Prohibition Kills

Four examples of drugs the government made more dangerous by banning them


Remember the guy who bought 80-proof vodka that turned out to be 190-proof Everclear and died from alcohol poisoning? Probably not, because that sort of thing almost never happens in a legal drug market, where merchants or manufacturers who made such a substitution, whether deliberately or accidentally, would face potentially ruinous economic and legal consequences. In a black market, by contrast, customers frequently get something different from what they thought they were buying: something weaker, something stronger, or some other substance entirely. As The Washington Post notes in a recent story about fentanyl-laced heroin, the results can be fatal.

This phenomenon is so familiar by now that calling it an unanticipated consequence of prohibition suggests that people writing drug policy know nothing of its history. It may not even be accurate to call uncertainty about the contents of black-market drugs an unintended consequence of prohibition, since it serves prohibitionists' avowed goal of discouraging drug consumption. After all, the more dangerously unpredictable drugs are, the less likely people are to use them. That calculation, of course, sacrifices the interests, and sometimes the lives, of undeterred drug users for the sake of protecting more risk-averse people from their own bad decisions. But that is what prohibition is all about.

For anyone who doubts that making drugs more dangerous is an entirely predictable, if not intentional, result of prohibition, here are a few recent examples to consider, starting with the one highlighted by the Post.

Fentanyl-Spiked Heroin

Fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller, is something like 40 times as strong as pure heroin. Heroin dealers therefore have been known to spike their product with fentanyl from black-market laboratories, giving it an extra kick that partly makes up for the dilution that occurs between production and retail sale. Last March, the Post notes, "the DEA issued a nationwide health alert on fentanyl, reporting that state and local drug labs reported seeing 3,344 fentanyl samples in 2014, up from 942 in 2013." ThePost cites three fatal overdoses involving fentanyl-spiked heroin in New York and Connecticut, plus other cases where heroin users "had to be resuscitated at hospitals." It reports that "the last major outbreak of fentanyl-related deaths began in 2005 and lasted for two years, killing more than 1,000 people."

Although such fatalities are commonly called "drug-related deaths," they are more appropriately viewed as prohibition-related deaths. The artificially high prices and profits created by prohibition give dealers a strong incentive to dilute their products, and the black market's lack of legal accountability allows them to do so. If they go too far and customers start to balk, adding a little fentanyl is a cheap, easy, and occasionally lethal solution. Variations in heroin purity can have similar consequences, as highlighted by an old government-sponsored anti-drug ad that quotes the mother of a heroin user who died from an overdose: "The problem is, the heroin in Orlando is so pure….One reason we have tourists dying here is they don't know the purity."

Prohibition created the hazard of unpredictable potency, and enforcing prohibition, to the extent that it has any effect at all, exacerbates the problem. Drug warriors commonly cite lower potency as a sign of success, equivalent to an increase in price for heroin of the same strength. Taking them at their word, successful enforcement leads heroin users to take larger doses for the same effect, a habit that can be deadly when they encounter an unusually potent batch. Successful enforcement also means that dealers are more likely to mix fentanyl into their heroin, so it magnifies the dangers that users face from unadvertised ingredients.

Levamisole-Laced Cocaine

A similar dynamic explains the link between the prohibition and cocaine tainted with levamisole hydrochloride, an anti-parasitic drug used by veterinarians. Drug dealers apparently use levamisole to boost the perceived effects of weak cocaine. But because the drug kills white blood cells, it leaves people more vulnerable to infection. In 2009 the Associated Press reported that levamisole-tainted cocaine had killed at least three people in the U.S. and Canada, while dozens of others had been sickened. A 2010 letter in Annals of Internal Medicine warned that levamisole-laced cocaine can cause "bilateral necrosis of earlobes and cheeks."

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), about 70 percent of cocaine seized at the border in 2009 contained levamisole. Given the prevalence of levamisole in cocaine, serious side effects seem to be pretty rare, and presumably people with already weakened immune systems are most at risk. Whatever the level of danger, it is clearly a product of prohibition, as opposed to cocaine use per se. Not surprisingly, the DEA tried to obscure that aspect of the story. "I think the message is the same," DEA spokesman Paul Knierim told A.P. "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. A poison control official told A.P. the government needed to warn cocaine users about the hazard it helped create. "It's not like you can put it on the bottle," he noted.

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.

Lethal LSD Lookalikes

Two years ago, police in Charleston, West Virginia, charged Todd Honaker with first-degree murder because his wife, Renee, died after consuming a drug he shared with her. Police and prosecutors identified the drug as LSD, which is what the Honakers apparently thought they were taking. That detail was puzzling, because no fatal LSD overdoses have ever been documented. As addiction specialist Paul M. Gahlinger notes in Illegal Drugs: A Compete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use and Abuse, "LSD is not toxic in the biological sense."

