'Don't Use Cocaine; It's a Dangerous Drug'—and We're Doing Our Best to Keep It That Way

This week the federal government warned that "substantial levels of cocaine" may be contaminated by levamisole hydrochloride, an anti-parasitic agent used in animals that kills white blood cells, leaving people vulnerable to potentially fatal infections. A.P. reports that the tainted cocaine has killed at least three people in the U.S. and Canada, while dozens of others have been sickened. Additional cases are expected to be reported once the problem is more widely publicized. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, "the percentage of cocaine specimens containing levamisole has increased steadily since 2002, with levamisole now found in over 70 percent of the illicit cocaine analyzed in July." Based on data from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), A.P. estimates that "30 percent of all U.S. cocaine seizures are tainted with the drug." The story suggests that traffickers are using levasimole, which raises dopamine levels, as a cheap way of boosting the impact of weak cocaine.

Here is the response of DEA spokesman Paul Knierim: "I think the message is the same: Don't use cocaine; it's a dangerous drug."

Had Knierim been working for the federal government in the 1920s, this is how he would have responded to reports that methanol, a government-mandated adulterant in industrial alcohol, had blinded and killed people who accidentally drank it in black-market booze: "I think the message is the same: Don't drink alcohol; it's a dangerous drug."

There's no question that both cocaine and alcohol are dangerous (in some doses, in some circumstances, for some people); there is also no question that banning them makes them more dangerous. "It's not like you can put [a warning about levamisole in cocaine] on the bottle," a poison control official tells A.P. More to the point, you won't find levamisole in legal, pharmaceutical cocaine, just as you won't find methanol in the whiskey you get at your local liquor store. The main reason for that is not government regulation (although there's none of that in a black market) but the need to compete for customers in a legal, open market where fraud and negligence are punished not only by law but by the loss of business.

By making such competition impossible, prohibition creates uncertainty about the quality and purity of drugs, and more aggressive enforcement only makes the problem worse. To the extent that the government succeeds at its avowed goal of reducing cocaine purity, for example, it encourages more use of levamisole, resulting in more disease and death. Anyone who supports this policy has to accept the resulting casualties as a necessary cost of deterrence. Some must die so that others, seeing their example, will think twice about using drugs the government has deemed intolerable.  

[Thanks to Tom Angell at LEAP for the tip.]

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Steven||

    This should make people think twice about using dangerous drugs like cocaine.

  • ||

    Which is more dangerous, cocaine or driving a car?

  • T||

    Anyone who supports this policy has to accept the resulting casualties as a necessary cost of deterrence. Some must die so that others, seeing their example, will think twice about using drugs the government has deemed intolerable.

    One of the fundamental evils of the drug war is the collateral damage. The federal government, in its majesty and wisdom, has determined that it is perfectly acceptable that innocent people die to enforce drug prohibition. The deaths of people who neither use drugs or traffic in drugs is part and parcel of the "War on Drugs". Why anybody thinks killing people to stop somebody else getting high isn't evil is beyond me. However, people apparently do because the policies don't ever change for the better.

    Having said all that, Steven, be he troll or spoof, makes the observation too many Americans will agree with. Drug users are not sympathetic. Bluntly, nobody gives a shit about dead druggies... unless they play < a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Len_Bias">college basketball. People like Kathryn Johnston are more sympathetic, but still prompt no substantive change.

  • T||

    Oops. Oh well, you get the point.

  • ||

    Humans are often thrill seekers. We dive deep, and fly high into enviroments that would kill us in microseconds. Why would labeling something as dangerous keep us from doing it.

  • jasno||

    But what about the friends of the cocaine users who commit suicide to escape the endless rantings of their railed out friends?

    Can we get a federal grant to provide earplugs? Think of it as harm reduction - like needle exchanges.

  • Rick James||

    Cocaine is a hell of a drug!

  • Atanarjuat||

    SC mayor defends no-chase policy for police

    COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- The mayor of a small South Carolina town says she banned her police officers from chasing suspects on foot after an officer was hurt running after a man.

