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The Mystery of the Tainted Cocaine

Over at The Stranger, Brendan Kiley has a fascinating look at why so much of the seized cocaine in the U.S. has been tainted with levamisole, a potentially deadly substance. I love this article’s puzzle-like structure, but this bit in particular gave me flashbacks to The Wire:

One thing that can be done: develop an inexpensive field-test kit to try to detect levamisole. Dr. Clark has invented such a kit and—in association with The Stranger, a few folks in the local harm-reduction community, and the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance (PHRA), which runs the U-District needle exchange—hopes to begin distributing kits in a few weeks. Unfortunately, kits are technically drug paraphernalia under Washington State law, not only because the kits will contain cocaine residue, but because it is illegal for any person to possess something used to “process, prepare, test, analyze, pack, repack, store, contain, conceal, inject, ingest, inhale, or otherwise introduce into the human body a controlled substance.” It’s a perfect example of how drug prohibition laws make drugs more dangerous—an unregulated market for cocaine, with no quality control, has encouraged the use of levamisole as a cutting agent. And U.S. drug laws make it illegal for users to test their cocaine for poison—if users could, they might stop buying from dealers who sell tainted cocaine, putting economic pressure on the market to be less dangerous. It’s a classically self-defeating chain of policies, but some antidrug warriors defend it on the grounds that since drugs are illegal, users get what they deserve. And if cocaine is perceived as more dangerous, perhaps fewer people will use it.

This, of course, is a cruel, stupid, and expensive way to deal with the problem. As Dr. Clark put it: “The idea of letting addicts die to make drugs scarier is reprehensible.”