Young Asian Americans Make Muscle Relaxant Their Drug of Choice

Friday October 17, 2003

A drug known as “soma” is making a dangerous resurgence among Asian Pacific Americans, according to Michael Kinoshita, manager of Wellness Programs at the Asian American Recovery Services (AARS) in San Francisco. 

Among the risks of the sedative’s prolonged use are brain seizures. The consequences of its abuse, however, extend beyond that, according to Kinoshita. 

“For parents, it’s hard watching your son or daughter die slowly in front of your face when they’re full blown into it,” Kinoshita said at the AARS center on Mission Street. “It’s too late by the time you see the dangers.” 

Soma, otherwise known as carisoprodol or “Danz,” is available as a prescription drug to relieve muscle tension; but it is also available on the street for a relatively low cost of one to two dollars per pill. 

Soma may cause the user to feel less inhibited, which may be a contributing factor to its popularity among APAs, according to Darryl Inaba, CEO of the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco. He noted that people in the Japanese, Chinese, South East Asian and Filipino populations have historically gravitated towards sedatives. 

“Quaaludes,” which were pills of the sedative methaqualone, were popular with APAs in the 60s and 70s, but were eventually banned due to the high level of their abuse, Inaba explained. Today, soma may be taking their place. 

One of its appeals may be the fact that close to one-half of APAs experience a “flushing” effect as a result of drinking alcohol, in which the individual’s face turns red and he or she becomes nauseous, according to Inaba. A user of soma may feel drunk without the flushing result. 

Those aged 19 to 28 and in their mid-to-late 30s are the main age groups using the drug, according to Kinoshita, who added that there are people surfacing who have been using it for the past eight to 10 years. He also noted that there are younger users, some of whom take it after using ecstasy. 

The Richmond and Sunset districts of San Francisco are among the areas where soma is more commonly being used, Kinoshita said. 

Of recent concern has been the use of soma among APA females. Women comprise close to a third of the patients treated at the Bill Pone Memorial Unit, a subdivision of Haight Ashbury that focuses on services for APAs, according to Magdalen Chang, the center manager. Overall drug use in the female population, however, is on the rise, she said. 

Kinoshita also talked about APA women and soma. 

“The bottom line is you can get taken advantage of,” Kinoshita said. “It’s really sad to see them messed up on it.” 

Soma blocks pain receptors in the body which can cause a relaxed physical feeling. This is due to its effect of slowing down the activity of the brain that, in turn, affects the heart, blood pressure and other body reactions. 

“Unfortunately, as time progresses, you start to get dependent on it, and you’re taking more,” said Kinoshita, who added that those who are addicted “are putting their life in danger and anybody else’s, because they can seize up driving a car. They can seize up and die.” 

While the pills are available in the pharmacy and on the street, they can also be purchased on the Internet through companies that sell generic brands of carisoprodol. 

AARS, established in 1985, is one organization aiming to diminish substance abuse among APAs in the San Francisco Bay Area. The service runs educational programs in local high schools and also offers treatments for drug dependency, such as an intake and assessment program for patients. 

“We’ve had clients here that have seized up, and we’ve had to call 911,” Kinoshita said. 

AARS also makes referrals to drug treatment centers, such as the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics, where patients can go through medical detoxification. Haight Ashbury also provides counseling and medical and psychiatric evaluation. 

While the center regularly treats patients who are addicted to cocaine, heroine and methamphetamine, the number of individuals with soma- related cases has been on the rise, according to Inaba, who attributes this increase partly to the lack of laws regulating its abuse. 

Chang said that the influx in soma-related cases has hit the Bill Pone Memorial Unit over the past few months. She explained that soma’s abuse may be the result of “a sense of maladjustment with the environment” and that its users may see its effects as “a way of escape.” 

The Bill Pone Memorial Unit operates drug prevention programs, through such means as presentations coordinated with the Japanese Community Youth Council, Korean Center, Vietnamese Youth Development Center, Chinatown Youth Center and West Bay Philipino Multi-Services Center. 

Those involved with prevention efforts speak at community centers and at schools. The unit also offers counseling in Chinese, Korean and Japanese. The Haight Ashbury Free Clinics also runs services dedicated to the needs of the African American, Latino and gay communities of the Bay Area. 

Both the Clinics and AARS have made commitments to educating the public about the dangers of substance abuse, including that of soma. 

“It’s sad to see our community, Asians in general, or anybody tore up,” Kinoshita said. “All we do here is try to do the best we can and give them hope and give the family hope.”