A new drug problem seems to hit the street every day. Only later does it hit the media. Sometime between the street and the headlines, it reaches the radar screens of drug experts, law enforcement officials and policy makers who must do something about it.
The Ohio Substance Abuse Monitoring Network (OSAM), led by researchers at Wright State University School of Medicine, is working to shrink the response time between the street and the radar screens.
A case in point is the "club" drug known as Ecstasy (MDMA). Last year U.S. Customs agents seized more than 9.3 million tablets of Ecstasy, a twelve-fold increase over 1998. Drug overdose cases involving Ecstasy escalated dramatically across the nation and across Ohio.
In April 2000, this warning about Ecstasy went out through the OSAM network: "It appears users are naïve to the implications of its acute and chronic use. Intervention and prevention measures aimed at young adults are recommended. Treatment agencies need to be made aware of a potential increase in admissions for ecstasy abuse and may need to develop new treatment approaches."
The OSAM network warned of similar trends last year involving methamphetamine ("meth" or "crank") and the prescription painkiller OxyContin, according to Harvey Siegal, Ph.D., director of Wright State's Center for Interventions, Treatment, and Addictions Research (CITAR).
Governor Bob Taft targeted methamphetamine in his annual State of the State address in January, calling for new laws to fight the spread of hazardous makeshift labs that manufacture the drug. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency considers it to be the fastest-growing drug problem in America.
Dubbed "poor man's heroin," OxyContin is a morphine- like prescription drug. Its abuse has reached near-epidemic levels in rural area from Maine to Virginia, and local law-enforcement officers believe it was involved in two recent deaths in the Miami Valley.
"Most drug fads begin on the east or west coast, and there is a lag time before they turn up in Ohio," Siegal says. "With Ecstasy, meth and OxyContin, the problems clearly are here now."
Researchers at CITAR and the University of Akron developed the OSAM network in 1999 in collaboration with the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services (ODADAS), which funds the project. The network combines a core group of scientists in Dayton and Akron with a dozen "key informants" scattered throughout the state.
Key informants cultivate a wide range of sources in their regions, including active drug users and "front-line" professionals in drug treatment and law enforcement. The scientists analyze drug data from the key informants and other sources. They report the findings to ODADAS and its constituent agencies in "OSAM-o-grams"- concise, one-page alerts sent by fax and email.
According to Siegal, the network can be activated in two directions. Sometimes key informants are the first to spot a new drug trend. Other times, their surveillance activities are guided by the questions of scientists and policy-makers.
"The OSAM network can respond rapidly to specific problems, thereby allowing ODADAS to collect statewide data immediately that may impact its policy," Siegal says. "That may be OSAM's greatest advantage."
In a recent issue of the American Journal of Public Health, Siegal and colleagues reported that the OSAM network provides an ongoing and accurate source of information to mount effective public health responses to substance abuse.
"Given the increasing need for monitoring substance abuse and related health problems," the authors concluded, "the OSAM model may be valuable in other settings."
As for Ecstasy, Siegal says, "There was an explosion in its use last year, but the fact of the matter is that we really don't know yet how to prevent it."
Siegal offers this advice to parents who are concerned about the spate of new drug fads: "Parents need to be as aware as they can be about these drugs. And they shouldn't be afraid to talk with their kids and share their concerns."
A CITAR scientist, Robert Carlson, Ph.D., has submitted a proposal to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the natural history of drug abuse involving Ecstasy and other "club" drugs.
"We are monitoring the trends closely," Siegal adds. "We've made it a major research priority at Wright Sate. We consider it to be that serious."