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Speedballing: The Worst of Both Worlds

The latest New Mexico drug arrests include a pharmacy tech working in Albuquerque. Alexandra Patterson in 2012 was arrested for allegedly buying cocaine from an employee in an Albuquerque Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant. While her family denies any wrongdoing on Patterson’s part, one can’t help but wonder whether she was speedballing or enjoying a speedball-type effect from her choice of drugs.

When Patterson made the deal to buy cocaine at the restaurant, she wriggled out of an arrest by promising narcotics detectives to divulge the names of other pharmacy techs and pharmacists who were also abusing drugs.  But she failed to cooperate, and so she was arrested. The undercover detective on the case reported that, besides the cocaine, Patterson was suspected of using opioids such as hydrocodone, Vicodin, and Percocet.

Hydrocodone is a generic pain medication basically derived from codeine. When someone takes 5 milligrams of hydrocodone, it’s like taking 30 milligrams of codeine. Vicodin is a brand-name for a mixture of hydrocodone and acetaminophen—generic Tylenol. Percocet, on the other hand, is a brand name for generic oxycodone, which more closely resembles morphine, and it also contains acetaminophen. It’s a little stronger, so it’s more closely controlled by the DEA.


Many addicts love to combine opioids and stimulant medications so that they can enjoy the best of both drugs and hopefully mask the negative effects. For example, someone taking a stimulant like cocaine or amphetamines may experience uncomfortable jitteriness and palpitations as well as paranoia and anxiety. Someone taking opioids may enjoy a placid feeling of euphoria but then become too sleepy to enjoy the high. When someone takes both of these drugs together, the term is called speedballing or powerballing. 

The worst, most dangerous type of speedball is the combination of both heroin and cocaine in the same syringe. The addict feels as if he can withstand a high dose of heroin because he’s flying high. Then the cocaine wears off much more quickly than the opiate, and the person can die of an overdose. Someone taking a trip like that bears a very real risk of having his ticket punched, permanently.

Drug-Addicted Healthcare Professionals

In the case of Alexandra Patterson arrested in this New Mexico drug arrest, it is not yet known if she was speedballing, using cocaine alone or painkillers alone, or using neither and just selling drugs. She is one among many healthcare professionals who fall victim to substance abuse because drugs are so readily available to them.

This is especially true for someone working in the pharmacy of a facility like a hospital or nursing home. There are many times when a prescription is ordered for a patient or dispensed by pharmacy staff. Then the patient dies or goes home or the doctor changes the order, and the medication is sent back to the pharmacy for disposal. It’s all too easy for pharmacy staff to pocket the medication for their own use or abuse.

There are two lessons in Patterson’s story. First, it reminds us that if someone in your family is taking a combination of drugs, even if they are both prescribed by a physician, it’s a good idea to check on the harm they pose if taken together.  The second lesson teaches us that pharmacy employees aren’t the only ones who get their hands on abusable drugs. The people in our own families browse through family medicine cabinets and take what looks interesting. If you suspect this of someone in your family, you need to intervene—before their ticket is punched, permanently.

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