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The 2010s Have Been a Banner Decade for Unintended Consequences

The war on drugs looks crueler by the day.

Charles Mostoller/NewscomCharles Mostoller/NewscomThe 2010s are proving to be a banner decade for unintended consequences in America's war on drugs. By now, readers are likely familiar with the policies that bolstered the markets for heroin and then illicit fentanyl: Law enforcement cracked down on doctors who prescribed large amount of painkillers, pharmacists were required to report opioid prescriptions to government databases, and regulators asked the pharmaceutical industry to make pills harder to manipulate. Unable to access snortable or injectable pills, users turned to the black market. As a result, prescription overdose deaths have declined in many states, but fentanyl- and heroin-related overdose deaths have skyrocketed.

The New York Times reports that two other substances are also having a moment. "Overshadowed by the Opioid Crisis: A Comeback by Cocaine," reads a Times headline from Monday morning. "Meth, the Forgotten Killer, Is Back. And It's Everywhere," the Grey Lady declared in February.

Neither drug really went away—only Quaaludes have ever done that—but they are cheaper and more plentiful than they have been in years, thanks to supply reduction policies enacted by the United States and its allies. The Times tells us, for example, that a

study by RAND found that cocaine consumption fell 50 percent between 2006 and 2010. But in the past few years, the cocaine supply from Colombia has climbed to a record high in part because of a peace settlement that includes payments to farmers who stop growing coca. To be in a position to qualify for those payments in the future, many farmers started growing it. As a result...cocaine prices have fallen, leading to an increase in cocaine use in the United States and some European countries.

The Economist says farmers in Colombia knew for years before the peace settlement was completed that the government would eventually pay them to stop growing coca, which is a very good reason to not grow anything else until the checks start coming in.

Stateside, cocaine is cheap and, in many places, contaminated. Last week, Harm Reduction Ohio reported that cocaine samples across the state tested positive for illicit fentanyl and its analogs, meaning cocaine users with no opioid preference (or tolerance) are playing Russian roulette every time they put schnozz to mirror. People who intentionally mix heroin and cocaine, meanwhile, are increasingly likely to shoot those two plus fentanyl.

The result is more dead cocaine users.

Back in December, the pseudonymous blogger Jubal Harshaw emailed me with some data from the Centers for Disease Control showing that cocaine overdose deaths involving fentanyl had increased from 23 percent of cocaine deaths in 2015 to 40 percent in 2016. In Maryland, the number of opioid-cocaine deaths has increased dramatically:

Graph courtesy of Maryland Department of Public HealthGraph courtesy of Maryland Department of Public Health

A large number of overdose deaths have always involved more than one drug. Classically deadly combinations include opioids plus alcohol and opioids plus benzodiazepines. Mainstream reporting seldom covers the crisis with that much nuance, but now's as good a time as any to split hairs, per a recent Vice dispatch:

One CDC report found that nearly half of such ODs nationwide involved consumption of drug cocktails, and in New York City, the local health department has repeatedly reported that upwards of 90 percent of overdoses involved the interaction of multiple drugs. In Ohio, meanwhile, a study in 2015 found that the cause of death for 73 percent of overdose victims was linked to more than one drug—and nearly a quarter had four or more drugs listed.

As for meth: The Times wants you to know that it's still around and still very bad. This sequence of paragraphs is particularly illuminating:

Here in Oregon, meth-related deaths vastly outnumber those from heroin. At the United States border, agents are seizing 10 to 20 times the amounts they did a decade ago. Methamphetamine, experts say, has never been purer, cheaper or more lethal.

Oregon took a hard line against meth in 2006, when it began requiring a doctor's prescription to buy the nasal decongestant used to make it.

"It was like someone turned off a switch," said J.R. Ujifusa, a senior prosecutor in Multnomah County, which includes Portland. "But where there is a void," he added, "someone fills it."

It's almost like a Rorschach test. Do you see supply-side regulations that fail to address the underlying problem—an inelastic demand for self-medication, intoxication, or some combination of the two—as requiring more supply-side regulations, such as a wall, stiffer penalties, more prisons, more bans? Or do you see our repeated failures to eradicate the illicit drug market as evidence that the world is too big and complicated to control, and thus that the most sensible and compassionate response to the multiple drug crises we are now experiencing, and the hepatitis C and HIV epidemics we appear to be on the verge of experiencing, is to reduce harm via decriminalization and deregulation?

Photo Credit: Charles Mostoller/Newscom

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  • Libertarian||

    "The result is more dead cocaine users."

