CLOSE-UP: Cocaine

By Cate Baily

Big White Lies At first, cocaine made Miguel feel powerful. But the drug’s promises turned out to be lies.

If you’d met Miguel Flores when he was in junior high school, you’d have met a young man who listened to his mother and did well in school. If you’d met him in high school, you’d have met a different person—a teenager who cut classes and got left back, a son who screamed obscenities at his mom. Drugs changed him.

When we talked to Miguel, he was a resident at a drug treatment program in New York City’s East Village. Now 19, he told Scholastic how he got there.

When Miguel started high school in Brooklyn, New York, he fell in with a new crowd—the wrong crowd. To make a long story short, he started smoking marijuana, drinking, and failing classes. Finally, he got arrested and spent a night in a crowded cell on Rikers Island, a New York City jail.

Not Ready to Stop

Given a choice by a judge between jail and getting help, Miguel opted for an outpatient drug treatment program. But he clearly wasn’t ready to commit to the challenge of staying off drugs. In fact, it was during the time he was legally bound to this program that he began using cocaine.

Cocaine is a stimulant and a powerfully addictive drug. Derived from the leaves of the coca plant, it has many names on the street, including coke, C, snow, flake, and blow. Coke comes in the form of white powder and is generally inhaled or snorted.

Miguel joined only a small percentage of his peers when he snorted the potentially deadly powder. According to a 2002 NIDA-funded study, only 3.6 percent of 8th-graders, 6.1 percent of 10th-graders, and 7.8 percent of 12th-graders have ever tried cocaine.

“I wanted to see how it felt,” he said. “It was a different kind of high. Cocaine makes you feel like you have a lot of power. It makes you feel invincible.”

“Feelings of being powerful and invincible are not only typical, but were some of the earliest reported effects of cocaine,” says Dr. Steven Grant of the National Institute on Drug Abuse [NIDA]. But such feelings are short-lived.

For Miguel, they only lasted about 20 minutes. The high faded away, and he began to feel like he was “nobody.” He vowed not to take cocaine again. He’d heard that cocaine could make him have a stroke. He’d also read articles about people dying of cocaine overdoses.

Mom’s Tears

In other words, Miguel knew that cocaine was dangerous. But less than two months after he first snorted coke, his resolve weakened, and he snorted the white powder again—and then again and again.

The stimulant took its toll. Miguel’s heart pumped hard. He was nervous and paranoid. He even became violent.

“The more you use cocaine, the less high you will get, but it becomes more likely that you will experience these unpleasant effects,” says Dr. Grant.

What Miguel experienced, he explains, is because of changes in the brain that happen in response to repeated exposure to cocaine.

But more painful to Miguel than any side effect is the memory of seeing his mom cry when she discovered the truth about his cocaine use. Real Strength

Drug users often must go through several treatment cycles before they are successful. When Miguel’s mandatory urine tests repeatedly came up positive, he was again given a choice—this time between jail and a residential treatment program. He chose a residential treatment program. Although it’s been difficult, he has stuck to his commitment. When we spoke, he’d been clean for 10 months.

If you meet Miguel today, you see a young man who feels “strong,” but not because there’s cocaine in his body. He feels strong because he’s resisted drugs. You also see that the respect for his mother has returned. In fact, he credits her with his recovery. “I did it for my mom,” he says. Someday, perhaps he’ll realize that he really did it for himself.