This is the way prohibition works; a problem is created by the regime the drug exists under and this problem is used as a reason to continue the prohibition. We’re just about to see an example of this in action.
“Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you are making too much money” is a quote google attributes to Robin Williams, an American comic and it probably has a fair degree of truth to it, or it used to. In recent times though charlie has got a lot cheaper and more available to a wider customer base and it has become the second most popular uncontrolled prohibited drug after cannabis. Thing is there are reports that purity of street deals has plummeted to very low levels and that cutting agents may be making up to 95% of the bulk of powders sold on the street according to the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). According to a sycophantic re-hash of a SOCA press release in the Times from 2009:
Drug dealers are becoming so frustrated by seizures of cocaine that they are selling it at only 5 per cent purity after mixing in cutting agents such as boric acid and worming powder, according to the head of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca).
SOCA public relations press releases apart it’s clear street cocaine contains much that isn’t cocaine. This sort of thing is only to be expected under prohibition of course, and SOCA are quite happy to trumpet their “success” of exposing cocaine users to such high levels of unknown dangers caused by the cutting agents, many of which are claimed to be carcinogenic. This isn’t a new thing ether, back in 2006 the BBC reported
Cocaine’s street price is falling as it is being cut with carcinogenic painkiller phenacetin, police say.
Phenacetin is one of the key chemicals now being used because it closely resembles pure cocaine.
Cocaine use is not in itself cancer causing and so it is true to say that if this report and many other like it are true, then prohibition has categorically made a drug far more dangerous than it would ever have been.
This is of interest because of a story in the Guardian this week concerning the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs – the ACMD. The ACMD is the government committee set up under the Misuse of Drugs act 1971 whose role according to the Home Office is:
The Advisory Council makes recommendations to government on the control of dangerous or otherwise harmful drugs, including classification and scheduling under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and its regulations. It considers any substance which is being or appears to be misused and of which is having or appears to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to cause a social problem.
Although, as has been noted before, this doesn’t include alcohol or tobacco because politicians don’t consider them to be real drugs.
It also carries out in-depth inquiries into aspects of drug use that are causing particular concern in the UK, with the aim of producing considered reports that will be helpful to policy makers and practitioners.
The Observer (Guardian website) ran a story headed “Cocaine use to be reviewed by government drug advisers” last Sunday which reported
The government’s expert drug advisers are to publish their first significant review of the harms caused by cocaine use this week to counter the “increasingly common” idea that it is a relatively safe drug.
Interestingly this isn’t a review to look at the classification of cocaine under the Misuse of Drugs Act – cocaine is a class A and that is isn’t going to be changed apparently. So it seems this “review” is intended to simply amplify the “don’t use” message behind the government drugs policy. But, in the light of the concerns (which admittedly the government doesn’t seem to care about) about the high levels of contamination of street cocaine, it’s pertinent to ask if this review will look at the dangers of pure cocaine, or that of street deals. Will the review draw attention to the unknown level of additional harm caused by the unknown levels of dangerous contaminants and identify the cause of the problem?
More than likely they will simply regard anything they buy off the street as “cocaine” and include the dangers of stuff they find used as cutting agents in the risks of cocaine use. There is a precedent for assuming this of course, it’s exactly what they did a few years ago when the ACMD reviewed the classification of ecstasy; they didn’t look at the risk of using pure MDMA in regulated doses, they looked at the risks of using what is sold as “E”, which often contains little of no actual MDMA. Amazingly that review still came down on the side of reclassifying ecstasy to class B, but of course was dismissed as “sending the wrong signals” by the government. This sort of study is pretty meaningless really, it’s probably fair to call it “cod” science.
This is all clearly daft – any review of drug harms should first of all look at the use of the pure substance in properly controlled conditions – with known doses and high levels of purity. That would represent the real dangers of using that substance. The dangers created by the regime the drug exists under are nothing to do with the dangers created by that drug but are entirely caused by the regime. Cocaine only contains Phenacetin et al because cocaine is included in the Misuse of Drugs Act.
These dangers should be presented alongside the risks of using the real drug and the cause should be clearly identified. Of course this isn’t going to happen; if the ACMD were to make it clear that prohibition creates a potentially far more dangerous threat to the health of the users than the pure drug would do it would drive a Sherman tank through the government’s drugs policy.
So what will this ACMD review conclude? The betting is it will simply include the risks caused by prohibition as a part of the risk of cocaine use. If it does this it will be fundamentally dishonest. Anyone want to place their bets?
Prohibition is harm maximisation.