It turned out that the Honakers actually took 25B-NBOMe, a much newer psychedelic that is often sold on blotter paper and passed off as LSD. The novelty of the compound played a crucial role in the outcome of Todd Honaker's case, since the murder charge he originally faced, which carried a mandatory life sentence, can be used only in cases involving prohibited drugs. At the time of Renee Honaker's death, West Virginia had not yet banned 25B-NBOMe, which was discovered in 2004. Roane County Prosecuting Attorney Josh Downey therefore had to drop the murder charge. Honaker ultimately pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and got a year in jail, nine months of which he had already served.

Unlike LSD, 25B-NBOMe and a similar compound discovered in 2003, 25I-NBOMe, have been linked to several overdose deaths. It is hard to imagine a legal psychedelic market in which a well-studied, nontoxic substance is surreptitiously replaced by a novel, potentially lethal one.

MDMA Mysteries

The MDMA market is at least as prone to surreptitious substitutions, since the average raver, concertgoer, or club patron has no way of verifying what is actually in a tablet presented as the famous empathogen. In a 2013 Playboy article, Frank Owen reported the disappointing results of his search for decent MDMA in New York and Miami. Some of the "Molly" that Owen and his wife bought and tested did contain MDMA, but it was mixed with a bunch of other things that consumers probably are not expecting: synthetic cathinones (a.k.a. "bath salts"), methamphetamine, even the narcotic painkiller oxycodone.

Often the stuff sold as Molly contains no MDMA at all. "According to the Miami Police Department," Owen wrote, "methylone and mephedrone, along with another synthetic cathinone called 4-MEC, account for the vast bulk of the molly seized by narcotics cops in the area. A DEA spokesperson told me that in the first six months of 2013, the DEA's Miami field office seized 106 consignments of molly, which contained 43 different substances, 19 of them so obscure even government chemists couldn't identify them."

Such ripoffs can be deadly as well as disappointing, as when MDMA is replaced with paramethoxyamphetamine (PMA), a more dangerous compound. Last February 10 students and two visitors at Wesleyan University in Connecticut were hospitalized after overdosing on what police described as a "bad batch" of MDMA. The Wesleyan Argus reported that the MDMA had been mixed with a synthetic cannabinoid—apparently AB-FUBINACA, which has been linked to several hospitalizations and deaths.

As with heroin, wide variations in MDMA quality also can result in overdoses when the drug is unexpectedly pure. Anne-Marie Cockburn, a British writer whose 15-year-old daughter, Martha, died after taking an unexpectedly large dose of MDMA, argues that legalizing the drug would reduce such accidental overdoses by making purity predictable. "Under prohibition," Cockburn writes, "it is impossible to fully educate people as there is no way to tell what drugs contain, but despite this, many people are still willing to take risks. Had Martha known that what she was about to take was 91% pure, she would probably have taken a lot less, in fact I'd go as far as to say that she might still be alive."

Deliberate Suicide

During alcohol prohibition, when the federal government required that industrial ethanol be poisoned with methanol to discourage diversion, defenders of that policy said people could easily avoid the hazard, which caused hundreds of deaths a year in New York City alone, by eschewing black-market booze. "The Government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it," said the legendary dry lobbyist Wayne Wheeler. "The person who drinks this industrial alcohol is a deliberate suicide." 

Antiprohibitionists took a different view. "Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statutes," said Sen. James Reed (D-Mo.). Sen. Edward Edwards (D-N.J.) called the methanol mandate "legalized murder."

The government's role in drug-related deaths today is not quite as direct as its role in alcohol-related deaths in the 1920s. While it required producers of industrial alcohol to add the methanol that blinded and killed drinkers, it does not require drug dealers to sell products of unpredictable quality and potency. But it does allow them to do so by placing the entire industry in the hands of criminals, depriving consumers of the protections they would enjoy in a legal market. Confronted by the resulting casualties, you can either join Wayne Wheeler in blaming the victims or join James Reed in wondering how any man who supports such a policy can call himself civilized.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

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  1. Look, drugs are bad, okay. They kill children, ruin families and turn people into violent criminals. Anyone who uses drugs is basically an animal and should be treated as such.

    ::Sips wine while giving little Jimmy his nightly dose of Adderal::

    1. And what you say in snide jest I have heard people say in absolute seriousness, and I have a hard time not throttling them.

      Stress; The natural tension experienced when refraining from choking the life out of somebody who richly deserves it.

    2. Little Jimmy’s going to be up all night.

  2. Fuck the DEA and their disregard for peoples lives, there ain’t a chipper big enough for all of them. I would volunteer for a few shifts of feeding them through individually, feet first of course.

