fuzzy notepad

[blog] My search history is now full of illegal drug terms

Someone has generously pledged a pile of money and asked me to write about the War on Drugs. Preliminary research reveals that this is not actually anything to do with programming, which confuses and bewilders me, but I’ll give it a try anyway.

My gut reaction is to say “it’s bad”, on the basis of victimless crime and right to private action and all that, but that doesn’t make for a very interesting post, and there are plenty of thinkpieces along those lines anyway. I’ll try to do a teeny bit of research, so I’m not just paraphrasing Wikipedia.

A brief history of US drug policy

I realize I don’t actually know why the drug war exists. The country started out with zero laws a few centuries ago, and something must have happened in the meantime for any given law to have been written, right? Again, my gut reaction is to handwave it off as moral panic, but that’s boring and uninsightful.

Turns out federal drug policy is only a hundred years old — the first acts of note were a set of three called the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which went into effect in 1915. Being split into three parts makes the legalese even harder to follow, but the gist is that they did their best to crack down on opium (and to a lesser extent, cocaine) use via Congress’s power over commerce.

That’s only a few years before one of the most embarrassing warts in American legal history: the 18th Amendment, banning alcohol throughout the country, took effect in 1920. It’s largely blamed on the religiously-motivated “temperance movement” as well as progressive (!) concerns over the power of saloons and the rate of alcohol-fueled crimes. Oh and also it got tangled up in anti-immigration sentiment, of course. Anyway.

Opium sounds so archaic now that it barely registers as a drug; I think it’s been entirely superseded by heroin. I don’t know a lot about its use a century ago, but a now-archived NIH report mentions that the majority of users (addicts?) were women. And according to a survey from 1878:

The most frequent cause of the opium habit in females is the taking of opiates to relieve painful menstruation and diseases of the female organs of generation.

Apparently this was itself partly because women “were considered less capable of managing painful conditions and thus more in need of medication.” (It goes on; the entirety of page 5 of that report is quotes about this.) It’s considerably ironic, then, that the Harrison acts limited opium use to medicinal purposes only.

It’s also curious that cocaine was included in these laws, seeing as it’s not actually a narcotic — “narcotic” originally meant something that would make you drowsy, hence the shared root with “narcolepsy”, and cocaine is a stimulant. Also, by the time the Act was passed, virtually every state had its own laws (Apparently this handwaving is partly to blame for our modern vague definition of “narcotic”.) Clearly it had made enough of an impact to ruffle some feathers.

I know cocaine was first isolated from the coca leaf in the 1850s, and the coca leaf had been known to be psychoactive for centuries before that, but I’m not really clear when we first realized cocaine is addictive. Surely not in the last half of the 19th century — it’s fairly well-known that Coca-Cola had cocaine for its first few decades, but it was in all manner of off-the-shelf products. Its use as an anesthetic saw it put in toothache drops for children; its reputation as very nearly a miracle drug saw it put in all manner of medicines and even beauty products; and coca wine was a thing.

Of interest: the Sherlock Holmes novels were written in the last decade of the 19th century, and while the novels themselves clearly established Holmes’s cocaine habit as an undesirable thing, that same source mentions that “most Victorians [did not understand] the side effects of drug use”. Also that Freud recommended cocaine as medication for all manner of conditions, including… treating addictions to other drugs.

So I’m actually not sure what happened in the early 1900s to change the popular perception of cocaine from a wonder cure to a huge problem requiring federal action. Dr. Hamilton Wright, the first “Opium Commissioner”, had this to say about it in a New York Times article from 1911:

Of all the nations of the world, the United States consumes most habit-forming drugs per capita. Opium, the most pernicious drug known to humanity, is surrounded, in this country, with far fewer safeguards than any other nation in Europe fences it with.

