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December 19, 2004

Making Sure Drugs Kill

Reports from Grandville, Michigan, and Petersburg, Virginia, demonstrate how prohibition is a way of making sure drugs kill.

In Grandville, the community is grappling with the tragic death of Matthew McKinney, a 17-year old who had recently been expelled from the alternative Orion High School. The Grand Rapids Press said on Friday that the death appeared to be related to heroin. WXMI-TV reported that the school had held a meeting Thursday for people to talk about what had happened, and said that police believed McKinney had overdosed.

Thousands of people die from heroin overdoses in the US every year. Though it can be difficult to tell in any given case whether legal heroin could have prevented it -- and we don't have enough information on what happened to Matthew McKinney to conclude that -- we do know that prohibition makes overdoses, and other fatal accidents, far more likely. Prohibition does this by eliminating the certainty of dosage that a legally produced drug supply could have. McKinney may have overdosed because the heroin was purer than he thought and therefore more potent. Or, the heroin could have been contaminated with a poison that killed him -- again, something that would virtually never happen with a legal supply. Finally, in a saner, less prohibitionist social climate, it would be more feasible to get people accurate information that could help them -- even those who are addicted -- to at least avoid death, even if they are unable to stop using. Again, we don't have enough information to know for certain that one of these things happened in this particular case, but we do know that thousands of people in this country die every year for these reasons. Matthew McKinney may well have been one of them.

An article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch described, among other things, a near tragedy in a similar category. This one was not about an addict or user, at least not so far as we know, though that could have been the case. The story, titled "Drug Activity Persists Despite Arrests," began dramatically:

"Spit it out! Spit it out! You're going to die!" Detective Anthony Patterson yelled to a teenager suspected of hiding drugs in his mouth.

Patterson eventually persuaded the 18-year old to reveal the bag of crack cocaine he had been hiding. He then walked the kid and his brother back to his home and told their mother he wouldn't arrest him if he promised to get his GED or a job.

Officer Patterson sounds like a good man with an enlightened approach to his job. But nothing he could have done would have changed the fact that laws he did not write made the situation an inherently dangerous one. The kid might have swallowed the cocaine regardless of his warnings, and might have died because of it. Because for all he knew, that might have been the only way to avoid doing time -- he had no way to know how compassionately Patterson would deal with him.

Similarly, police presence or the fear of it can play a role in overdoses -- perhaps McKinney's -- this is why harm reductionists and police forces in some cities have explored the idea of not in general sending police when there are reports of overdoses. Do a web search on "heroin overdose police presence" on the Drug Policy Alliance web site for information on this issue.

The Grand Rapids Press has an online news forum where you could start a thread on this topic if you are into it, and you can also send them letter to the editor. The Times-Dispatch opinion page lists information on submitting letters or editorials. Post copies of your work back here.

- Dave Borden, DRCNet

Posted by dborden725 at December 19, 2004 04:36 PM

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I'd like to make a comment with regard to the heroin story.

I think that it's very likely that people would use heroin less in the context of more sensible drug laws. Instead of the dangerous, disgusting practice of using needles, they might prefer to smoke opium. Opium smoking was widespread in 19th century England and in China.

As with any activity, opium smoking is unhealthy if not done in moderation. But at least there's no risk of contracting AIDS or hepatitis from dirty needles. Those infectious disease, in turn, would not be spread throughout the population. And since opium is less potent than heroin, it could be consumed in a more responsible, adult manner.

By jettisoning prohibition we can replace dangerous illegal drugs with safer, decriminalized ones.

Why do the drug warriors want to keep us unsafe?

Posted by: Chuck at December 20, 2004 12:18 PM

I hope someone is gathering data for a quasi-experimental analysis.

I remember in Vancouver some years ago, there was the heroin bust to end all heroin busts. The biggest ever. Victory was declared (again).

But enterprising sleuths at a local university used the opportunity to measure the impact on supply through indirect measures: street price and purity.

If the effect on supply was pronounced, you would expect the street price to rise and the purity to fall as dealers were forced to dilute the limited supply and the laws of the market drive up the price.

Surprise, surprise: No measurable impact whatsoever.

So, if you are listening, get out there and take observations. Watch the price, measure the purity and maybe look for an impact on OD admissions and deaths. Smart money says, no measurable impact will be found.

Posted by: Randomizer at December 20, 2004 01:48 PM

Chuck makes an important point -- prohibition tends to shift drug use toward more destructive forms -- not universally, not in every case, but generally. As for why the drug warriors want to keep us unsafe, perhaps it's because if drug use were more safe, there might be less of a deterrent to use. Or maybe they're just confused...

Posted by: David Borden at December 20, 2004 02:40 PM

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