    1. You could look at HL Mencken’s “The Politician.” He makes the case that cops really are doing a job, and it is politicians that put them up to it. Mencken wrote this circa 1924, six years before the formation of the antiprohibition Liberal Party forced the Dems to come out in favor of repeal or lose again to God’s Own Prohibitionists. If politicians passed a law ordering (and paying) the DEA to kiss your ass, you’d have to resort to peyote-flavored ointments to get them to stop.

      1. Yes, and no. I’ve seen plenty of interviews with DEA personnel where the jack-booted glee that comes for grinding their heels into an average drug-user/dealer, is painfully obvious across their face. For a great deal of them, it is their high of choice.

  3. Those candies look delicious. Are they Sweet Tarts?

    1. I wanna try the lime one first, and then an orange one.

  4. In all ages and times there are large groups of people who are absolutely SURE that they were placed upon Earth by Divine Providence to protect and guide Lesser Mortals. And the kicker is, their opinion of the habits they want to ban are often very harmful. Which doesn’t make them any less annoying, interfering, or objectionable. Or, in the long term, harmful.

  5. Look, other people getting a buzz is immoral. Get it? The vast majority of people instinctively know this. Libertarians are weirdos who don’t comport with normal morality.

    Want evidence? You don’t have to invoke refer madness or any other extreme examples to see this in play. Just look at the reaction to vaping. They’ve taken cigarette smoking and made it completely harmless to others and a mostly harmless to the user nicotine administration system with easily controlled dosing. Yet the reaction is still violently negative in many circles. The only possible motivation is an opposition to even the modest alteration created by nicotine.

    People are prudes and nannies, plain and simple. This is why we can’t have nice things.

    1. ” Libertarians are weirdos who don’t comport with normal morality.”

      I had almost this exact phrase spat into my face.

  6. Jacob S. missed a big one… “Pot” is still variously illegal in most ways in most states. So the youngsters fry their brains with MUCH more dangerous “bath salts” etc., for the lack of the “real thing.” I hope that in a near-future era, DEA agents will be hanging from lamp-posts for their crimes! Simple justice that would be, not revenge, there is a difference… They have proven that they are a hazard to society!

    1. There is an additional side effect. In Brazil death squads went around shooting people for pot. With abortion illegal there were hordes of street urchins getting high on dangerous chemicals in cobblers’ glue. Officious bureaucrats then proceeded to ban the glue, which worked real well on shoes. The substitute glue comes apart as soon as your shoes get wet. The kids? Many are now used as street peddlers to recycle confiscated marketable drugs for folks with political connections. This is because minors are largely immune to criminal penalties, mandatory minimums and asset forfeiture. The kids get high on regular illegal drugs, but the old glue that worked on shoes is still ilegal.

  7. Poisoning customers would never happen if drugs were legal? What freaking planet do you live on? Do you even know actual history Sullum? There is almost never a ‘legal remedy’ for those people. There never is because tracing a customer death back to a particular product is damn hard – and nearly impossible in a court where the other side has plenty of lawyers.

    Right now, some cannabis grown in Colorado has been tested and has traces of Eagle 20 fungicide. Perfectly legal product and sold everywhere. Helps prevent powdery mildew. And when combusted turns into hydrogen cyanide which is why the evil nanny-staters have not approved the product for use on tobacco. google that product and hey presto – the first few pages are all by cannabis growers talking about using that product. Will Reason ever write an article about this? Of course not. Doesn’t fit the narrative. Legalization can’t possibly kill. Only prohibition can kill. Free market could never lead here.

    Sullum you are a seriously unethical deceitful pos. Maybe the stupid Randian potheads reading your crap are fooled. Or maybe they’re just stupid. I voted for legalization and still support it. But I swear I do now absolutely despise every one of you legalization ideologues.

    1. Poisoning customers would never happen if drugs were legal?

      Sullum doesn’t make this argument. He says that customers have legal recourse which they don’t have under prohibition, and that market forces, like others not buying from producers whose products have harmed someone, will force producers to improve their processes and practices or go out of business.

      1. Dead people don’t have recourse. NO ONE has effective legal recourse when they are going up against someone big who can just pay to delay (and then silence if nec). Look at the history of the FDA itself. It was created because of a book written about the snake oil industry. The book id’d about 20 people by name (from hand gathered obits) who were killed by various ‘headache powders’ – containing acetanilide. There was no FDA at the time. No testing of toxicity (the free market will not create that either). No labeling (which was the only thing the FDA did re drugs for the first 30 years or so). No recourse for anyone who died or was harmed. Newspapers had been bought by the industry via their ad contracts which prohibited negative coverage. So no consumer had information other than what the industry wanted them to have. The author of that book even described how what you call the ‘free market forces’ actually worked – dead people don’t write testimonials. They remain silent while others get paid to write glowing testimonials.

