Cocaine Use Down—Because It’s Too Expensive

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Is the recession changing the way we get high? All sorts of quirky trends have been attributed as fallout from the global economic crisis—including, most recently, a decrease in the frequency with which parents change their kids’ diapers, and a rise in odds and ends like lottery ticket sales and dog kidnappings. Now, experts are saying that people are turning away from pricey cocaine during these tough times, and are instead choosing cheaper narcotics to get their fix.

Citing a report from the Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse at Nova Southeastern University in South Florida, the Miami Herald reports that there are several indications cocaine usage is down in the area once known for “Miami Vice” and a teeming cocaine culture. The number of cocaine overdoses treated in ERs, cocaine-related deaths, and people seeking treatment for crack and cocaine addictions have all dropped sharply in recent years.

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In 2007, for example, there were 281 cocaine-related deaths in Miami. At the time, the figure was fairly typical. In both 2009 and 2010, however, there under 200 cocaine-related deaths (155 and 198, respectively).

Floridians haven’t simply become more inclined to go cold turkey and just say no, however. Experts say a prime reason that cocaine usage is down is because consumers (i.e., illicit drug users) have been seeking more bang (i.e., buzz) for the buck in recent years.

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The war on drugs may not have made cocaine disappear, but it did make it more difficult, and more expensive for abusers to get their hands on coke—which has also increasingly been less likely to be a pure, uncut product. As the Herald story notes, “drug users paid more and got less” when purchasing cocaine.

As the recession took hold and Florida’s unemployment rate shot to upwards of 12%, fewer people had the disposable income to afford “Scarface” type piles of cocaine. And, like the tippler who, when money is tight, chooses cheap beer rather than top-shelf liquor, many former cocaine users stopped snorting and subbed cheap prescription narcotics instead. Per the Herald:

While cocaine may have fallen from fashion and favor, more Floridians turned to prescription drugs. Of the 9,000 drug-related deaths statewide last year, 6,090 showed the person used benzodiazepines and Oxycodone. Prescription drug deaths increased 50 percent in Miami-Dade last year.

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A report released in August showed that the number of prescription drug-related deaths also rose 9% throughout all of Florida from 2009 to 2010. One reason for the shift from cocaine to prescription drugs is that the latter are cheaper. Relatively speaking, they’re also much easier and safer to get one’s hands on. As Clinton administration drug czar Barry McCaffrey told the Herald:

“There gets to be a point where users say, ‘I can get my drugs from a criminal doctor who prescribes me a pill, or I can get it from a criminal with a Swedish machine gun on his back.'”

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.