Speedballing, Opioid Drug Overdoses, and the Condition of Addiction in America

Word narcotics in powder smudged by hand.

No one necessarily wants to hear about the greatest struggles that our nation faces and how bad these problems are getting, but sometimes we have to confront these issues and really confront them. We have to examine these problems, learn about them, and take action in addressing them if we want them to reduce. One such problem is the problem of drug and alcohol addiction, a crippling issue that has many facets and aspects to it.

Speedballing—A Renewed and Lethal Drug Use Trend

Speedballing is an older trend of drug use that is making its way back to the forefront of how Americans use drugs. A “speedball” is a hybrid combination of heroin and cocaine. One can probably imagine why such a combination is not something that people want to mess around with. Cocaine is an upper drug, a stimulant, and heroin is a downer, a depressant. So when people take these drugs in tandem, they create a “push-pull” effect on the body and brain.

Speedball mix

Addicts take cocaine in tandem with heroin in the hopes that the hybrid drug will give them the best of both worlds without any of the negative effects of the two drugs. However, when the two drugs are combined, those who are taking them end up with very negative consequences. Users are assailed with negative effects of the cocaine stimulants, i.e. anxiety, high blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, etc. And at the same time, they are hit with the negative effects of the heroin depressants, i.e. drowsiness, suppression of breathing, etc. Other side-effects of speedballing include:

  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Stupor
  • Drowsiness
  • Incoherence
  • Paranoia
  • Mental impairment
  • Inability to sleep
  • Risk for death from respiratory failure, heart attack, stroke, or an aneurysm.

Speedballing was a popular drug use trend in the 1970s and 1980s, but thanks to over a decade and a half of effort on the part of the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement bodies, the prevalence of speedballing reduced through the 1990s and 2000s. Now, however, as interest in heroin and cocaine are both starting to grow again, people are starting to experiment with heroin and cocaine in tandem once again. It has caused a plethora of negative phenomena, not the least of which has been an increase in overdose deaths.

A Note on Drug Addiction as a Lethal Problem

An eye-opening research project conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shed light on exactly how many Americans died from which drugs and in which years. According to their research for 2014 drug deaths, (the most recent year for which the CDC has completed research data), heroin killed more Americans than any other, single drug. However, when all of the different types of opioid pain reliever drugs are combined together, this classification of drug absolutely takes the first place mark in total deaths caused. But here is the breakdown for the 47,055 drug deaths that took place in 2014:

  • Heroin, 10,863 deaths.
  • Cocaine, 5,856 deaths.
  • Oxycodone, 5,417 deaths.
  • Alprazolam, 4,217 deaths.
  • Fentanyl, 4,200 deaths.
  • Morphine, 4,022 deaths.
  • Methamphetamine, 3,728 deaths.
  • Methadone, 3,495 deaths.
  • Hydrocodone, 3,274 deaths.
  • Diazepam, 1,729 deaths.

From this information, we can see that pharmaceutical drugs, and especially pharmaceutical opioids, seem to take center stage over other drugs for overdose deaths caused.

According to the CDC in commentary on their study:

“The method was applied to provide a more in-depth understanding of the national picture of the drugs involved in drug overdose deaths. For example, the majority of the drug overdose deaths [in 2014] involving methamphetamine did not involve other drugs. In contrast, among deaths involving alprazolam and diazepam, more than 95 percent involved other drugs.”

Speedballing is just one kind of method for drug misuse. Is it dangerous? Absolutely. When addicts speedball, they increase their risk of overdosing and dying exponentially. But this is not the only issue that we are dealing with here. We are dealing with an entire plethora of drug abuse issues, issues that are expanding and growing faster than we can contain and address them.

The keynote to remember is that Americans are dying by the tens of thousands from drug overdoses every year, speedballing or no speedballing. How do we remedy this?

Strategies for Reducing Drug Overdose Deaths

Patient refusing take drugs from the doctor.

There are several ways to reduce the prevalence of drug overdose deaths and the kinds of hardship that go along with such problems. The truth is though, none of the strategies for reducing drug overdoses are effective on their own. All of these approaches need to be applied in tandem.

Some ways that we can reduce drug overdose deaths would be to:

  • Raise Awareness and Educate. For most people, if they knew just how dangerous drugs were, they would not experiment with drugs. They would not risk it. But unfortunately, there exists a lot of misinformation and an overall lack of information on drugs, especially amongst young people. A first step in reducing drug overdose deaths is to get people aware of the risks that they face when they experiment with drugs and alcohol. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that young people who receive information on drugs and alcohol from their parents are four-hundred percent less likely to misuse drugs than young people who do not get this information. Yet SAMHSA also reports that only one out of three sets of parents have these talks with their kids. That has to change.
  • Rehabilitate Those Who are Addicted. Our drug problem is never going to go away simply by educating people about it and by raising awareness of it. That is only half the battle. There is much more to it than that. For example, there are the twenty-four million Americans who are addicted to drugs and who are getting others to misuse drugs too. We need to help get these individuals off drugs before they spread their drug use habits to their friends and family members, and before they overdose and die too.
  • Reduce the Prevalence of Opioids. Harkening back to what was touched on in the last section, opioids account for the vast majority of drug overdoses in the United States. Between heroin, opioid prescription pain relievers, and synthetic opioids, more Americans die from these drugs than all other drugs combined. We need to reduce the prevalence of opioids in our culture, as these drugs alone were the tipping point that brought on the epidemic of addiction that our nation is now stricken with.

These are just a few of the strategies that we can employ for gradually shifting our condition in America away from one that experiences such rampant death from drug overdoses. This is a worthwhile effort, one we should all be willing to take part in.

Speedballing is just one approach to drug use that is getting more popular. In actual fact, there are several methods of drug misuse that millions of Americans are starting to engage themselves in. This is very concerning. Our nation currently has twenty-four million drug addicts and alcoholics, but that number could double to fifty million or more if we are not careful. We have to reduce the drug problem before it gets any worse.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.