        THAT is the free market legal situation which existed pre-FDA. Not the legal situation which exists today solely because of the century of (mostly) govt intervention which cannot merely be assumed away by those who want all that govt intervention to go away. Acetanilide wasn’t even actually a pure poison. 40 years later one of its metabolites – acetaminophen – has been shown to be effective for headaches. But its other metabolites are toxic.

        1. I am familiar with that situation, and several books have been written about it, including The Toadstool Millionaires. The thing was altered by articles in Colliers, the Ladies Home Journal and other whistleblowers, and the racket nullified by the Pure Food and Drug law of 1906 (which became effective in 1907, and the economy promptly crashed). That short law was a noncoercive truth-in-advertising enactment that basically banned fraud. We would be much better off today with that original law rather than the prior restraint enactments and DEA thugocracy. The law was important to the Chinese who had been boycotting US products over drugs containing morphine not identified on the label. Naturally, coercive fanatics had to ruin what was really a pretty good solution. All it banned was lying on labels.

          1. I agree – except with your nonsense implication that the Food and Drug law had anything to do with the Panic of 1907. But understand – mere labeling (and it wasn’t non-coercive labeling) still doesn’t do a damn thing about toxic ingredients (or information asymmetry) and even that is anathema to the anarchos.

            There is no incentive in a free market to do toxicity testing. Any producer who does incur that cost will simply be undercut by someone who doesn’t. Once someone is harmed, our legal system requires that the burden of proof fall on them as a complainant. And they may well be dead.

            Further, this particular combusted chemical byproduct now in legal marijuana HAS undergone extensive mass toxicity testing by you know who else. Of course those tests were to determine the minimum level to assure 100% immediately fatal toxicity. But there is nothing ethical about testing toxicity on humans at lower levels (or long-term levels) either – which is why toxicity is tested on mice (again a mandatory gummint requirement not a free market innovation). And in a court, a defendant would immediately turn around and say ‘yeah well thats mice – plus Godwins law – plus you don’t actually HAVE those combusted materials so its all speculation anyway – so you lose’.

            The mere fact that those producers chose to use that product should be a huge red light for all those ideologues who stick their heads up their butts and say ‘can’t happen in a free market’.

        2. JFree|10.5.15 @ 2:31PM|#

          Dead people don’t have recourse. NO ONE has effective legal recourse when they are going up against someone big who can just pay to delay (and then silence if nec).

          1. Dead persons’ relatives can sue for wrongful death.
          2. Injured persons can sue.
          3. Marijuana sellers in states where it is legal are not “someone big.”
          4. What about Erin Brockovitz? Was she “NO ONE”?
          Besides, which, there are now organizations that will sue on behalf of injured individuals, like the IOJ. And there are lawyers who will take cases on contingency.

    2. “Poisoning customers would never happen if drugs were legal?”

      If you can’t attack the writers actual opinion making up an opinion and attacking that is the next best thing….

      1. These are Sullum’s exact words you twit

        “that sort of thing almost never happens in a legal drug market”

    3. Your weed and fertilizer is retarded…

      “Yeah, it’s much better to never know what’s in the product you’re smoking as opposed to having its (known and suable) producers publicizing what they use…”

      If what you’re saying is true, marijuana growers will change their practices. Why? Because knowingly poisoning your customers is bad for a legally operating business.

      1. Currently those growers are specifically OPPOSING the hold on their plants. They WANT their products released for sale to the public and they are making arguments in court that there is ‘not enough information’.


        IF a customer is poisoned – and IF they can actually trace it back to a specific producer; then those same growers will turn around make the same argument in reverse.

  8. The same mentality snickered when people went blind and died from the methanol the US government deliberately added to alcohol, knowing perfectly well its deadly and mutilating effects. Christian religious leaders applauded the practice throughout the alcohol Prohibition era.

  9. Good article, but how does one go about prosecuting the government for conspiracy to commit murder?

    1. By voting libertarian we can at least force repeal. Nurenberg trials will have to await an LP majority in both houses.

  10. This article reminds me of “Prohibition and The Crash,” a book-length analysis of the links between fanatical prohibitionism, the progressively-geared income tax, and financial panics which warn us that another depression is coming. Good work!

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  12. As they move toward making tobacco illegal by various steps (taxation, prescriptions, increasing-age-requirements) we’ll see something similar. I wrote about such a scenario in my “TobakkoNacht” dystopian novelette in the 1990s where I postulated a total Prohibition in which people were dying from smoking ersatz cigs fortified with super high doses of “concentrated nicotine oils.” Such things didn’t exist at all at that time, but now we’re seeing the beginnings of such a problem in concentrated vaping products (Although I believe there’s only been one such overdose death in the last ten years… while there’ve been roughly 70,000 due to aspirin overdoses. Guess which of those got the scare headlines.)

    – MJM

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