cameron’s death; we accepted the challenge of completing the backing music and remixing the song to include in the album.
A CD for Every 8th Grader in Albuquerque
The album was just the first step. Our ultimate goal: to produce a CD for every 8th grader in Albuquerque. Prevention experts suggest that 8th graders are at the highest risk for experimenting with opioid painkillers, usually in the form of OxyContin, which was the case for Haley before switching to heroin. We felt the best approach was to try to reach out to kids at risk of using before they start.
Our label, "SoundOven," was created both as a musical identity and as the name for the organization we wanted to launch using music and film as media for positive social change. We knew we needed a budget for CD duplication, printing costs, and a music video. So, we started a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo asking for help. The fundraising appeal has concluded, but you can still check out our pitch video.
We received an overwhelming response: in 90 days, we had raised more than $10,000. Haley’s dad Steve was personally very generous, but we also got a big helping hand when the Albuquerque Journal did a front-page story on our campaign, subsequently picked up in local TV newscasts. In the end, more than 100 people from 5 countries contributed to our cause.
The Mission Continues
I could not be prouder of my students, Floyd Moya, Robert Serrano, Falon Cole, Ruben Valenzuela, Caelan Harris, Issac Leeman, Alex Wilson, Quinlan Spears, and Alex Torres. Their creativity, passion, and dedication makes me excited to get up every morning to do this work.
But the work is not yet done. We now have 2,000 copies of the finished CD to place into the hands of youth at risk for opioid addiction—which could really be anyone. We are coordinating with the heroin awareness committee and Albuquerque Public Schools substance abuse counselors, the culmination of our yearlong effort.
Blake Minnerly is a musician, filmmaker, and educator whose passion is helping young people make meaningful, professional media projects that advocate for positive social change in their communities. Besides his work at the Media Arts Collaborative Charter School, he plays in several bands and does freelance soundtrack composition, sound design, and editing. He is currently in the process of incorporating SoundOven as an independent nonprofit to continue and expand the project started in his advanced music production class.
- The Albuquerque film office for securing locations and permits from the city at no cost
- The Film Tech program at the Community College of New Mexico for raising our production values exponentially with their outstanding equipment and talented students
- The Mount Olive Baptist Church for generously lending their facility and the talented voices of their choir
In 2011, at age 14, Grant Davis was recognized by NIDA and the GRAMMY Foundation for his song, “Just a Child,” a tribute to his older sister Kelly, who struggled with addiction.
Recently, Grant shared his story during a TEDx event at the University of Nevada. TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) and TEDx are a series of conferences designed to share “ideas worth spreading.”
Grant, now 16, says that as he prepared his TED talk, he remembered how he felt seeing his sister passed out on the floor. “I couldn’t get that image out of my head,” he says. “Heroin, Kelly’s drug of choice, is incredibly difficult to overcome. Every second of every day, I know she wishes she could go back and live her life differently.”
But Grant’s latest song, “What About Me?” focuses on another aspect of drug addiction—how it also affects the person’s loved ones and overshadows everything else.
Grant says, “At 10 years old, I experienced many scary thoughts about my sister’s addiction. My parents were wrapped up with helping her, and I kept thinking, ‘What about me?’ The pain was overwhelming.”
Singing gave Grant a way to release the pain he was feeling. “I began singing, first in the shower, then in my room. Through singing, I found the pain was nearly gone, and I could think clearly,” Grant explains.
A conversation with his mother gave Grant a new idea. He says, “I thought, I can’t be the only kid suffering. So I decided to start an afterschool club for anyone having troubles at home.”
Creativity for Positivity
Grant calls this club WAM, for “What About Me?” and sees it providing a creative outlet for kids who might otherwise give in to negative influences and peer pressure. WAM has three main goals, to help kids:
- Build friendships.
- Find their creative place in the world.
- Share their talent.
“The process of sharing and discovering your talent can have a genuine impact on self-esteem so that kids do not fall prey to drugs,” Grant says. Noting his sister’s continuing struggles, he observes, “It’s easier than having to fix a drug problem afterwards.”
Grant envisions WAM as a way for kids to find and share their voices in whatever form of creative expression they choose. “I do believe that anyone who wants to can fly.”
Tell us in comments: Do any creative pursuits help when you get down or go through hard times?
This past Drug Facts Chat Day, teens from across the country submitted questions about drug abuse to NIDA scientists.
A teen from Kingswood Regional Middle School in New Hampshire asked, “Can you tell me what speedballs are and why they are so dangerous?”
People use cocaine and heroin at the same time to get an intense rush with a high that is supposed to combine the effects of both drugs, while hoping to reduce the negative effects. However, the combination of cocaine and heroin can have fatal consequences. Negative effects of stimulants include anxiety, high blood pressure, and strong or irregular heartbeat, while the negative effects of depressants include drowsiness and suppression of breathing.
Taking stimulants with depressants can cause negative side effects typically associated with the abuse of either one individually, such as a state of general confusion, incoherence, blurred vision, stupor, drowsiness, paranoia, and mental impairment because of lack of sleep. The combination can also result in uncontrolled and uncoordinated motor skills, and also the risk of death from stroke, heart attack, aneurysm, or respiratory failure.
Respiratory failure is particularly likely with speedballs because the effects of cocaine wear off far more quickly than the effects of heroin. Fatal slowing of the breathing can occur when the stimulating cocaine wears off and the full effects of the heroin are felt on their own.
What other questions about drugs do you have?
This past weekend, Hollywood was shocked by news of “Glee” star Cory Monteith’s unexpected death. He was only 31 years old.
Back in April, SBB talked about Cory returning to rehab to deal with drug abuse issues that plagued him off and on since his teen years. Unfortunately, autopsy results showed that Cory died of a heroin and alcohol overdose, highlighting in the most tragic way how drug addiction often follows a cycle of recovery and relapse.
From the accounts of people who knew and worked with Cory, he sounds like he was a really great person—a loyal friend and devoted actor. It goes to show that drug addiction doesn’t just happen to “bad” people like some may believe. All types of people—rich and poor, man and woman, old and young—are equally at risk to be hurt if they start using drugs.
The Danger of Relapse
Relapse happens when a person who was addicted to drugs stops taking them for a while and eventually starts up again. Often, people who are recently out of rehab overdose more easily if they relapse because being off the drug for a while lowers their tolerance. They may take the same dose they were accustomed to before rehab and their bodies can’t handle it.
Heroin is especially dangerous. Not only is heroin a strong drug, but every dose a person buys may be a different purity, or strength. So even if a person takes the same amount of heroin, it might be so strong that he or she overdoses.
The fact that Cory had both heroin and alcohol in his system when he died highlights another important fact: Mixing substances is never a good idea. Heroin and alcohol both slow down breathing and heart rate, making the mix particularly hazardous.
A person who is overdosing can be saved if they get medical care in time, since symptoms of overdose are clear—shallow breathing, weak pulse, and loss of consciousness, for example. But if a person is alone at the time, as Cory was, overdose can result in death.
Cory Monteith was a talented actor and singer with millions of young fans. Now is the time for teens to ask questions about drug addiction and overdose—so let us know in comments if you have any and we’ll be happy to answer them.