'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.]