DRCNet Activist Guide 10/96

Making Sure Drugs Kill

Often people object to drug policy reform because, as they say, "drugs kill." It's true that drug abuse or even experimental use of illegal drugs can be deadly. But the phenomenon is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In May, at least 116 people were hospitalized in Philadelphia after using heroin that had been diluted with cocaine and scopolamine, a prescription remedy for motion sickness. The tainted drugs, known on the street as "Super Buick" and "Homicide," brought chaos to Philadelphia hospitals, after more than 100 violently delirious users swamped hospital emergency rooms, some of them needing to be held down by straps, laundry workers and motor pool employees. In Baltimore, more than 50 heroin users were hospitalized and three killed by a similar outbreak. In Camden, NJ, 19 users were hospitalized in what appeared to be a related incident.

It's obvious that such incidents are a consequence of drug prohibition and would virtually never happen under a system of regulation. But recognition of these hospitalizations and deaths as prohibition-related was virtually absent from media coverage of the episode. The closest any reporting came to realistically discussing the issue was a May 14 article in the New York Times by Christopher Wren, which noted that users of illegal drugs are "powerless to complain to the authorities or demand a refund," and which quoted Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, one of the first public officials to advocate discussion of alternatives to total prohibition. "I just think it once again underscores that the current approach -- our overreliance on the criminal justice system to solve this problem -- is not working," Schmoke said. "The recent experiences in Philadelphia and Baltimore should create the opportunity to discuss innovative public health strategies to combat substance abuse. But I doubt that we as a nation will seize that opportunity."

Mayor Schmoke gave the keynote address at a forum in Manhattan later that month sponsored by the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information and the Social Service Committee of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Schmoke pointed out that what is commonly viewed as the "drug problem" is really three separate problems: crime, addiction, and AIDS. Crime, he said, arguably calls for a health-based approach, but addiction and AIDS clearly call for public health approaches.

A grim development on the other side of the world shows how enforcement efforts can often backfire and worsen drug problems, even when they appear to be successful on the surface. On July 20, CNN World News reported that a potent new form of heroin, known as "999," has caused alarming new problems in Thailand. 999 is a low-quality, inexpensive heroin with "twice the punch," and which frequently causes its users to collapse. The appearance of 999 is said to stem directly from the surrender of Golden Triangle drug lord Khun Sa, one of the world's largest exporters of high-quality heroin. Khun Sa's successors lack his production skills and are making the more primitive heroin, according to authorities. While Khun Sa's surrender has led to known worsened public health problems, it has not made heroin less available in the US, southeast Asia or anywhere else.

Residents of India are learning the hard way how alcohol prohibition is an effective way to make sure that alcohol kills in cases where it need not. According to an Oct. 6 UPI report, at least sixteen people have died and 50 others been hospitalized after consuming home-made liquor allegedly mixed with varnish. The Press Trust of India reported from the southern state of Tamil Nadu's Pudukottai district that in all, 66 people consumed the home-made liquor. In the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh, a strong women's movement has forced authorities to effectively ban the sale of all liquor. The women took action because of drunken husbands who stopped working and engaged in anti-social behavior, according to the article; but Andhra Pradesh is now one of the areas affected the worst by prohibition, with hundreds of liquor-related deaths reported every year.

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DRCNet Activist Guide 10/96

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