Well okay, fair enough. Except, um:

Wright was a fanatic racist, announcing that “[i]t is been authoritatively stated that cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes of the South and other regions.” One of Wright’s favored authorities was Dr. Christopher Koch of the State Pharmacy Board of Pennsylvania. Koch testified before Congress in 1914 in support of the Harrison Bill, shortly to pass into law as the first criminalization of drug use. Sad Koch: “Most of the attacks upon the white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine-crazed Negro brain.” At the same hearing, Wright alleged that drugs made blacks uncontrollable, gave them superhuman powers and prompted them to rebel against white authority. These hysterical charges were trumpeted by the press, in particular the New York Times, which on February 8, 1914, ran an article by Edward Hunting Williams reporting how Southern sheriffs had upped the caliber of their weapons from .32 to .38 in order to bring down black men under the influence of cocaine. The Times‘s headline for the article read, “Negro Cocaine ‘Fiends’ Are New Southern Menace: Murder and Insanity Increasing Among Lower-Class Blacks.”

Jesus fucking christ.

And what a surprise: it seems that by every measurement we can reasonably make, black users of cocaine and opiates were significantly in the minority. The same article mentions that cocaine use dropped precipitously across the board after 1907, coinciding with the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required medicine labels to list addictive ingredients like cocaine and opium. (Before this, there were no requirements for listing ingredients at all; the FDA came out of this very Act.)

Another choice quote:

One of the most unfortunate phases of smoking opium in this country is the large number of women who have become involved and were living as common-law wives or cohabitating with Chinese in the Chinatowns of our various cities.

So we put cocaine in our fucking soda and prescribed opium to women because they were delicate flowers, then decided we didn’t like it so we blamed it all on black and Chinese people who are clearly coming after our poor white women who are again delicate flowers.

I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s an American political tradition, after all: if you want to convince people to vote against a thing that they’re doing or benefiting from, just tie in some thinly-disguised racial fears. Want to outlaw cannabis too? Just refer to it as “marihuana”. Feel really strongly about cutting welfare? Extend the stereotype of black people as lazy and invent the idea of the black welfare queen; lo and behold, plenty of districts that rely heavily on food stamps will vote for the party trying to cut them. Want to go to war, or worried about immigration? Ho ho, those practically write themselves.

I might be a little cynical.

More recently

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 added some mandatory minimum sentences, including 5 years for possessing 5g of crack cocaine or 500g of, uh, regular cocaine. It’s my understanding that (a) crack is much more likely to have other junk in it (even if it’s just baking soda) whereas powder cocaine is more likely to be pure, so 5g of crack is notably less potent than 5g of not-crack; (b) they are trivially different forms of the same compound, and in particular are equally habit-forming. So it’s especially strange that you have to have a hundred times more of the powder form to earn the same sentence as for the salt form.

You may think this is because crack is vastly more popular among black people, whereas powder is vastly more popular among white people. Yeah, I thought that too, but it’s not true:

More than 80 percent of those sentenced for dealing crack are Black, even though two-thirds of those who use the drug are either White or Hispanic.

It’s not news that drug convictions disproportionately target black people, of course, but this stark contrast means that even the straightforward explanation isn’t right. It’s possible that most black users of cocaine use crack, which is a different statistic than whether most users of crack are black. Or it could just be that there’s no statistical link of interest whatsoever and we all made it up. Because the words rhyme. Or something. Or I might be wrong and race didn’t factor into it even subtly — this LA Times op-ed suggests that when the law was passed, common wisdom held that crack was many times more addictive.

I can’t find a breakdown of crack users by race — a lot of government surveys seem to have stopped separating crack and powder cocaine in recent years. I did find a report on drug use among minorities, and Table 6 lists that powder cocaine is used 4 to 5 times more commonly than crack! In fact, counted separately, crack is the second least-used drug in that table, beaten only by heroin. I’m left completely baffled as to why crack was legislated so much more harshly.

To be fair, this was all fixed five years ago by the Fair Sentencing Act, which increased the minimum for crack cocaine to 28g instead. Haha, just kidding, that doesn’t actually fix it at all. In fact there’s a ridiculous history preceding it. Congress ignored the US Sentencing Commission’s proposal to equalize the thresholds in 1994, apparently the first time they had ever done so. At least ten bills were proposed between then and 2010 that would have reduced or eliminated the disparity, and none of them succeeded. No wonder we ended up only shrinking the gap from 100× to 18×.

