Americans Are Using Way More Party Drugs Than We Thought, According To Their Poop

The new data allowed researchers to calculate drug use on the Fourth of July and the 2017 total solar eclipse. serpeblu/Shutterstock

Aliyah Kovner 22 Aug 2018, 12:42

New research out of Kentucky has found, unsurprisingly, that many Americans like to observe holidays and special events by taking a bunch of drugs. How can we be sure? Sewage doesn’t lie.

In a presentation given this week at the 256th meeting of the American Chemical Society, lead investigator Bikram Subedi explained that past research on drug use patterns has come to similar conclusions. But these studies, conducted to help public health agencies understand the growing crisis of opioid misuse and dependency and the continued threat of illicit methamphetamines, have relied on estimates gleaned by compiling on drug-related crime statistics, overdose/toxicology reports, and public surveys (on which people are known to underreport use).

Moreover, the process is expensive and slow.

“The conventional approach to assess community drug usage in the US takes months or years,” Subedi said in a statement.

To get a speedier and more objective finger on the pulse of drug use patterns, Subedi and his team at Murray State University turned to a method, called “sewage epidemiology”, that extrapolates regional usage levels from the concentrations of  drug compounds (or their metabolic byproducts) present in the urine and fecal matter in sewage.

Their as-of-yet-unpublished study focused on usage in two Kentucky towns during two 2017 events: July 4 and the August 21 total solar eclipse. Samples of sewage were collected from each town’s treatment plants on the holidays themselves and the days immediately before and after.

“The results showed that consumption of drugs like methamphetamine, cocaine, and THC — the main active ingredient in marijuana — was significantly higher during festive events,” Subedi said. He noted, however, that despite being only 50 miles apart and having no difference in drug policy, the towns had significantly different usage profiles – something he hopes to examine further in future work.

According to his team’s waste-based calculations, the methamphetamine consumption rate in one of the towns is the highest ever reported in the US and is two to four times higher than the Department of Health and Human Services’ estimate for that area. This means that either a new meth hotspot has been identified or past quantification methods were severely lacking, or both.  

The samples also confirmed very high consumption of opioids such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, Percocet and morphine, Subedi continued, adding that the state of Kentucky is littered with a high number of illegal meth labs and that surveillance programs have found worryingly high opioid prescription rates.

Per the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about 21 to 29 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain end up misusing them, and between 8 and 12 percent go on to develop an abuse disorder. An estimated 115 people die every day from opioid overdoses.

Because it is harder to overdose on amphetamines, the burden of addiction to these substances are harder to put into simple statistics. However, the latest nationwide data shows that the number of meth users nearly doubled in recent years, from 314,000 in 2008 to 569,000 in 2014.

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