Cocaine and heroin are both potent illicit drugs that are in different classes. The first is a central nervous system stimulant that works by exciting your nervous system and causing a euphoric sense of empowerment. Heroin is an opioid that works by slowing down your nervous system and causing a euphoric sense of relaxation. They are almost opposites in terms of their desired effects, but some people mix them to create a potent drug cocktail called a speedball.
The drugs are often mixed to enhance the high or to help counteract some of the negative side effects of one or both of the drugs. Any illicit drug is dangerous on its own. With no regulations governing black market drug trades, there is no way to know the potency of a drug or what’s in it. However, mixing cocaine and heroin is inherently risky. In fact, there are several notable overdose deaths attributed to the use of speedballs, including John Belushi, River Phoenix, and Chris Farley.
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Since cocaine is a stimulant and heroin has depressant effects, users mix the two as a way to get the benefits of both highs. They also hope to reduce some adverse side effects. For instance, cocaine may keep you alert, counteract the drowsiness that can occur with heroin use. Conversely, cocaine may cause paranoia or anxiety, while heroin may cause you to relax. In once sense mixing the drugs does cause the two chemicals to counteract one another.
Stimulants activate the sympathetic nervous system, while depressants affect the parasympathetic nervous system. These two systems activate the fight-or-flight and rest-and-digest responses in the body. A healthy person will have a balance between these two systems, which is called homeostasis. However, a speedball doesn’t offer a perfect balance between the two systems, and one usually overwhelms the other, meaning you will feel mostly depressant or stimulating effects.
Mixing uppers and downers may also cause you to believe that you are able to take higher doses because you aren’t experiencing the strong negative effects of either of the two drugs that you might feel when you’ve had enough of just one. Plus, psychoactive drugs can interfere with your judgment. Downers like heroin may dull your fear of an overdose while cocaine may make you feel invincible. This can cause people to take higher doses, which can be deadly.
New Deadly Speedballs
Heroin and cocaine are dangerous enough when it’s mixed, but a new form of speedball is being used in the United States that may be even more deadly. A potent synthetic opioid called fentanyl is being sold on the black market. Fentanyl is about 50 times stronger than heroin, and even a tiny dose can be deadly for the average person. At the beginning of 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that unintentional overdoses were being caused when people thought they were taking cocaine snorted fentanyl. Another report found a spike in cocaine-related overdoses, where fentanyl was involved. Fentanyl is cheap and easy to make and transport. Dealers often use it to enhance the effects of their supply, but it’s so potent that it more likely leads to overdose.