    Wellford Mayor Sallie Peake said Monday she issued the order in August after the city had to pay for an officer who missed work after chasing a "guy who had a piece of crack on him." She said a drug possession charge was not worth the cost to taxpayers. But her written order said she did "not want anyone chasing any suspects whatsoever."

    The decision came after two town-issued cars were totaled within a month, although her order applies only to foot chases.

  • Wicks Cherrycoke||

    "Had Knierim been working for the federal government in the 1920s, this is how he would have responded to reports that methanol, a government-mandated adulterant in industrial alcohol, had blinded and killed people who accidentally drank it in black-market booze"

    If I recall correctly, not only did the government mandate that industrial alcohol be poisoned, it also, at the urging of the Anti-Saloon League, made it illegal for manufacturers of industrial alcohol to put warning labels on their products. The "logic' was that consumers would avoid all alcohol if they could not tell what was poisoned and what was not.

    This, of course, was in the name of protecting us from the "dangers" of alcohol.

  • ||

    Which is more dangerous, cocaine or driving a car?

    Driving a car while sniffing cocaine, while being chased up Highway 101 by the cops, during rush hour - THAT'S more dangerous.

  • T||

    Driving a car while sniffing cocaine off a hooker's ass, while being chased up Highway 101 by the cops, during rush hour - THAT'S more dangerous.

    Now with extra danger!

  • ||

    unless they play college basketball

    Q: Who is the only Celtic under six feet?

    A: Len Bias.

    All classic jokes aside, this is not good news about the levasimole.

  • J.S.M.||

    Has anyone heard the term "statistical murder?" Or perhaps "association is not causation?" Any way you look at it, as far as the war on drugs is concerned the majority of our government obviously needs to go back to Economics 101.

  • mike farmer||

    When I made moonshine in the early seventies, before sugar skyrocketed and we had to search other entrepreneurial opportunities, we had our own quality control measures in place, but some of our competitors would sell any old rot-gut with dead rats in the vat. One good thing about legalization is that it would force better quality control.

  • Lester Hunt||

    Authoritarian conservative James Q Wilson actually uses the presence of contaminants as a reason for keeping these drugs illegal: if they are more dangerous, fewer will use the evil things.

  • SIV||

    Authoritarian conservative James Q Wilson

    True, he works for the AEI. But...

    Wilson describes himself as "more conservative than most academics but more liberal than the country as a whole." [1] As a young professor, he "voted for John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey and worked in the latter's presidential campaign".

  • hmm||

    Great. Now what am I going to snort off of strippers asses?

  • ||

    I think you mean Levamisole, not Levasimole. Anyway, that seems strange that the primary complaint is leukopenia, when in animals the toxicity usually manifests as neurologic...

    From the veterinary drug handbook, "Symptoms may include hypersalivation, hyperesthesias and irritability, clonic seizures, CNS depression, dyspnea, defecation, urination, and collapse"

    Doesn't sound like anything I'd cut my coke with....at all. I saw an OD in a sheep once and it was all of the above.

    JD, DVM

  • Luke Jordan||

    Cocaine's for horses and not for men/
    Doctor says it'll kill you but don't know when

  • hmm||

    "Symptoms may include hypersalivation, hyperesthesias and irritability, clonic seizures, CNS depression, dyspnea, defecation, urination, and collapse"

    So roughly the third night of a good Vegas bender. Or any good bender for that matter.

  • Chrispy||

    I think the article is far too charitable towards prohibitionists. It's a reasonable position to take that since drugs are dangerous, they should be banned to protect people from themselves. I don't agree with that, but a well meaning but misguided person might. For someone like that, then additional deaths from tainted drugs would be a problem.

    I suspect though, that most prohibitionists don't care about protecting people. They have no rational basis for banning drugs at all; they just see drug use as immoral or something. For them, people dying from poisoned cocaine is a huge bonus, not an ethical dilemma.

    The argument that banning drugs does more harm than good is reasonable and convincing, which is why it will never change a prohibitionist's mind. They are fundamentally irrational people.