    Some consider this a feature, not a bug.

  • BambiB||

    We should just decriminalize drugs... even if we don't legalize them. The difference to my way of thinking is that if someone kills themselves with a decriminalized item, it's on them, while a legal item might have lawsuit implications.

    So then the choice for drug users becomes, "Do I want to engage in this activity which might kill me?" Sky-divers do it. Rock-climbers do it. Cave divers do it. You take the risk - you die - it's on you.

    Sounds like FREEDOM.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    Look, if politicians had to take into account all the potential consequences to their grandstanding, they wouldn't be able to get their names attached to anything at all! Is that what you bananarchists want?

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    In the future, everything will be a memorial to some politician or pseudo-hero or other celebrity type. I should live ling enough to see the President Matt Gaetz Memorial Pothole, or the Ambassador George P. Bush Porta Potty. Thank you for your service! Never forget!

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I want a Constitutional requirement that every law list its expected consequences, good and bad, with a time frame, people affected, the whole business. And anyone can sue to void a law whose expected consequences do not match reality.

    Actually voiding laws would be good, but the main purpose is to put realism into laws.

    Rent control: "We expect housing supply to drop and corruption to increase."

    Minimum wage: "We expect low-skilled people to lose jobs, high skilled people to lose benefits."

    Ha ha!

  • chemjeff||

    Do you see supply-side regulations that fail to address the underlying problem—an inelastic demand for self-medication, intoxication, or some combination of the two—as requiring more supply-side regulations, such as a wall, stiffer penalties, more prisons, more bans? Or do you see our repeated failures to eradicate the illicit drug market as evidence that the world is too big and complicated to control, and thus that the most sensible and compassionate response to the multiple drug crises we are now experiencing, and the hepatitis C and HIV epidemics we appear to be on the verge of experiencing, is to reduce harm via decriminalization and deregulation?

    And this is how the War on Drugs, War on Guns, and War on Labor are all so similar. All arise from a utopian desire to bring order from chaos. Attempting to do so, however, leads to an erosion of liberty and a great deal more unintended consequences which generate their own versions of chaos that the Warriors then feel compelled to tackle with still more liberty-eroding laws and rules. Rinse and repeat.

    The solution is liberty, in all cases. Let people be free to live their lives.

  • Tony||

    Let people be free to live their lives.*

    *Except if you set foot on my lawn I get to blow your head off.

  • chemjeff||

    Well sure because I'd be violating your property rights in that case.

    But if I'm not violating anyone's rights, and I want to do drugs, shoot AR-15s, or hire laborers who don't have the correct papers, I should be free to do so.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Tony is so ignorant of libertarian principles, that he has never heard or proportionality. Most reasonable libertarians do not support anything like that. If I set foot on your lawn, you get to tell me to leave. If I refuse, you have the right to eject me from your property, or to delegate that right to someone else. Only if I attack you do you have the right to cause me harm through self-defense.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    That's not even exclusively a libertarian idea, but a basic concept of human social interaction. The closest thing Tony has to a principle is a sort of generalized witless misanthropy.

  • Tony||

    I object to witless. Also to the idea that you people believe in the most freedom while fixating most on the physical manifestation of the concept of restricting people's liberty (property).

  • Citizen X - #6||

    There's that strawman again. What do you mean, "you people"?

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Tony has finally admitted to what everyone says about proggies: property is theft and aggression.

    I suppose owning a shirt is a micro-aggression.

  • Tony||

    Property is aggression (though not theft, since theft is defined by the same law that defines property). Aggression is the operative quality of property. It's the land or stuff you are entitled to force people off of. That's not to say it's bad. But just don't tell me that the income tax is bad because it is aggression. It's actually just a tax.

  • zazoo||

    Pretty much. Unless it's a Mao shirt.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I object to witless

    The shoe fits, homeboy.

  • chemjeff||

    But Tony's right that in a libertarian world I would have the right to shoot people wandering onto my property. However the error is presuming that this is the correct first course of action.

  • Griffin3||

    Yeah. Better to warn them off the first time. Much less paperwork that way.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I'm truly curious Tony. At this point are you just being disingenuous or do you really believe that you're making insighteful commentary?

  • Tony||

    I'm using shorthand for one of the most devastating critiques of libertarian first principles.

    You don't want smaller government or more individual freedom than anyone else. You want what slavers have always wanted: government enforcing your right to possess shit at everyone else's expense.

