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Thursday, December 18, 2008

It’s hard to contain tainted cocaine: prohibition threatens public heath in Saskatchewan

Alberta Health and Wellness officials issued a warning on November 28th that cocaine being sold in Alberta could be laced with a dangerous substance that can harm an individual’s immune system.

Seven individuals in Edmonton, Red Deer, southern and northern Alberta had developed a form of immune system suppression after consuming cocaine contaminated with levamisole, a chemical compound developed to treat intestinal worms in humans and animals. The contaminant was likely used as a cutting agent in the processing of cocaine in preparation for retail sale.

Today, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer Dr. Moira McKinnon is advising provincial health care providers, addictions counselors and cocaine users to be aware of the reported cases of illness in Alberta and British Columbia associated with the tainted drug.

The Saskatchewan government is calling this a “precautionary alert,” as no cases of illness have been reported but it is likely that this contaminated cocaine is also present in the province.

But don’t expect a coordinated manufacturers' recall here.

Because cocaine is a prohibited drug, the source of the contaminated product can not be traced to a particular manufacturer, and retailers can not be easily or quickly notified to pull the contaminated product from their inventories. Cocaine consumers are likely not to complain to the police or public health officials either, and there are no consumer advocates for illegal drugs. In fact, quality control of illicit drugs is virtually impossible according to drug policy expert Dr. Bruce Alexander in an interview with the Western Standard:

"It is obviously impossible to set quality standards for illegal drugs, or anything else that is sold on the black market. There is a long history of toxic forms of drugs being sold in Canada, and no hope that this will change without a major revision of the drug laws."

Alexander is professor of psychology at Simon Fraser University and is a director with the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy.

The good news is that none of the cases of illness associated with the tainted cocaine reported having worms.

Posted by Matthew Johnston

Posted by westernstandard on December 18, 2008 in Current Affairs | Permalink


I tend to have a very counter-intuitive approach to drug prohibition. I'm in favour of legalizing "hard drugs" like cocaine, but not "soft drugs" like marijuana. I've always had a problem with the argument that marijuana should be legalized because it's "less harmful" than alcohol. In my mind, it's the WAY that marijuana is "less harmful" that is precisely WHY the state has an interest in supressing its use. Marijuana is unique amongst recreational drugs in that it's not physically addictive, it causes no severely unpleasant hangover or withdrawl symptoms, users do not display strong outward indicators that they are under its effects (like stumbling or slurred speech for alcohol, or track marks or severe obvious physical deterioration for 'hard drugs'), and rather than building up a tolerance habitual users actually need to consume LESS in order to achieve its effects. As such, users present a danger to the public because they can be severely impaired without showing any strong clues that they are impaired, and because there are so few biological "down sides" to the substance there are very few built-in incentives for users to restrict their consumption, meaning that marijuana legalization would almost certainly result in a large increase in marijuana use. This would result in a potentially harmful reduction in general productivity (I once heard a story that the Soviet Union spent a lot of time and money to flood Western Europe with as much cheap (ie subsidized) marijuana and heroin as possible in order to reduce the productivity of the younger (ie those eligible for military service and most productive workers) generation, and Soviet officials took great pride in their contribution to the sixties drug-culture in the West). In contrast, most other drugs (including alcohol) have a definite personal 'cost' to their consumption. With alcohol, if you take too much the pleasurable effects disappear as you end up praying to the porcelain idol at the end of the night, and wake up with a headache that makes you want to drive a meat thermometer through your brain. For most people, this creates an incentive not to over-indulge, and so government prohibition is largely unnecessary. With cocaine, there is a similar unpleasant "comedown" and withdrawl process, which creates a regulating effect that can discourage overuse when coupled with with knowledge that it's actually a very dangerous substance that can kill you if used improperly. As such, the built-in properties of the substance reduce the need for government intervention, especially when the stimulant effects of the substance CAN create SHORT-TERM increases in personal productivity when used CAREFULLY. By that, I'm drawing a comparison with medically-manufactured amphetamine, which is prescribed widely for the treatment of Attention Deficit Disorder in adults as an alternative to Ritalin. I'm also talking about 'real' cocaine here, not crack. Crack is a different animal entirely. I'm less inclined to legalize something like heroin, due to its highly addictive and highly destructive nature. Even the inherent down sides of the substance don't seem to be enough to counteract the addictive nature of it, which may justify government intervention. Basically, I see the justification for the state to prohibit or restrict a substance to be based on a) do the inherent properties of the substance create an incentive for users to moderate their consumption of the substance, b) are the effects of the substance obvious to onlookers so the public can take precautionary measures when dealing with users of the substance (like not selling alcohol to someone who is already drunk, as an example), and c) do the inherent properties of the substance create a probable risk that general productivity could be reduced if use became widespread, as that could damage the nation's state of strategic readiness. In short, I'm more receptive to legalizing cocaine than I am to legalizing marijuana.

Posted by: Anonymous | 2008-12-19 9:48:50 AM

You're right about cocaine, Merle. It is not safe, but would you ban anything that can elevate blood pressure and increase heart rate? That would include Red Bull, which I avoid along with cocaine.

A better approach would be to warn people about the side effects and discourage them from using these products.

Prohibition makes unsafe drugs even more dangerous, as my story illustrates.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-01-02 11:27:45 PM

Matthew, funny how potheads always use the same rhetoric to justify the use of marijuana. I guess you've never done enough of it to realize that all the things you do not happen with marijuana do, in fact, occur with prolonged heavy use (I know this from experience).

Posted by: John | 2009-01-04 11:43:22 AM

If you are arguing that prolonged use of marijuana is unhealthy and a bad idea, I completely agree with you, John.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-01-04 12:34:39 PM

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