Many people from every location, walk of life, or culture imaginable struggle with substance abuse and addiction, but these contextual factors can affect the types of drugs abused. For that reason, it can be helpful for people concerned about addiction to look at the patterns, fashions, and pervading habits practiced among many people in a single community. A study recently published on the detox and rehab website withdrawl.net has made use of a tool called Google Trends to track Internet searches for drug references, and used that information to track the popularity of certain drugs in particular U.S. states and cities over time.
The Google Trends tool uses real-time search data to gauge search behavior over time. It collects all of the searches through Google made for a particular word or phrase, and quantifies the data into graphs, so you can see how many times something was searched for over time. Google Trends takes the number of times a word has been searched for, and gives each term a relative score for “interest over time,” rather then telling the exact number of times a search has taken place. Although not a scientifically foolproof method of data collection, it can provide a useful snapshot into what is popular or on people’s minds. A large number of Internet searches can indicate that people have a lot of interest or questions about the thing for which they are searching.
Addiction and drug use in particular are issues with tremendous social stigma, and many people may not be comfortable admitting or discussing their illicit drug use or interest in person, but will search for it anonymously online. This allows for a more whole picture of what drugs are piquing people’s curiosity, and where. The researchers for Withdraw.net looked at the Trends results for each state to record which word or phrase was the most searched for, for each month between January 2004 and April 2015. To narrow things down to a particular city, they looked at the Regional Interest section, showing the city from which most of the searches came.
By far, cocaine is the most searched for drug, and has been consistently popular in wide swaths of the country since 2001, most notably in New York, the center of a large distribution network. Adderall, an ADHD drug that is frequently misused, is the only drug that came close to cocaine’s levels in 2011-2012. The anti-anxiety medication Xanax has risen throughout the Midwest and South. Methamphetamine and LSD are both most popular in Los Angeles, Adderall in New Orleans, and MDMA in south Florida. Methamphetamine, or “crystal meth” has fluctuated in popularity between 2004 and the present. It was most often searched for from 2005-2007, and then tapered off, only to reemerge in 2013.
Often, rises in the searches for a drug do appear to be correlated with a rise in a drug’s activity. The states of Washington and Virginia have both large per capita searches for OxyContin, at the same time they are grappling with a surge in prescription opiate addiction. Since 2012, Colorado has experienced a dramatic uptick in searches for marijuana, likely caused by the state legalizing the recreational use of cannabis. Recently, as regulators and doctors have been cracking down and doing more to prevent the abuse of prescription painkillers, heroin has risen in popularity as a similar substitute, most notably in Pennsylvania and Oregon.
This research has some exciting potential for people seeking to fight against drug use, because it provides some indication on what the biggest drug problem in a particular state or community might be. This will allow policy makers, community workers, and health care providers to target their outreach to those substances that may pose the biggest problems. By knowing what substances people are curious about, we can educate people about the dangers, and prevent more addictions. Working together, we can use this data to help more people get the help they need to avoid or beat addictions.