    Plus if you get to shoot a toddler for wandering onto your lawn then I don't think you get to say a little taxation to pay for healthcare is so bad.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    No, you're using a ridiculous strawman argument to make no point whatsoever. Try to be smarter, Tony.

  • Tony||

    It doesn't take a full night's sleep to make points that have been made countless times and that can't be refuted.

    Libertarians hate government because it is violent. Thus government should be limited to only those tasks that involve maiming, killing, and imprisoning people. Am I wrong?

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Yes, you are wrong.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    You are, but that's something you ought to be used to by now.

  • Griffin3||

    You are so wrong you can't see right form here. Try looking on the outside.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    your right to possess shit at everyone else's expense.

    So you honestly don't believe in ownership at all?

  • Tony||

    Sure, but not at the expense of all other human needs. Since it takes taxation to have a property rights system anyway, it can't be automatically wrong to tax for other public services.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Since it takes taxation to have a property rights system anyway,

    I would love to hear why you believe this.

  • Tony||

    Because otherwise your stuff belongs to me as long as I have a bigger gun?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    $park¥, Tony genuinely seems to believe that every other human being is a sociopath, just because he himself would happily give in to his every worst urge if not for the fear of consequences.

  • Tony||

    Well, some people are sociopaths. Are you trying to sell a political system that depends on everyone being nice to each other all the time?

  • Citizen X - #6||

    I'm mostly just calling you a sociopath with projection issues, so thanks for not denying that.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Just to be clear, you're saying taxation is necessary for protection of your property? Because only taxation can pay for a police force for example?

  • Tony||

    A police force that isn't simply a goon squad for warlords. But I'm open to alternative suggestions about how to pay for the public service of property rights protection that isn't applicable to any other public service.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""Because otherwise your stuff belongs to me as long as I have a bigger gun?""

    Sounds like governments argument for assess forfeiture.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Tony, a basic principle of property is Erga omnes. In other words, a property title is enforceable against everyone. Thus, all property titles are granted at the expense of other people, because they restrict what the other people can do.

  • Tony||

    I thought that's what I just said.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    So you have a problem with the concept of property. If you have a better idea on how to handle scarcity, let's have it. There are only three approaches of which I am aware.

  • Tony||

    I don't have a problem with the concept or property.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Then you are not making any sense. But why I am surprised.

  • Tony||

    Property rights is one of the many government obligations I support. You don't have to support all the same ones, but it's not correct to say that all the other ones are impermissible because they involve government coercion.

  • Zeb||

    Life, liberty and property are the things many libertarians think government should protect.

    Rich "war lords" (whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean) are not the people who need the government to protect those things for them. They can afford to protect their own lives and property. It's regular old po' folk like us that need government to protect our property rights. Your contention that property rights are something done primarily for the rich is dumb.

    The libertarian notion of government is that it should protect people from harm by other people (or at least punish people who harm other people). Attacks on life, liberty, property are the ways in which people materially harm each other. And such attacks are what justifies the use of force. When you start talking about taxes to pay for healthcare, you are in a whole different place. I can use violence to stop someone from killing me or robbing me. I can't use violence to get a doctor to treat me. That's why it's OK for government to be involved in certain areas of human interaction and not others.

  • Tony||

    But you don't use violence to get a doctor to treat you. That's the whole point of making it universally available, so you don't have to!

    Again, if things are wrong because they are violent, you can't very well support only those actions that involve actual violence!

    Just explain why a government limited to these things is better for me (and everyone else) without resorting to this self-contradictory self-administered extra credit from the cosmos. If it's truly the best system it should be able to stand on its own merits.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""But you don't use violence to get a doctor to treat you. That's the whole point of making it universally available, so you don't have to!""

    No one uses violence to get a doctor to treat you. You may have an officer of the state threaten a doctor or nurse for services.

  • Tony||

    Just like you think it's OK to employ a policeman to rectify any trespassing on your property?

    Is he a slave?

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""Thus, all property titles are granted at the expense of other people, because they restrict what the other people can do."'

    Hey Tony, give me your address and I'll send homeless people from my agency your way to live on your property. You're not going to restrict what they can do are you?

  • chemjeff||

    "government enforcing your right to possess shit at everyone else's expense."

    Forget government and libertarians and all the rest. Just go back to Locke's idea of property ownership. He argued that if I come across an unowned piece of land, and I mix labor with the land, by improving it in some way, then I have gained at least moral ownership of that piece of property. Would you agree with that?

  • Tony||

    Nah, woo-woo on stilts. And it's a bit rich to define property that way once his continent had already decided that property was whatever it could take from brown people with the shooty end of a musket.

    I prefer to think that property is just one of those things we do to make living around other people work.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    All your reasoning is very circuitous.

  • Tony||

    Do you mean circuitous or circular? Because I think it's circular. But what else are we gonna do, talk about how the things we believe are endorsed by magic?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Yes, I meant circular, sorry about that.

    What you try to do is come up with some premise and argue from there. You sarcastically talk about believe in things endorsed by magic, but that is how it is. We have some premise that does not come from logic, it comes from our emotions and it comes from our feelings and it comes from our intuition, and we argue from there. That's how logic has always worked.

  • Tony||

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Yes, you fall back on that all the time. But pragmatism is a methodology, it still needs some ideal that you work towards, or that gives reason to the pragmatic action. Your idea of pragmatism seems to be "anything we can do we should, because that's the pragmatic thing to do." That's why your reasoning always seems circular, because you believe pragmatism both a means and a reason.

    Probably why Citizen X calls you a nihilist. You have nothing but processes with no underlying purpose.

  • Tony||

    I try to minimize first principles, because they are, as you describe, things nobody has any reason to agree on. But it's true that no system of thought can exist without them. But I didn't claim otherwise. Mine are just better than yours.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    But you don't have any first principles. You always fall back on saying something about "because it's pragmatic" which is not a first principle.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Or, let me clarify further. Pragmatism as a philosophical movement states that things such as thought, science, language, etc. are simply tools to achieve practical aims. This distinguishes them from a movement such as a idealism that believes that thought and science are getting at some absolute objective truth of reality.

    Thus, it is in line with, say, Popper's view that science is a means to facilitate argumentation. That concerning yourself with the idea that science is a path to truth is misguided, as we can never know for certain what some objective truth is and thus we can make no real comment on the connection between our theories and truth. All we can do is disprove things and whittle down our errors.

    Do you agree or disagree with this? Because I don't feel like anything you argue reflects the philosophical pragmatism you linked to. You use it very colloquially.

  • Tony||

    Sounds good to me. Here we almost always talk about politics, or the question "how should people live?". So I start with the idea that posing the question means you care about maximizing human well-being. That's technically a premise unsupportable by physical laws that you don't have to agree with, but if you don't agree with it then there's nothing to talk about.

    So moving on from that, we have to define well-being for humans. I don't think that's as difficult as some here think. Saying it's all about maximizing freedom from government is an answer to that question, and I think it's obviously limited and faulty. People need food and water before they need that, after all.

    But that's just details. I merely reject some of your details.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""government enforcing your right to possess shit at everyone else's expense.""

    Opposed to government enforcing it's right to possess shit at everyone else's expense?

    Rangers forcing citizens out of, or preventing citizens to enter, a national park would be state sponsored aggression then, right?

  • Tony||

    If it's a good type of government then it's "our" shit.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    Yeah, try to remind the park ranger of that and see how far it gets you.

    Good type of government?
    Name a government that doesn't control what they perceive as their property any where in the world.

  • DajjaI||

    True but the threat of jail time is sometimes the only stick that communities have to get kids into treatment. Which can prevent a life of crime that ends up costing much more down the road.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    You presuppose that it is society's business to keep people off drugs, and your excuse is that because you make it illegal, it is criminal, and therefore bad.

    You additionally use the excuse that because you made it illegal, it is riskier and more expensive, and thus users must resort to crime to obtain drugs.

    You furthermore use the excuse that because you made it illegal, it has no government quality control, and consumers of bad product have no legal recourse; therefore consumers must be denied product.

    Fuck off, slaver.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Oregon took a hard line against meth in 2006, when it began requiring a doctor's prescription to buy the nasal decongestant used to make it.

    No cost, of course, is ever tallied for the amount of time and money standard consumers of pseudoephedrine now must endure to stop others from enjoying themselves. That cost is never tallied by government agents. Any restriction they can put on us is a valid one for us to endure.

    "It was like someone turned off a switch," said J.R. Ujifusa, a senior prosecutor in Multnomah County, which includes Portland. "But where there is a void," he added, "someone fills it."

    My guess is, good sir, that people were just pushed into other drugs. At the very least, I would be surprised if those meth heads just called it a day on their drug usage.

  • operagost||

    I wonder the real cost of the loss of productivity due to people having raging sinus headaches with no way to relieve them is.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Neither drug really went away—only Quaaludes have ever done that—but they are cheaper and more plentiful than they have been in years, thanks to supply reduction policies enacted by the United States and its allies.

    Huh, this was a piece of drug war history I didn't know anything about. I read the linked article and this is the money shot:

    Gene Haislip, the DEA's number three man at the time, was the idea man behind shutting down Quaaludes. He came up with the solution to go after Quaaludes at their source: the chemical manufacturers of methaqualone powder in West Germany, Austria, Hungary, and China. Haislip traveled around the world, convincing the government of every country with a factory that made the chemical to shut down its trade. "Well, it took some time, but in the end, the Colombians could no longer get their drug powder," Haislip tells FRONTLINE. "They didn't know what to do. They gave it up. We eliminated the problem. We beat them."

    So... if I read this correctly, the DEA declared a "War on Quaaludes" and were able to nearly eliminate its use by going after the source. So... how is this widely accepted "success story" not going to embolden drug warriors to think they can do the same thing everywhere else?

    Also, since methaqualone powder was manufactured by legitimate, legal means, then the states and the Trump administration going after drug makers makes perfect sense.

    Is there a different take on this?

  • SIV||

    Methaqualone is difficult to make illicitly and is relatively bulky. It's the one War the DEA definitely won.

  • AlmightyJB||

    All the users crashed into trees.

  • Dick Puller, Attorney at Law||

    All else being equal, I would support the libertarian position. You do your thing, I'll do mine, and everybody minds their own damn business.

    Unfortunately, my observation has been that matters never rest there. "Live and let live" is not the prevailing ethic, it's "that which is not prohibited is mandatory".

    With abortion, you wound up with it being subsidized with tax dollars. "My body, my choice!" quickly evolved into "My body, my choice, your wallet!". Gay marriage resulted in cake bakers getting involved in costly and ruinous lawsuits.

    If drugs are legalized, do not say I didn't warn you when the mayor of New York City leads the Junkie Pride Parade through Times Square, anti-discrimination laws are passed preventing employers from not hiring drug users or firing people who are stoned on the job (it's a violation of their human rights!), and you have a movement demanding Purple Hearts for heroin addicts – "Soldiers bleed when they get shot, we bleed when we shoot up! It's eeeeeequal!".

  • Dick Puller, Attorney at Law||

    Every time I've heard an argument that starts with, "I'm only hurting myself! It's my own business!", it winds up becoming mine and the public's business whether we want to be involved or not. So my response is, "Good! Let's keep it illegal and give you an incentive for making sure you keep it your business!".

    Now, I grew up in the '60s and '70s, and I loves me some drugs as much as any of God's children, but I'm not about to support so much as the liberalization of the parking regulations until the last leftist has been frog-marched into the gas chamber. When you give them an inch, they take a mile. Every. Fucking. Time.

  • chemjeff||

    You understand of course that this attitude works both ways. Why should they support expanding your liberty if you don't support expanding their liberty? The only "winner" from this tit-for-tat nonsense is the police state.

  • Tony||

    So we can't increase freedom a little because of [insert slippery slope hysteria], until such time as we commit genocide against your political opponents.

  • Zeb||

    I hate to tell you, but it's already been made your problem in a big way by the war on drugs.

  • Rhywun||

    If drugs are legalized, do not say I didn't warn you when the mayor of New York City leads the Junkie Pride Parade through Times Square

    Perhaps, but there is a long line of cities where that will happen long before NYC.

  • SIV||

    Seattle?

    Portland may already have a parade.

  • Rhywun||

    Methamphetamine, experts say, has never been purer, cheaper or more lethal.

    So... pure meth is more lethal than unpure meth? That seems counterintuitive.

  • chemjeff||

    Depends on the impurities I suppose.

    Pure caffeine is more lethal than "impure caffeine" known as coffee.

  • SIV||

    I'd think "pure meth" would only be lethal in extremely high doses or when it aggravates an underlying medical condition.

    The quote is "meth related deaths" which is more subjective than scientific

  • Zeb||

    I've seen some research suggesting that pure meth availability increases addiction rates. Not sure how that works. I'd think you just adjust dose until you get the effect you want. Maybe it's to do with the mix of the different isomers or something.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Well if users are used to having their products cut and they don't realize the dosage went up on their latest buy they may not compensate for that. That's the whole problem.

  • Michael Ejercito||

    And tbr Dem leadership now wants to add a War On Guns.

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