  • Rick H.||

    I came across this website which compares the tested levels of adulterants and various drugs found in samples of Ecstasy pills across the country. The site's results are presented as ratios, and not as absolute quantities. The reason? From their FAQ:

    "Forensic labs such as DDL and others require DEA licensure in order to operate. The DEA has made an unpublished administrative rule that licensed labs are not allowed to provide quantitative data to the public, reportedly for fear of providing 'quality control' to dealers and suppliers of black market products."

    The drug warriors want teenagers poisoning themselves. It's good for their cause.

  • jester||

    Coca Leaf Tea. Customs will confiscate that from you. Why?

  • ||

    I'm sorry if this is a bit OT, but didn't Nixon do something like this at one point?

  • jester||

    Why are you sorry? Tricky Dick was well, Tricky Dick. Wrong site, if you think you're pissing off people.

  • Slap Maxwell||

    TrickyVic | September 25, 2009, 5:00pm | #
    Which is more dangerous, cocaine or driving a car?


    Which is more dangerous, cocaine or a government czar?

  • Some Guy||

    Remember kids, if you do coke you can't be President. Oh, wait.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Coca Leaf Tea. Customs will confiscate that from you. Why?



    They changed the law then. You used to be able to import 2 kilos of coca leaves legally.

  • Sosnowski||

    Maybe they changed the law and maybe customs agents are taking liberties. There's nothing unusual about guards making up rules for themselves.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Perhaps I was wrong. If you could ever legally import (a couple kilos of) coca leaves, you sure as hell can't now, according to the DEA.

  • lde||

    I could bet you that if a prostitute were killing johns, the government wouldn't say "Don't solicit prostitutes, they're dangerous"

  • ^-^||

    I blame our sacred Judeo-Christian heritage. We are our brothers' keepers. This gives us the right and obligation to butt into our brothers' personal lives, for their sake and for the general welfare of the tribe/clan/gang/mob/political party.

  • ||

    Okay it wasn't Nixon, but this has happened where these crops were deliberately poisoned. I just wanted to show I got my facts straight at last :P

    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,919548-1,00.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraquat#.22Paraquat_pot.22

  • Hacha Cha||

    levamisole also boosts endorphins and enkephalins in the brain. I think that the people who did die must have taken a huge amount. dose determines the poison. cocaine and even cocaine laced with levamisole is only dangerous if you take too much. anything can be dangerous if you take too much, like even water for example. given the number of people who probably have injested levamisole tainted cocaine I would say it is not that big of a problem. still another good reason to legalize coca and cocaine.

  • ||

    Interesting. I don't think I'll buy any cocaine this weekend. The outlook on Tuesday is much brighter.

    Seriously though, the FDA ought to oversee cocaine quality.

  • ||

    More to the point, you won't find levasimole in legal, pharmaceutical cocaine, just as you won't find methanol in the whiskey you get at your local liquor store.

    So you are arguing for government regulation of cocaine and alcohol? But aren't all government regulations evil?

  • ||

    Drug laws cause more harm and more deaths than the drugs themselves.

  • ||

    The idea that drug trafficers are cutting their drug, increasing their transportation cost in an amount equal to the amount of "cut" they include, as a way of "boosting" weak cocaine, is a joke. The transportation costs exceed production costs at a ratio of 15 to 1. Trafficers are charged 10,000 dollars per kilogram of cocaine transported into the US. The only pay to transport the illegal, pure cocaine substance. Cutting it, increasing it's weight and transportation costs is not happening by the producers, or cartels. This may be happening, but it's happening here, probably by the government...the same idea as spraying marijuana fields with Paraquat...they did that in the 80's.

    This drug would probably cost more than double the cost of the production of the cocaine, and it would have to be imported to colombia, in great quantities, only to be added to the drug, to increase the transportation costs?

    Come on, nobody else has caught on to this?

  • wizard of oz books||

    With many new announcement about the wizard of oz movies in the news, you might want to consider starting to obtain Wizard of Oz book series either as collectible or investment at RareOzBooks.com.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement