Not every problem can be solved. We would like to think we are enlightened, but some matters remain without solution, and are rooted in the complex mysteries of the human psyche. Drug addiction is one of them.
Addiction to substances which are bad for us is as old as time. One need only recall the Hogarth etching entitled “Gin Lane”, dated 1751. Gin was the crack cocaine of its time; the picture shows a gin-addled mother, covered in syphilitic sores, allowing her infant child to fall to its death. Gin in the 18th century had no quality control: it was often mixed with other liquids such as turpentine. It was toxic, there was a period known as the “gin craze”. Nowadays, it’s seen as a harmless tipple served with some tonic water and lemon.
So: should we take heart from this example when it comes to illegal drugs? After all prohibition doesn’t seem to be working; drugs are no easier to control than alcohol. America found out alcohol prohibition didn’t work the hard way: its experiment with Prohibition and the Volstead Act led to the rise of organised crime. There have been tentative steps towards legalisation, as exemplified by the recent moves to decriminalise cannabis. And yet, drug gangs still prosper. Violence is still endemic. Lives are still being destroyed. So what do we do?
To its credit, the new Netflix documentary series, “The Business of Drugs” does not offer a clear answer to this question. However, it does shine a light on how the drug trade works. Some of the worst and most pernicious examples are not illegal.
The documentary has an episode for each type of drug, and it does not just focus on the West. Heroin is being sold on the streets of Nairobi. Meth is being manufactured by rebel factions in Myanmar to fund their war against the state. We are shown poor farmers in South America farming and processing cocaine. Some of the crude processing reminded me of how gin was made with turpentine: there’s a startling prevalence of using gasoline to make narcotics. I wonder how many people who are taking these drugs realise that they are at least partially ingesting petrol.
Legalisation is shown as no panacea. Marijuana is licensed and regulated in America, however because of the heavy restrictions on businesses that wish to produce it, a great deal of initial capital is required. This acts in favour of big business; the examples of “Mom and Pop” producers working their own small farms is rare. Furthermore, these are under pressure; the burden of being legal means that the black market is still lucrative.
Some of the worst drug dealers are corporate. The last episode concerns opioids, which have devastated parts of America. People had legitimate issues with pain but were given a highly addictive opioid to manage it. I recall as a child in America that if one adult said to another that someone was taking opioids (usually morphine) that was an indication of advanced cancer and a prelude to death. There was no other legitimate reason for taking such a dangerous painkiller. However, Purdue Pharmaceuticals through lobbying and pressure, managed to take the shackles of this sensible precaution off. People took opioids until their insurance could no longer pay for it. Then they turned to heroin. This issue remains rampant to this day.
The examples provided by the legal cannabis market and prescription opioids do provide a stark reminder that legalisation is not necessarily going to make the situation better. Legal marijuana has not stopped the flow of illegal market varieties. Legal opioids have encouraged the use of illegal ones. Any legalisation that occurs will need tight regulation, but not so tight that it strangles the aspirations of say, marijuana farmers in California who desperately want to be in the legitimate market. Regulation should slam down hard on the likes of Purdue Pharmaceuticals and make them pay for the damage they wrought, but on the other hand we need to find a way to manage chronic pain for suffers in a non-addictive manner.
It is to the credit of the series that these issues are not glossed over; there are no easy answers. They are presented in a concise manner by a former CIA analyst Amaryllis Fox. By the end, I had more information about the problem, although I had no clear solution in mind to the issue either. How do we move to a world where gin is mixed with turpentine and mothers allow their babies to die to one in which it’s a Friday night drink served with tonic and lemon? It appears regulation, education, and time had much to do with it. It’s not at all clear that this would work with illegal drugs. It’s not at all clear that anything will work very well. But perhaps discussion is a good starting point.