How to cause drug use: prohibition
President Trump announced a public health emergency on Oct. 26 because of the opioid overdose epidemic. Many object that his declaration did not include massive new federal spending to combat the problem.
The phrase “public health” used to be concerned with real epidemics—contagious diseases caused by bacteria and viruses spread by publicly accessed carriers, like vermin, water or air. Opioid abuse is public only because the government has become involved. Opioid abuse would be much more manageable if it was considered a private, individual health issue that would be handled by civil society, not the state.
At the turn of the 20th century, products containing now illegal substances were freely available commercially without regulation. Coca leaves were used to make Coca Cola—the real thing, for sure! Bored Victorian housewives like Wyatt Earp’s first wife imbibed laudanum, a tincture that contained 10 percent opium, to help the lonely hours pass. Civil War soldiers treated their PTSD with morphine. Three hundred thousand Americans developed bad drug habits.
In 1911, Harrison Wright, the first federal opium commissioner, declared that U.S. citizens consumed more habit-forming drugs than any other nation. Over one hundred years later and despite—rather, because of—continuously escalating government involvement in regulating and prohibiting habit forming drugs, that has not changed. U.S. demand for illegal drugs fuels the international drug trade, an underground economy estimated at $350 billion annually. The U.S. today, with four times the population of 1911, has 10 times the addicts, and overdoses are overwhelming first responders.
There is an enormous black-market premium—by most estimates, up to 90 percent of the retail price—associated with black market sales. Prohibition enables the most unsavory, violence-prone individuals and organizations to dominate the commerce. Drug prohibition leads inevitably to corruption and violence. In Mexico, for example, about 60,000 people have perished in armed conflicts among the various drug cartels and between the cartels Mexican authorities over the past six and a half years. Another 20,000 have gone missing. Mexico-based drug cartels control major swaths of territory in both Honduras and Guatemala. They also now control most of the heroin imported to the U.S., superseding the Columbian cartels.
No, the Trump wall will have little effect on the Mexican cartel’s drug trafficking.
The U.S. government has even been accused of direct involvement in the illegal drug trade. Many believe the CIA funded heroin trafficking during the Vietnam war, and the crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s. The Afghan poppy crop has grown exponentially during our involvement in that country.
Efforts to control the ability of doctors to prescribe opioid meds and the requirement that prescription pills be tamper-proof have only led to increased heroin use, and the mix of heroin with more potent and lethal pharmaceuticals like Fentanyl. The federal government responds by blaming and arresting Chinese Fentanyl manufacturers.
During discussion in the major media surrounding the new opioid epidemic, the only person I saw who spoke about a different approach was the Virgin Atlantic CEO, billionaire Richard Branson. On Cable News Network he spoke of the decriminalization of hard drugs that has dramatically reduced overdoses in countries like Portugal. The CNN news people listened politely, but, after he left, the story line stayed the same—legislate, prohibit, arrest, sentence or treat: Wash, rinse and repeat.
Nevada, to its credit, is a leader in harm reduction strategies, and overdose deaths have declined recently. Medical marijuana can reduce opioid use by up to 64 percent. The 2019 legislature should permit medically supervised injection sites as well.