I forget what point I was going for here and got lost in statistics. But clearly there are some powerful factors at play here that have nothing to do with the substances themselves. Salt and powder cocaine are the same damn thing, with the same effects and the same risk of dependence. Crack is even made from powder cocaine, so it should be harder to make, thus more expensive, thus less popular. (Which is true!) That it remains impossible to punish people the same way for identical substances shows that a lot of very influential people have some very strong opinions based on something other than what the drugs actually do.

So, why?

That was the original question, and I’m still fuzzy on the answer.

I won’t pretend that drug use never causes problems. People who are physiologically dependent on something expensive do sometimes inflict violence to get more of it. People do make themselves sick or worse.

But violence is already illegal, and outlawing activities that sometimes lead to other crimes doesn’t sit particularly well with me. And people have every right to harm themselves if they so wish, surely. Reacting to drug use by throwing people in jail just doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s clumsy and naïve and ultimately makes problems worse — like trying to defund Planned Parenthood to reduce the number of abortions, even though Planned Parenthood is also where a lot of people get birth control.

We saw this with American Prohibition, and now Mexico is embroiled in a drug war. How is that different?

But Eevee,” someone cries, “those are drugs like cocaine and heroin, which are way more harmful—”

Yeah hang on I think it’s time for some charts. Like these ones, which ranked various substances by various forms of harm, and put alcohol as the most harmful, ahead of heroin and crack. (On the other hand, crack is ranked twice as harmful as powder cocaine. Hmm.) Or this one, where alcohol is ranked fifth most harmful, moderately safer than cocaine. Or this chart on active/legal dosage that puts alcohol off to the right, second only to heroin in risk of overdose.

I would hardly call heroin and cocaine safe, but alcohol is more dangerous than you’d think given its availability, and we regard it as little more than a fun beverage. Have a glass of wine with dinner, have a beer to relax in the evening, take shots with your broworkers, cook with vodka.

Did you know that:

…within the first 1 to 2 years of use, an estimated 5 to 6 percent of cocaine users develop the clinical syndrome of cocaine dependence (Wagner and Anthony 2001). An estimated one in six cocaine users had developed cocaine dependence within 10 to 20 years of initial cocaine use (Anthony et al. 1994; Wagner and Anthony 2002).

Six percent? I sure didn’t. Cocaine is generally listed as really really habit-forming, so I was under the impression that you take it a couple times and you are doomed forever. These are not the harrowing statistics I was expecting. Meanwhile, various sources put alcohol dependence at anywhere from 1 in 12 to 1 in 3 adults in the US. That’s not adults who drink; that’s all adults.

The point is not that we should ban alcohol (again), but that our perceptions of drugs are heavily colored by cultural influences. Consider that cigarette smoking has been on a steady decline for decades; not because it’s ever been made illegal, but because it’s becoming less appealing culturally. Or look at the recent push for decriminalizing/legalizing pot — the drug hasn’t gotten any more or less dangerous, but perceptions of it have changed.

So, again, drug policy is largely informed by factors that have nothing to do with the drugs themselves. If we truly only cared about danger, we’d legalize everything safer than alcohol, or at the very least the consistently safest ones like ecstasy and LSD. We certainly wouldn’t keep cannabis on Schedule I, the list of drugs with “no medicinal value but a high potential for abuse”, when it’s frequently used medically and is about as habit-forming as caffeine. (You know, the thing that half the population ingests orally on a daily basis, and that we put in beverages we give to children.)

We might also take note that banning all known recreational drugs drives people to invent unknown ones, like bath salts.

And if our goal is really to reduce dependence on drugs, remember the Rat Park experiment, in which a population of rats in a stimulating happy rat world actively avoided water laced with habit-forming drugs, and isolated rats who had been heavy users of the drugged water gave it up once they were moved into the utopia. Then consider the stereotypes about people who become addicted to illegal drugs. What kind of environments are those people in? Are they happy and stimulated and surrounded by people who love them? Or are they poor, homeless, unemployed, stressed, discriminated against, ostracized, isolated, purposeless, and otherwise miserable?

Maybe we should’ve spent that trillion dollars on making the US a better place to live, rather than on banning the things people use to escape when it’s not. What a fucking concept.

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(illus. by Rumwik)